When Brianna Lawton was a junior in college, she discovered she could combine her passion for engineering with her desire to help people.
As a civil engineering major in the beginning of the past decade at Morgan State University, Lawton began studying and conducting research on transportation infrastructure and road safety.
“My goal was, how can I touch hundreds of thousands of lives on that big scale level and still do what I like,” Lawton said. “Everyone uses transportation, no matter how you’re doing it. I saw that as my means to really be able to use my skills and my knowledge to help my community and communities at large by making transportation safer, more efficient and even more economical to use.”
About four years later, the 2012 Long Reach High School graduate was awarded the Fulbright U.S. Student scholarship to conduct transportation research in Ghana during the 2020-21 academic year.
“When I found out I got it I was so overwhelmed,” Lawton said. “I’m very excited to be about to expound on my research.”
Lawton, who graduated from Morgan State in 2017, is a doctoral student in civil, construction and environmental engineering at Iowa State University. In Ghana, Lawton, 26, will research the impact that human behavior and transportation infrastructure can have on rural road traffic safety.
The Fulbright Program, established in 1946 by U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, sponsors American and foreign students and scholars with the goal of “building mutual understanding between nations, advancing knowledge across communities and improving lives around the world,” according to the program’s website.
The program is split between Fulbright students and Fulbright scholars. The students are either recent college graduates, graduate students or early career professionals who will study, teach or conduct research. Each year, about 10,000 people apply for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, which selects about 2,000 students based on merit. Scholars are college and university faculty members who have a doctorate, allowing them to teach or conduct research.
In the past 75 years, more than 380,000 students and scholars have participated in the program in over 160 countries. Fulbright is sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs within the U.S. Department of State.
Lawton has conducted a similar study across the United States, and she hopes to learn how geography and culture affect road safety in the West African country.
“Ghana is a place that needs to be explored. If I can dive into it while also learning their culture and how they do things, that would be great,” Lawton said. “In the U.S., we suffer from a high rate of crash fatalities on rural roads. Ghana deals with similar issues, but as of right now there is little information on it there.”
Lawton wanted to thank two educators who helped her prior to her start at Iowa State — Howard Community College president Kate Hetherington and Morgan State professor Oludare Owolabi. Lawton started her college career at HCC and said Hetherington was a “great supporter” of hers. Owolabi was then instrumental in pushing Lawton to go to graduate school and pursue transportation research.
“I am very proud of her,” Owolabi said. “She is a great student and young lady. She is meticulous and she does great research. I have no doubt that she is going to make a significant contribution.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Lawton’s start in Ghana has not yet been confirmed. The plan was to start in August, but the pandemic is affecting her travel plans.
“Despite it all, I’m very hopeful everything will work out,” she said.