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 September 2006 Standards in Education

An Interview with the Winner of the
Inaugural Mather Scholarship

Raissa Douglas Ferron

This year, the first ASTM International Katharine and Bryant Mather Scholarship was awarded by Committee C09 on Concrete and Concrete Aggregates to Raissa Douglas Ferron, a teaching assistant and Ph.D. candidate studying self-consolidating concrete and cementitious materials at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

After completing her degree at Northwestern, Ferron plans to pursue an academic career and complete the process to become a licensed engineer. Currently a research assistant at the Center for Advanced Cement-Based Materials in Evanston, Ill., a position she has held since 2002, Ferron works on the properties of fresh and hardened self-consolidating concrete. At present, she is focusing on research to gain an understanding of the mechanisms controlling flocculation and thixotropy of cementitious materials during the early stages of hydration. Ferron has coauthored related papers published in conference proceedings and made oral and poster presentations about this work.

When did you realize your interest in engineering and what created that interest?

Up until my sophomore year of high school I thought I was going to be a medical doctor — an anesthesiologist, to be specific. However, I was encouraged to go into engineering by a high school teacher who saw my strength in mathematics and physics. He exposed me to a career that I never knew existed, and during my junior year of high school he nominated me to attend a summer research program at the University of Vermont. It was at this program that I designed and built my first bridge, “Invincibridge.” This program sparked my interest in engineering, and it was the influencing factor in my decision to major in civil engineering at Howard University.

During your undergraduate studies you worked in several internships. What were these and what value or insights have they provided?

Each of my internships was a learning experience enabling me to apply what I learned in the classroom to the field. In my internship with KeySpan Energy I surveyed property lines and duplicated drawings using AutoCad. With Camp, Dresser and McKee (CDM), I worked on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Brownfield site and performed air analysis and soils tests. I also verified design drawings to ensure that design details were consistent and updated charge reports to reflect changes in project costs.

Both of these internships showed me the importance of accuracy in engineering; in the internship with CDM I learned more about the geotechnical and environmental side of civil engineering.

During my sophomore year of college, I participated in the INROADS program and received an internship with York Hunter Construction Services as an assistant superintendent. In this internship, I worked on a construction site and was entrusted with a lot of responsibilities. From developing community relations by notifying neighboring businesses of the construction plan to updating the manpower reports, this internship was my first experience of what it would be like to work in the field every day and I loved it.

During my junior year of college I participated in the Advancing Minorities Interests in Engineering program and did a summer internship in Japan with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. During this internship, I conducted design reviews; this showed me the importance of designing projects with consideration for the construction process, operation needs and environmental concerns. Furthermore, I was able to see how government contracts were evaluated and the entire experience enhanced my understanding of the global marketplace.

You have an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in civil engineering. Now you are pursuing your doctoral degree. Why have you decided to pursue the doctorate and how will you apply this advanced degree?

Before I can tell you why I decided to pursue the doctorate I have to first tell you why I even decided to pursue my master’s degree. I felt that my bachelor’s degree gave me broad training for the different areas of civil engineering (structural, water resources, environmental), but I wanted to learn more about the materials side of civil engineering. Another reason why I wanted to go to graduate school was to see if I even liked research.

I’d spent my summers working in several wonderful summer internships, so I did not participate in any summer research programs. Therefore, I decided to use the master’s degree as an opportunity to see if I liked research. This was one of the best decisions that I could have made, because after earning my master’s degree I realized that I really enjoyed the research experience. I liked being able to guide a project to a specific goal, conducting experiments in my concrete lab, and the entire process of struggling with the project until you get to that “aha” moment. Thus, I decided to continue on to my doctoral degree and decided to pursue a career in academia as a professor because I enjoy teaching.

As a graduate student, are you familiar with ASTM International standards? Have you used them in your education and work experiences and if so how?

I am very familiar with ASTM International standards and I have used them frequently in my research and in laboratory classes. The majority of my research has focused on studying self-consolidating concrete and I have been following ASTM activities in developing standards in this area. The standard that I use most frequently is the recently approved standard for evaluating the slump flow of self-consolidating concrete, C 1611, Test Method for Slump Flow of Self-Consolidating Concrete .

You have interest in passing on your excitement about engineering to elementary school students. Can you discuss your activities in this area?

Children start to form ideas about “what they want to be when they grow up” very early, and I believe that it is important to introduce children to the fun side of mathematics and science at an early age so that they will not be intimidated by pursuing engineering as a career choice. My sister is a seventh grade reading teacher, and every year when I go home for the holidays I try to speak to her class about the civil engineering profession. I have also led lab tours for elementary and high school students in support of Northwestern University’s Career Day for Girls Program. When my schedule permits, I volunteer at a local elementary school and I use this as another opportunity to reach out to students and expand their knowledge of engineering.

One of my long-term goals is to create a nonprofit organization that hosts conferences for elementary, middle school and high school students. Conferences hosted by organizations such as Tau Beta Pi, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Concrete Institute, and the National Society of Black Engineers have enabled me to better understand the engineering profession. Similarly, I want my conferences to help prepare students to someday pursue careers as engineers and expose them to the various opportunities that are available to engineers.

Many would not typically consider concrete to be a “high tech” area. What about cement technology is so exciting to you and how would you convey that to your future students?

Concrete is a well-known material, but people tend to underestimate the complexity of it because anyone can go to their local hardware store and buy a bag of cement. I became interested in the field of concrete studies from taking the required courses in Materials Engineering and Mechanics of Materials at Howard. The field of concrete studies is appealing to me because of the versatility, availability and affordability of the material.

As a professor, I want my students to appreciate concrete as an engineering material and to understand that in design you also have to consider the behavior of the building material. Much research is still needed in the field of cement technology, especially when we look at issues such as sustainability. I want my students to have a holistic view of cement technology, to understand that concrete is a heterogeneous material from the macro to nano scale, and to appreciate the importance of understanding and predicting the behavior of cement-based materials. I would also try to get my students excited about the field of cement technology by encouraging them to participate in the American Society of Civil Engineers concrete canoe contest. Most people who know me, know that I am passionate about my research and I think that my enthusiasm for the field will be easily conveyed to my future students. //

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