A version of this story first appeared in the 2023 issue of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Magazine.
When Dr. Mina Sartipi was in the second grade, she began tutoring other children in her neighborhood and discovered a lifelong passion: The classroom.
“Teaching has always been my passion,” she said. “As a university faculty member, I train our students and the next-generation workforce. Our students are the workforce behind every project, result—everything.”
Today, Sartipi is a scholar and faculty member at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is a Guerry professor of computer science and electrical engineering; a nationally recognized scientist with a joint appointment at Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and a leader, as founding director of the Center for Urban Informatics and Progress (CUIP) at UTC. On May 1, Sartipi was named executive director of the UTC Research Institute, a strategic initiative to help realize research goals articulated in the 2021-2025 UTC strategic plan. The Institute’s two initial focus areas are transportation and quantum technologies, both of which align with strong community engagement and recognized or emerging research and development capabilities and facilities.
“First, we want to grow research at UTC in specific areas that are aligned with the community and with our local industry, the state, the UT system and federal agencies,” she said. “Second is increasing the number of our graduate students and making sure students from multiple disciplines are involved in the research that we’ll be working on.”
She aims to increase the number of UTC doctoral students from 49 to 75. They will be part of interdisciplinary teams because the complexity of today’s large-scale problems demands multidisciplinary solutions. Said Sartipi, “As we grow the transportation area—in addition to research in that area—we’re also going to be working on policy and planning, or human factors, for example.”
Sartipi has brought students along to help develop and learn from groundbreaking, headline-making projects ever since she joined UTC as an assistant professor in 2006, when the length of her stay in Chattanooga was very much in doubt. She had just completed master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Tech, where she met another Ph.D. student working on his doctoral dissertation, George Yu. Five years later, they married, but for those first three years that Sartipi lived in Chattanooga, she never leased an apartment for longer than six months and spent many weekends in Atlanta.
“Around that time, the College of Engineering and Computer Science at UTC had started moving toward doing more research, but I wasn’t sure how far it might actually be going,” Sartipi said. “The College didn’t have a Ph.D. program, and that was another factor as I thought about the future.
“Then, things started changing; the city started changing. George moved here and we went to the first CO.LAB entrepreneurial event.
“George was doing work for NASA Ames remotely at the time, and he decided to start a company,” Sartipi said. “We saw growth in the city and increasing opportunities at the University.”
Yu’s company, Variable, Inc., develops color sensory technology, for which it now holds five patents. Variable’s color-matching devices are now available in more than 4,500 Sherwin-Williams stores across North America.
Alongside the city’s progress and its embrace of technology, Sartipi said, UTC has given her unmatched opportunity to grow as a scientist and a scholar.
“I started here in 2006 as an assistant professor of electrical engineering. After one year, I switched to computer science because the research I was doing was happening in the computer science department versus electrical engineering. I was given the opportunity to make that change—which, by itself, shows that UTC was accommodating from the beginning.
“As my research became more applied and involved the community, I had the opportunity to work with the city, which I found to be very collaborative. I have been working with many entities within the city now for more than eight, nine years, and people still ask me, ‘How do you do that? How do you start that?’ A lot of other places don’t have that close collaboration, and that’s why other cities come to us to work with them or partner with them for some of their projects.
“I think that’s because of the relationship that UTC has with the community, local government, our municipalities, EPB, Enterprise Center, CO.LAB—the list goes on,” Sartipi said. “It’s big, and I think we are thriving in that collaborative environment.”
Every step of the way, she has brought students along to help develop and learn from groundbreaking, headline-making projects.
“Students are working on every single project that’s going on in the Smart Corridor, its expansion, other projects,” Sartipi said. “Students are really the ones behind it, but this is also a great opportunity for workforce training. They are coming out with real-world experience into where this industry—transportation, which is changing—is going, and this is a great opportunity for students to understand all of the elements involved, from local government level all the way to industry.”
Among the multiple game-changing partnerships she has helped enable for UTC is Chattanooga’s Smart City Collaborative. In August 2022, a proposal developed by CUIP and submitted by the Chattanooga Smart City program to the U.S. Department of Transportation won a total $9.2 million in funding. The amount is a record for UTC: $4.5 million from U.S. DOT and $4.7 million from industry partners, UTC, Chattanooga city government and EPB. It is creating a networked system in Chattanooga that will be the nation’s largest electric vehicle “living testbed.”
The Scenic City is a long way from where Sartipi grew up in Iran, the daughter of parents who met in college—just as she and her husband did. Her mother, Parivash Toloueiuan, was the first woman to graduate with a degree in accounting from the university she attended. Her father, Hamid Sartipi, also completed an accounting degree. Both encouraged their daughters—Mina Sartipi is the youngest of three—“to pursue whatever we wanted to pursue, and the sky was the limit,” she said.
In Iran, high school students take standardized, national entrance exams to determine which university they will attend, and Sartipi’s scores earned her one of only about 100 spots available throughout the entire country at the premiere engineering institution, Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. She earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and followed at Georgia Tech based on the recommendation of a Sharif professor—and Tech grad—who said that the university would enable her to pursue her interest in signal processing research.
“My dad used to be an educator before going to college—he would challenge me in math, and I probably get some of my love of teaching from him, and I really do love my students,” she said. “That’s where the whole thing started for me, making sure these talented students graduating from UTC have opportunities that can keep them here in Chattanooga, and I see that two ways. If we produce good talent, that attracts good companies, right? At the same time, when there are opportunities for exceptional students, more exceptional students want to come here because they get to work with them.
“They know we really are a team, and I always tell my team members that this is my second family. We are in it together. We have the same goal. I understand they are here to get their education, and I am here to make sure they get the best education they can.”