Having practical experience has given me more confidence in my academic abilities.

We chatted with Margaret Tatum to learn more about her experience in Fire Protection Engineering, and how her UMD undergraduate program led to a job offer - several semesters prior to her May 2018 commencement.

Why did you choose to attend the University of Maryland, and more specifically, join the Department of Fire Protection Engineering?

Around my junior year of high school, I realized that I didn’t want to be a doctor, so I started looking at good engineering schools. Maryland was among the top schools and had a Women in Engineering day camp for high school girls who are interested in engineering. I originally wanted to do Chemical Engineering, but that camp was full. FPE had a few openings and like everyone else, when they first hear the words ‘Fire Protection,’ I literally had no idea what that was, but thought it sounded cool. During the camp they offered fire demos – we experimented with how the different pool fire diameters affected the size of a fire – we tried to simulate a small scale flashover – and we played with small scale fire whirls. It was the most fun I have had doing science stuff – ever – and for the first time I thought to myself, “Yeah, I could see myself doing this for the rest of my life.”

What prompted you to intern at GHD last summer?

Honestly, I applied to a lot of companies for internships this past summer. GHD – a multinational firm that provides engineering, architecture, environmental and construction services to private and public sector clients – was one of the few companies that offered me an interview, and it was by far my best one [interview].  They moved quickly with an offer and promised a project-intensive summer.   I enjoyed their clear, vested interest in me and knowing that I would be able to apply what I learned in school to real world projects.  Additionally, I enjoy experiencing new places and environments, so the location – Atlanta – was even more of an incentive for me.  I was excited about the prospect of exploring the city whenever I could.

What did your responsibilities consist of?

My official title was Fire Protection Engineering Technical Apprentice, and my general responsibilities were to help all the junior and senior level Fire Protection Engineers and Technical Specialists with their various projects. I specifically helped with egress (exiting) and life safety calculations for a new San Antonio Federal Courthouse, using CONTAM to model stair pressurization for a USF College of Medicine and Heart Institute – the bulk of my summer consisted of designing and modeling a sprinkler and fire alarm system for a 900k square foot wood processing plant in AutoCAD.

GHD also gave me the responsibility of giving a 5-10 minute safety moment presentation before each weekly meeting.  Every Thursday during lunch, they had a ‘Learning Moment,’ where either someone in the office gave a presentation, or we went to another company’s office, like a field trip.  They assigned me to give a Learning Moment about a month into my internship, and I gave it on a course I took abroad in Sydney, Australia, called ENES472 International Business and Global Leadership in Engineering and Technology.  I also, coordinated an information session and facilities tour with the president of a local fire pump manufacturing company called SyncroFlo Pumps.  Finally, I attended a few networking lunches with some of our clients – one of them was with an architecture firm that designed Chick-fil-A restaurants.  A lead engineer on the project was there, and when I told him about my obsession with Chick-fil-A, he gave me a bunch of free meal tickets – psyched!

This next one is three-fold: Was the internship different from what you expected? What was your favorite part of the job? And did it help you with your studies upon return to UMD?

I didn’t really have any expectations for this internship.  In the past, I had only worked non-engineering related jobs and had done a year’s worth of aeronautical/aerospace engineering research, so I had no internship experience let alone fire protection internship experience.  Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my experience there. All of my coworkers were very welcoming, understanding and helpful – both inside and outside of work. I was constantly working on interesting projects, so I was never bored and continuously learning and applying my knowledge. Truthfully, as much as I liked the projects I was working on, I would say my favorite part of the job was getting all of those free Chick-fil-A meal tickets (she said, tongue-in-cheek).

The internship definitely helped me with my studies since I have been back in school. Having that practical experience has given me more confidence in my academic abilities. They also exposed me to some FDS, which is a class I’m taking in the spring, so I have a slight understanding heading into that class. Moreover, I’m currently taking a water-based suppression class, so touring the SyncroFlo facilities and designing that sprinkler system has given me a leg up in this class as well.

How did the FPE Department help to prepare you for your internship?

Despite having no previous internship experience, I definitely felt prepared and capable of completing every task they assigned me to do. Pretty much every FPE class requires students to do a major research project related to what we’re learning, and I made sure to bring those projects and my notes from all my fire protection classes with me, which I referenced throughout the internship. Also, most of my coworkers (4 out of 6) were alumni of the FPE program here at UMD, so they knew what I’ve been exposed to and that I would be prepared for whatever they threw at me.

This sounds like a great experience. Do you plan to return?

I’m still making that decision, but I believe that I am. They did give me a nice job offer, but I am considering going to graduate school immediately after commencement. Or maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll get to pursue both opportunities!

Do you have any advice to offer other students, especially incoming FPE majors?

Yes - develop a relationship with your professors. I know it can be daunting, but they are here to help and genuinely want you to succeed, so don’t be afraid to go to them for help and advice. Get involved! There are so many research projects – group projects like Terp Racing, professional groups, and sports clubs. They’re a great way to make friends with similar interests and can give you some leadership and practical experience that recruiters look for. Finally, do a semester abroad, at the very least, if you can, because learning outside of the classroom, and the U.S., is the best!

Update: Margaret currently works as a Fire Protection Consultant with the Harrington Group in Atlanta. Follow this link to learn more.