For NH’s Roads, DOT Scientist Gets Down to Gooey and Gritty

SEA member Beran Black poses for a photo in the chemistry lab in the Department of Transportation's Materials and Research building in Concord.

SEA member Beran Black poses for a photo in the chemistry lab in the Department of Transportation’s Materials and Research building in Concord.

For all the time spent driving on roads, there’s not usually much consideration to how much goes into making (and re-making) those roads. But Beran Black, an SEA member and a supervising lab scientist for the Department of Transportation, knows just what goes into it all.

Scientists like Black must test all the materials involved, right down to the gooey stuff that holds together all that pavement we drive on. To make sure roads are safe and will last, the DOT must meet very specific standards.

“There’s a lot more to it than one would think. It’s not just throwing together a bunch of stone, sand and gooey glue,” Black said. “It’s quite a bit more complicated than that.”

Black’s lab, one of three in the DOT’s materials group, tests multiple products, including salt and asphalt binder — that gooey glue that holds pavement together. Since the binder is a bi-product of oil production, it’s very expensive. And since it’s very expensive, states need to make sure they get the quality they’re paying for. The testing process is time-consuming, Black said.

“The binder goes through a series of tests that take two days to run,” she said.

The testing process itself is incredibly detailed, too, so much so that the lab requires a minimum of a four-year science degree. Even if you get the hang of the routine parts such as pouring binder samples (“It’s a very messy product and it takes some time to get experienced at it,” Black said), the rest still requires a great deal of knowledge.

“The technology behind it is intensive in science and engineering, so if you don’t understand that, you won’t know when you’re getting false results,” she said.

Having experienced scientists such as Black on staff greatly benefits the state, even if those scientists don’t benefit as much. Indeed, many could make much more working for private industry, but Black said she finds value in working in state service.

“I think of it more as doing a good for the state because the work needs to be done and you need quality people doing those jobs,” Black said.

“I really love New Hampshire for what New Hampshire has, so when you’re working for the DOT, it’s satisfying because you’re doing something important,” she said.

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