On the Road


Women In Asphalt: Meet Swathi

What made you decide to go into the engineering/asphalt industry?

When I was younger, I really enjoyed math and science. Right out of high school, I knew that I wanted to do something big and make a difference while enjoying it. Engineering seemed to be an obvious decision but I really did not know the exact path. When it was time to pick a major, I luckily ended up with Civil Engineering at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras. The more I understood Civil Engineering materials through research and from my professors, the more I was sure that this is where I wanted to make an impact.

What led you to your current role as our R&D Engineer?

During my graduate school application process, I was asked: “What would you do with this Master’s degree eventually?” I remember saying, “I want to invent something!” I guess that’s what led me to what I am doing right now.

Although I hated asphalt initially (true story), now, it’s almost therapeutic.. When I found out about Blacklidge’s HiMod® technology and their leading specialty products, I thought, “I need to work in their research division.”

In a few words, describe what you do.

My job is to incorporate the latest technology and the highest levels of scientific principles to help with or develop new specialty products. With Grover (Blacklidge Technical Director, Grover Allen Ph.D., P.E.), I help develop test plans, analyze results and determine the steps to achieve our short and long-term objectives.

Describe a typical day at the office.

It’s always changing—which is the most exciting part of what I do. One day I might be in the lab, working with new equipment. Or, I’ll look at different methods of doing tests and understanding the best parameters. Some days, I analyze and evaluate our lab results. Bottom line, everything I do requires me to review and understand the existing literature as a guidance for what I’m doing.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

For one, I always have to be on my toes. I always need to be ready to learn and adapt to the latest advancements, which helps me push my limits every single day and be a better researcher. Pushing myself beyond my comfort zone means I am learning.

Other than that, we want to do our best to ensure that we are supplying the best quality products to our customers. I know that at the end of the day we will stand for what’s right for everybody who is using our product. 

Can you tell us about the award you just received from the Transportation Research Board?

I received the 2017 TRB Practice-Ready Paper Award for a paper I co-authored with Dr. Amy Epps Martin, Mr. Shi Chang and Dr. Edith Arambula. Truly speaking, the award was for the commendable work done by Dr. Amy Epps Martin and her team during the past 17 years of her career.

The paper is an account of the 17-year evolution of the binder specification for chip seal applications called SPG specification. It is similar in principle to the PG specification for hot mix asphalts. However, the SPG specification is tailored to preclude the distresses that are specific to chip seals since it is a surface treatment. The paper talks about how the specification progressed to the current point through addition and removal of various parameters and the modification of the associated thresholds through field performance correlation with over 120 highway sections in Texas. This is the single most distinguishing aspect of this work, along with the efforts taken up by TTI and TxDOT, to work with the binder suppliers and various districts in Texas to implement the specification.

[The award] is like seeing something from start to finish, which in this case is readiness to put the specification into practice!

What advice do you have for women who may be interested in joining this field?

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve actually been fortunate to work with a lot of women in my profession such as Dr. Amy Epps Martin, Dr. Lorena Garcia Cucalon and Dr. Edith Arambula. Dr. Epps Martin is the reason I am where I am right now. She gave me the first chance to follow my dream.

In general, I would tell other women to always look at the big picture. Even though [working with asphalt is] hard and dirty work, the impact you can have on this industry as a whole is huge, especially when you can make something last longer than you’d normally expect! Once you understand how a material works and you realize that you have the knowledge to make it better…that is so rewarding

Where do you see the industry in 5 years, 10 years?

After working on a material specification during my masters and now being on the business side with the objective of developing the best quality materials, I know that in the end it all boils down to a purchase specification which enables the end users to determine the right material for their job and suppliers like to us to make sure that we are supplying exactly or better than what the customer needs. Specifications, especially those that are performance based, are constantly challenged by the new innovations in the ever-evolving materials industry and our experiences have proved that already. So, specifications have to be made to demand more and I do see things moving in that direction.

Other than that, I really want the industry to move towards advancement and accepting positive change. I hope that in the future we will be able to implement revolutionary technologies to create better materials for better performance.

 


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