At Virginia Tech, Marc Fialkoff carved out a path unlike any student before him.
Fialkoff, 29, emerges from the School of Public and International Affairs in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies this month with a Ph.D. in planning, governance, and globalization; several job prospects on the table; and an international reputation as an expert on critical infrastructure and nuclear waste transportation.
He’s pursuing an opportunity to work alongside scientists and security specialists at a national research lab, solving domestic issues of how to store and transport nuclear fuel. Another option is in academia, guiding college students to solve complex problems at the intersection of law, infrastructure, planning, and resilience.
As Fialkoff sees it, it’s a win-win.
“Whether I’m in a lab or a classroom, helping countries with regulatory issues or working with students to solve critical infrastructure problems facing society, I feel like it’s a service in the spirit of Ut Prosim,” he said. “I hope that my education and research can provide a better understanding of the relationship between law, policy, and the infrastructure it governs.”
Fialkoff grew up in East Setauket, New York, with a keen interest in boats and trains, thanks to a dad who is a transportation engineer. At Gettysburg College, he studied political science. After winning a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Leeds, he earned a master’s degree in sustainability in transport. He followed that with a J.D. from Roger Williams University School of Law and passed the Massachusetts bar, intending to work in maritime law.
“Freight transportation law was attractive because if a freight container falls off a boat, it can’t sue,” he said. “But I wanted to do something to pay it forward. I wanted to take a crack at it from a planning and sustainability perspective.”
That led him to Virginia Tech’s Ph.D. in planning, governance, and globalization program, where he found an interdisciplinary group of faculty advisors who encouraged him to carve out a unique path that capitalized on his background.
Fialkoff’s research blended civil engineering, law, network science, and planning in a first-of-its-kind analysis of the impact of the Jones Act – a 1920 federal law governing maritime commerce – on the nation’s ability to respond to natural disasters. Partnering with research scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Critical Infrastructure and Climate Change team, Fialkoff collected and evaluated data on the impact of the law on freight transportation networks after Hurricane Sandy. His work was published in the Critical Infrastructure Report and the International Journal for Critical Infrastructure Protection, and Fialkoff was selected as an Eno Fellow by the Eno Center for Transportation in recognition of his interdisciplinary approach to studying problems in transportation research.
As hurricanes Harvey and Irma wreaked havoc in August and September, Fialkoff’s research drew national attention. In interviews with The Atlantic and other news outlets, he presented original and timely perspective on how easing restrictions in the Jones Act could facilitate a faster national recovery.
Fialkoff’s work in critical infrastructure also opened up new avenues of research. At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, scientists recognized Fialkoff’s ability to connect law and planning to science would be an asset in nuclear waste management. He began working with researchers at the lab on ways to safely transport spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste over national railroads. He’s assisted governments in Mexico and Kazakhstan on how to write their nuclear transport security laws.
As an adjunct lecturer, Fialkoff also prepares Virginia Tech students to tackle similar challenges in interdisciplinary courses like Nuclear Waste Planning (co-taught with an ORNL nuclear research engineer) and Law of Critical Environmental Areas.
“At Virginia Tech, I had an opportunity to blend disciplines and study complex problems between law and infrastructure in a way I couldn’t have anywhere else,” Fialkoff said. “I’m excited about being able to bring that into a classroom and encourage students to explore those challenges in applied research.”
He’s especially grateful to the group of advisors who formed his dissertation committee: co-chairs and associate professors of urban affairs and planning Ralph Hall and Ralph Buehler; Kathleen Hancock, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Henning Mortveit, associate professor of mathematics; and Jonathan Gutoff, professor of law at the Roger Williams University School of Law.
“Marc is an outstanding teacher, modeling the collaboration and hands-on learning of Beyond Boundaries,” said Anne Khademian, director of SPIA. “I have no doubt he’ll make significant contributions to our nation’s critical infrastructure and nuclear security. His ability to connect transportation planning, law, and critical infrastructure resilience and security, and to partner across policy and science will continue to enrich Virginia Tech whether he pursues a career in the lab or in academia.”