Ever since she was a young girl, Mercer University student Ebonye Smith was encouraged to be an engineer.
As an elementary school student interested in math and science, Smith’s grandmother often called on her to figure out why the Wi-Fi or her computer wasn’t working.
“I would unplug it and plug it back in or restart her computer, and she would be like, ‘Ebonye, you’re so smart, you should be an engineer,” Smith recalled.
Now Smith, a rising senior majoring in electrical engineering, is on a path that will fulfill her grandmother’s expectation.
Smith is one of three School of Engineering students to be awarded a Barry Goldwater Scholarship, the nation’s most prestigious scholarship for undergraduates in science, mathematics and engineering, for the 2021-22 academic year. The other Mercer recipients are Sarah Spalding and Sara Binet.
Smith conducts research in the lab of Dr. Makhin Thitsa, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, where she works to project traffic flow for diverging diamond interchanges. The innovative interchanges are fairly new but slowly growing in popularity because they increase safety and capacity while decreasing congestion.
“Ebonye contributed in developing an algorithm to build a model to predict the traffic flow,” Dr. Thitsa said. “She was also able to modify the algorithm, so even when the data is corrupted, her algorithm will still work.”
The research project, sponsored by the Georgia Department of Transportation, will help GDOT coordinate signal timing of the diverging diamond interchange with other intersections.
Dr. Thitsa said she noticed Smith’s talent and work ethic immediately.
“I pulled her aside, and I told her, “Do you even realize how good you are?” Dr. Thitsa recalled.
So, she was not surprised when Smith was awarded a Goldwater Scholarship.
“I watch her grow as a researcher. She has more and more confidence in herself with each test that she accomplishes,” Dr. Thitsa said. “I just keep giving her more and more challenging tasks, and she is always able to deliver what I need.”
As her education advances, Smith said she wants to earn a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering and conduct research in aeronautics, controls and robotics at a national laboratory.
She said she fell in love with drones and robotics during a summer internship with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she worked with the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and listened to a seminar about the department’s research projects.
“After I went to that seminar, I was like, this is what I want to do,” she said. “I want to do robotics. I want to build some sort of autonomous system that can work by itself in an environment and be able to integrate it into an environment with humans.
“I just want to build something.”
Smith, the first Black Mercer student to be awarded a Goldwater Scholarship, said she wants to be an inspiration for young Black girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
As a high schooler in Augusta, where she lived with her mom, dad and younger sister, she was active in the local Boys & Girls Club. It was there that she discovered she could be a mentor to others.
“After winning the Goldwater, I wanted other Black girls to be like, ‘Oh, it is possible for me to do these things. I should pursue a career in STEM even though I will probably be a minority in every single room that I walk in, but I know that I have the strength to be on that exact same level and know that I deserve to be here,’” Smith said.
As a woman and a Black person, Smith has broken a lot of stereotypes by receiving the Goldwater Scholarship. Both women and people of color are underrepresented in STEM, Dr. Thitsa said.
“When somebody like Ebonye becomes a force in the STEM field, the benefit is twofold,” she said. “The field will benefit from the intellectual contributions that she’s going to make, and in addition, the efforts that she’s going to make toward diversity and inclusion efforts.
“I think that will be a wonderful thing.”