Sunday, 10 March 2013

Moscow master planner brings her love of the city to her job

Growing up, Karima Nigmatulina spent a lot of summers in classrooms. "The academic-scientist-researcher in me was always there even at a younger age, so I didn't mind it quite that much," she said. The extra work was catch-up for her Russian education, allowing her to graduate both from high school in Moscow and from a private high school in Albany, New York, near where her father, the research scientist Robert Nigmatulin, had a position at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her subsequent education has led to a career in operations research, the application of mathematical and statistical theories to real-world problems, such as transportation security, public health and urban planning. Last month, she was named executive director of the Moscow Master Planning Institute. Nigmatulina was born in Moscow in 1984, but her love of the city was fostered while she was living with her family in Tyumen, where her father had been invited to head an institute. "Since my father is originally from Moscow, every single summer I spent here with my grandmother, with my family, so Moscow is my home base," she said. From the age of 10, she lived in the United States, ultimately making the decision to receive high school diplomas in both countries. "The future is really about globalization, so it's useful to have that dual perspective on how these two countries work, because both of them have made an impact on my life," she said. Degrees from Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology followed, in 2005 and 2009, respectively. As fond of academic life as she was, however, Nigmatulina never wanted to pursue a research career. Not isolating herself in engineering, she took advantage of the liberal arts environment at Princeton to spend part of her time as an undergraduate studying international relations. "I wanted to look at something that would be much more applicable to real life, so I didn't want to do theoretical studies," she said. "I really want to think of what would be relevant rather just think in terms of mathematical equations." The subjects of her theses reflect not only these applications, but also the versatility of her studies: port security for undergraduate, and healthcare for her PhD. Her research on healthcare led to a position at Intellectual Ventures near Seattle, the private research institute and business developer, preparing models for public health provision mainly in the developing world. "My idea was that you could come up with a tool, a software tool, that would allow healthcare and public health policymakers and decision-makers to make more informed decisions," she said. "We were very fortunate to have funders such as Bill Gates [on] this particular project." Her group grew from two workers to 45 during her time there, and the project reached the alpha stage of development and received endorsements from the World Health Organization. Its stability at that point, in late 2011, convinced her that she could follow her growing desire to return to Moscow. "For a couple of years, I was the only one from my immediate family in the United States, and I was very happy to return and be closer to my family," she said. Nigmatulina's focus now is a third application of her skills: urban planning, especially transportation and development, which she called two of the most important issues Moscow faces. "In the past year there was a competition on the Moscow agglomeration, an urban planning competition," she said. "We had nine teams who participated and really generated some amazing ideas, and these concepts are about how the city will develop in the next 20, 30, 40, 50, 100 years. And I would say those projects are the most exciting, because it can give you the opportunity to be a visionary, to think through what the world could be like." It is in transportation where she sees her own background as having the greatest application. "Transportation modeling is one of the backbones of how some of these decisions are made," she said. "At the conceptual level, you need to forecast, what would the transportation situation be like if we invested and created these transportation structures?" Nigmatulina's position at the Master Planning Institute is a way to combine two of her loves: her work and, from her childhood, Moscow itself. "If you don't love your work, you can't give it your all," she said. "Here in Moscow, you can't not love your work, and not be willing to give your all, because it's so important." She does admit the need for a balance, though, which she aims for by taking classes in modern dance, a long-time interest. She also explores Moscow's cultural opportunities. "That's one of the great things about Moscow, it is a social and cultural and historic center," Nigmatulina said. "As a Muscovite, you have to take advantage of it. Otherwise, you're not enjoying your city to the fullest."

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