Graduate student hired for Amtrak research

Whether it was working dead-end jobs as an assistant to a local florist or an employee at Domino’s Pizza, SF State student Morgan Pentruff never felt fulfilled in her work place until now.

Pentruff has been selected by the University as a research assistant for an extensive, state-wide project, which she said credits her work ethic as the key to scoring a job in her field.

“Recreation, Parks and Tourism is at the core all about helping others find the path to overall well-being,” Penturff said of the SF State educational program. “I love helping others and watching them find joy in something or learn something valuable, so it seemed like the right fit.”

Her new position, which she started in August, is the product of a $1.2 million grant for the RPT department from Caltrans and will fund a research project to analyze rider satisfaction and service awareness with Amtrak California, according to co-principal investigator on the project and assistant professor Pavlina Latkova.

Amtrak is a national passenger rail service and Amtrak California is the state-supported inter-city rail service in California, according to Bruce Roberts, acting chief of the Caltrans Division of Rail and Mass Transportation. He said that Caltrans contracts with Amtrak for rail operation.

RPT undergraduate and graduate students like Penturff will have the opportunity to work closely with Latkova and two other department professors on the project.

Penturff earned her undergraduate degree in recreation, parks and tourism at Radford University in Radford, Virginia and moved to San Francisco in August after accepting the job.

“It’s really nice because I get to learn experiences beyond working at a restaurant or anything,” Penturff said. “I get nice field research experience which I get to practice before I go into a classroom and get a grade on it.”

Penturff will put together focus groups, contact participants and perform literature review after looking at the results of nation-wide surveys conducted by Amtrak.

“I’m the boss,” Penturff joked. “I try to make sure everyone knows what they’re doing.”

Latkova said her team will bring on a second graduate student to help Penturff oversee the three undergraduates they hired to conduct on-board data collection later this year.

The research will help both Amtrak California and Caltrans improve customer service and increase ridership, according to Roberts.

“We are the research end for Amtrak California,” Jackson Wilson, assistant professor and co-principal investigator said. “We recently just completed data collection for a series of focus groups in six locations from Sacramento to San Diego.”

Wilson said their research will focus on the Capital Corridor rail that runs from the Bay Area to Sacramento, the San Joaquin rail, running from the Bay Area to Bakersfield, and the Pacific Surfliner rail, the tracks from San Luis Obispo to San Diego.

“For us, the faculty, it is wonderful to have (this) research project, always.” Latkova said. “But the opportunity to have a grad student, fully funded, that is even unique for our department so we’re just besides ourselves to be able to have the opportunity. And we hope to extend it for as long as we can and build on this research.”

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