GEOSTRATA, 2015, May/June, 62-63
Elizabeth (Liz) M. Smith, PE, GE, D.GE, is a national transportation program manager and senior principal at Terracon Consultants. She graduated from Virginia Tech with bachelor of science and master of science degrees in civil engineering. She has significant expertise in geotechnical design for highway structures and has successfully managed several complex geotechnical design-build projects with geotechnical design fees over $7.5 million. She is a registered professional civil engineer in 11 states and a registered geotechnical engineer in California.
Smith’s primary role is as the geotechnical design lead on major design-build projects, working on the design-build contractor side of the initiative. However, she has also consulted for design-build teams to resolve geotechnical problems on complex projects, provided consulting and oversight on the owner side of design build projects, and has acted as the liaison for a design-build contractor to facilitate resolution of comments and help move submittals through to acceptance.
Liz lives in Round Rock, TX, with her husband Jack, with whom she recently celebrated their 30th anniversary. She has three sons in college: Carson (Austin Community College), Dylan (University of North Texas), and Ethan (Texas Tech). ELIZABETH M. SMITH
Where did you spend most of your childhood? What was it like for you growing up there?
I grew up in Hampton, VA, which is surrounded by colonial and civil war history and military bases of all types. My dad was in the Air Force, but we also had navy and army bases in the area. As a teen, we went to the battlefields of Yorktown to fly kites and play Frisbee; went clam digging near Jamestown; enjoyed the beaches of the North Carolina barrier islands; watched and listened to the fighter jets and their sonic booms at Langley Air Force Base; learned to drive near the big wind tunnels and lunar landing training area at NASA; and learned to sail in the Chesapeake Bay. I was always around water and bridges, and my passion for bridge foundation design probably stems from those experiences.
When did you realize that you wanted to study civil engineering? What were the key factors in your decision to become a civil engineer?
I never even heard of engineering until I took shop in the 9th grade. That was in the late 1970s, and girls didn’t take shop (I was the only one). But my mom had already taught me to sew and cook, so home economics was a waste of my time, and I was not good at art. Lucky for me, my shop teacher had us do drafting and taught us to read plans, and he said I would make a good engineer. That’s all it took for me to learn more. When I graduated from high school, I was certain I wanted to be a nuclear engineer – until I got to college. After my freshman year, I decided civil engineering was where I needed to be. I also signed up to be a co-op student, so I immediately started working at the end of my freshman year. Co-op was a structured five-year program that involved quarterly rotations of work and school full time, so that when I graduated, I had 2.5 years of experience and money to pay for college.
What do you personally feel are the biggest challenges on the horizon for the profession?
The quality of understanding a problem is not related to how many cool tools we have to evaluate it. We have to remember that a very sophisticated model based on marginal or poor data will result in an unreliable solution that implies a false level of understanding and accuracy. We have to make the effort to go through the basic steps to understand the problem – and can’t just get to the model without doing the groundwork. It is always better to take the time to develop projects in a sequential matter and follow all of the steps, even if they seem routine, and follow established quality procedures as a project progresses. All of these things require patience, but in our era of fast communication and instant gratification, it can be difficult to develop.
Do you have a message about specialty certification that you’d like for professional engineers to be aware of?
Not all engineers are equally qualified to solve a problem. Specialty certification by a peer group is an excellent way to demonstrate competence; it’s similar to a doctor having a board certification in a specific specialty. It shows an additional level of competence that not everyone has obtained.
Why are you certified as a D.GE, and what made you choose to become a Diplomate in the Academy?
I’m a GE in California, who had to take and pass the GE exam. I also worked as an exam writer and grader for the state for many years, and learned there are very few people who want to call themselves geotech engineers who really understand the theory and practice. Knowledge and experience in geotechnical engineering is crucial to providing competent service to our clients on complex projects, and other practitioners may not understand how to select a qualified professional. Certification is one way to promote excellence in the profession and identify qualified professionals to our clients.
What are some of your personal hobbies and interests?
I travel a lot for business, so when I vacation, I prefer to spend my time at a resort on a beach, reading books, snorkeling, swimming, and relaxing. When I’m home, I enjoy cooking and baking and having informal gatherings with friends.