The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Finding the Right Career Path

Saranthip Rattanaserikiat is a role model for all those students who arrive at the College of Engineering in search of the exact path they might want to take as a professional engineer. Saranthip is like the hiker in Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, who arrives at a fork and studies each one to see which is the right way home. Except, in Saranthip’s case, she has taken several “paths” simultaneously. Her itinerary has included: the college’s Engineering-Management Minor; the student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE); the concrete canoe, steel bridge, and seismic competitions; and two research teams.

And Saranthip’s path-finding has paid off, too, because her explorations have focused what she wants to do after graduation.

“I want to go to grad school in the structural area,” she says. “I’m interested in sustainability and optimization in design of buildings and infrastructures. Also of interest to me are rehabilitation of existing structures and investigation of the failure of structures.

When Saranthip arrived with her family in Northampton, Massachusetts, eight years ago from her native Thailand, her first priority was gaining fluency in English. This she accomplished with hard work and dedication at JFK Middle School and Northamton High School, with the help of excellent English as a Second Language teachers. Now her English is practically perfect.

As a Civil and Environmental Engineering major at the college, she realized that her education provided her with a host of possible careers. So, like a good engineer, she systematically began to explore all the possibilities. She started with the interdisciplinary Engineering-Management Minor, offered through the College of Engineering and the Isenberg School of Management. It provides engineering students with background in the areas of finance, accounting, marketing, and management. Why did she choose this way?

“I’m interested in both the academic and business side of structural engineering,” she says. “So I wanted to learn how businesses work, as well as learning the technical skills in structural engineering.”

Then she joined the ASCE as her next career move and is currently the vice-president of the chapter. Through that society, Saranthip has already competed in the national steel bridge and concrete canoe competitions. The objective of ASCE’s Concrete Canoe Competition, among other things, is to provide civil engineering students an opportunity to gain hands-on, practical experience and leadership skills by working with concrete mix designs and project management.

The mission of the Student Steel Bridge Competition is to supplement the education of civil engineering students with a comprehensive, student-driven project experience from conception and design through fabrication, erection, and testing, culminating in a steel structure that meets client specifications and optimizes performance and economy.

This year, Saranthip is also looking forward to being on the Seismic Team, whose goal is designing and building a balsa wood model capable of withstanding earthquake forces.

Since Saranthip knows she wants to go to graduate school, she went about preparing for that by working on two vastly different research teams. As a sophomore she worked in the lab of former CEE Professor Sarina Ergas, helping to develop reactors that could clean up perchlorate contamination, which has seeped into drinking water in more than 36 states.

“My research was testing different conditions to see which environment works best for the perchlorate-eating bacteria,” she explains. “We were focusing on oyster shells. They contain organic carbon and make the Ph neutral, which is what the bacteria need to thrive. We were trying to grow the bacteria as best we could and I was testing different environmental scenarios to find which is best for the bacteria.”

And then for something completely different, last summer Saranthip did a Research Experience for Undergraduates project, which she continues as her independent study in the fall semester, with Dr. Sanjay Arwade of CEE.

“What I was, and am doing now, was conducting material characterization experiment on composite wood samples,” she explains. “The goal is to evaluate the concentration of void spaces and their distribution in samples of wood-composite material. From the past experiments, these voids were shown to affect material’s strength. So in order to tell how much those voids affect the strength, we have to be able to create a probabilistic model for these voids in the material. And that is what I am trying to accomplish.”

This wonderful variety of experiences is a lesson to any incoming engineering student about all the possible activities available at the College of Engineering. And, like any good engineer, Saranthip wanted to try them all out so she left nothing to chance.

“I want to be prepared for every eventuality,” she says. (October 2010)