Upon completing my undergraduate degree in civil and environmental engineering from Mississippi State University, I thought about the classes I took and how the ideas I learned were going to shape my career path. The more I considered the jobs available for civil engineering undergraduates, the more I realized how broad of a subject civil engineering is. Considering the different subjects I studied that fall under the civil engineering discipline, I decided I wanted to obtain a better understanding of a few subjects, specifically construction materials and geotechnical engineering.

I chose to focus my studies on these particular subjects because of the natural interest I had when studying those subjects at the undergraduate level, and I felt they would help me become more specialized in an otherwise broad field of study. After completing over half of my master’s degree course work, I took a job with Waggoner Engineering Inc. in the Civil, Structural and Aviation division. From this point forward I was able to further tailor my studies to best suit the type of work I would be doing at Waggoner.

Directed Studies Made a Difference

During my coursework, I completed two different directed individual studies that had the biggest impact on the quality of my master’s degree. Both studies included performing lab work at Paragon Technical Services, an asphalt testing and development laboratory. The bulk of the work consisted of learning how to perform fractional analysis of neat asphalt binders through thin layer chromatography and fractional distillation. Data collected from fractional analysis was used to determine the amount of asphaltenes (hard, brittle components) and maltenes (flexible, oily components) contained in different asphalt binders. This analysis is important in determining particular asphalt’s grade and useful temperature interval using the Performance Grading System.

One exciting aspect of this work was the analysis was performed on actual samples of American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials library binders. These library binders were used in the Strategic Highway Research Program to develop the Superpave mix design method that is now the industry standard for pavement design. Upon completion of the data collection portion of the study, I put together a presentation detailing the process by which the data was collected and presented this information to a group of asphalt paving and testing professionals.

Developing Presentation Skills

One of my goals for this study was to become more comfortable giving oral presentations. I also wanted to become more familiar with the American Society for Testing and Materials and AASHTO binder testing methods. This created a challenge for me because the majority of the presentations I made during my undergraduate work were presented to my peers and not to a large group of professionals. This challenge forced me to make sure I was adequately prepared for the presentation and also encouraged me to ask more in-depth questions throughout the data collection process so I would be prepared to answer as many questions as possible from the audience. Refining my presentation skills was an important aspect of my graduate work because it built confidence in my work and myself.

During my two directed individual studies, I worked on developing a more professional and ethical mindset by interacting with professionals of varying levels. Being in a professional setting while still in school helped me coordinate and communicate with employees at the lab to make sure my work did not interfere with theirs. At the end of the day, all the employees at the lab worked with me to ensure I would be able to complete my work while making sure they could still meet their deadlines. This taught me a great deal about professionalism. I have sincere admiration for the people I worked with at Paragon and appreciate all they taught me about both asphalt binders and respecting your colleagues.

Confidence, Professionalism and a Great Professor

Going through a master’s program propelled me forward in my career by improving my confidence and exposing me to a level of professionalism not available at the undergraduate level. I can attribute success in my program to my major professor, Dr. Isaac L. Howard. Having a professor with a vision for his students who works with them to execute their plan is a key factor in the success of a master’s program. Working with Dr. Howard has been a real pleasure and taught me countless invaluable lessons about setting and achieving goals, conducting myself in a professional manner and taking pride in my work. As I continue my career in civil engineering, I plan to incorporate the knowledge I learned throughout my master’s coursework to better my career and help my company better serve our clients. Obtaining a master’s degree has come full circle for me regarding civil engineering because it shaped me into a better engineer to serve the public.