When Stephanie Pollack '82 found out she’d been named secretary of transportation for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in January 2015, she realized she’d be fulfilling a longtime ambition. Since her student days at MIT, she’s wanted to “work for the government in an area where technical knowledge matters.”
An important step on her journey came during her sophomore year, when she noticed a campus bulletin board announcing openings in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.
“They still used index cards then, and there was one for a nonprofit doing policy research on coal-fired power plants,” recalls Pollack, who was a double major in mechanical engineering and public policy with an eye toward an energy-oriented post in the public sector. She got the position with Boston’s Conservation Law Foundation, which became her professional home for more than two decades after she graduated and earned a Harvard Law School JD.
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Pollack rose to senior VP and acting president, cultivating a unique combination of technical, executive, and policy-making skills that she subsequently applied for city- and state-level consulting clients. Later she served as associate director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, where she headed all transportation-oriented research and held a professorship. (“If I’d known I would end up in transportation, I would have taken Course 1 instead of Course 2,” she says.)
Her first days as secretary of transportation coincided with the arrival of 2015’s historically bad winter, and Pollack immediately had to address knotty questions like when to impose and lift travel bans during massive snowstorms. “That was one of the first decisions I helped Governor Charlie Baker with, and there’s no rule book,” she says. “It’s fascinating, and challenging intellectually and operationally—how do you make the trade-off between keeping people safe and personal liberty?”
Pollack and Baker have worked to give her post more direct control over the troubled MBTA public-transit network, which is “a lot of work but also a source of great professional pleasure,” she says. “I can’t think of anything more important than fixing the T.” A self-proclaimed “data geek,” Pollack is also enjoying applying data analytics to issues like wait times at Registry of Motor Vehicles offices.
Pollack met her husband, physician and health-care executive Kenneth Snow ’82, when they worked together on the Tech, which she went on to edit. They have three children, all of whom are studying engineering. Pollack says she uses their visits home to indulge her love of cooking, a rare recreational activity during an exceptionally busy period in her life.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.