Melanie Smith (BS/CE ’17, MS/CE ’20) applies her UT engineering education toward the safety of anyone traveling across Tennessee, and she might teach you a new word or two in casual conversation.
Smith is a transportation project specialist with the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT). She’s headquartered in downtown Nashville, where her focus is supporting regional and district maintenance staff as they work on contracts across the state.
“I sort of bridge the gap between project initiation and execution,” said Smith. “Some of the projects I’m responsible for include on-call guardrail and attenuator repair, mowing and litter, overhead sign repair, etc.”
Attenuators are a highway-safety element that might not be a familiar word to everyone, but they are seen all over.
“They’re like crash cushions,” explained Smith. “We’ll put those in a gore area (the triangular space where an offramp splits from the highway) or at the end of a bridge parapet. I keep track of every time they get hit, how much it costs when they get hit, where they’re all located at. I could talk days and days about attenuators.”
The job has helped the Johnson City native become well-versed in the wide range of highway safety elements. While she primarily works in-office, she gets into the field when the opportunity arises.
“I try to, as much as I can, get out and actually see construction work being done,” said Smith. “I’ve done a ride-along with a TDOT help truck, seeing how the projects are getting completed and the people that are doing them. For me that’s the best way I learn.”
This year, she also completed her master’s degree in civil engineering through UT while maintaining her TDOT role.
“Balancing work and school through the distance platform was definitely an adjustment,” she said. TDOT management was very supportive of Smith’s pursuit of her master’s degree, and many of her colleagues were also in the program.
The experience echoed the mix of academics and outreach she maintained during her time at UT. She was an Engineering Ambassador and often worked with pre-college students, passing on her enthusiasm for engineering. TDOT outreach programs find her still making classroom visits.
“Because I enjoyed it so much at UT, I brought that with me to TDOT,” she said. “They’re very open to getting involved with the community.”
It’s a way of giving back the guidance Smith experienced from the Tickle College of Engineering, particularly through the office of Engineering Diversity Programs (EDP). Early in her college career, she felt like she didn’t have a firm direction of where she wanted to take engineering. But her energy was soon focused, and first-year doubts assuaged, with encouragement from the office.
“They really opened me up to see a lot more,” said Smith. “They really pushed me to see that these things were achievable.”
Smith made connections with UT mentors like Travis Griffin, director of engineering diversity; Lisa Byrd, assistant director of engineering advising and staff coordinator for the Engineering Ambassadors; and a network of student peers, all of whom she still communicates with regularly.
“I really thrived with the diversity programs,” she said. “Especially with civil engineering, there’s rarely any females and minorities. So, for me the big thing is that it gave me a sense of community and people that I could connect with. That whole program was such a blessing, and just got me way more involved than I ever could have imagined.”
Upcoming, Smith plans to take the Professional Engineer exam with a mind to continue her career in construction management with a focus on safety. She also stays ready to step back into the ambassador role for the college.
“I love attending recruiting events whenever I can, especially in Nashville,” said Smith. “I always let the EDP know that they can reach out to me anytime and I love connecting with students and sharing my experience.”