Engineering student aims to develop a more sustainable world
Matt Smeal is one of the first to join the new master’s program in sustainable energy
As an aspiring power engineer, University of Cincinnati student Matt Smeal hopes to contribute to a more sustainable world by working towards better energy solutions. Smeal is a fifth-year electrical engineering student at the College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) specializing in electric energy systems with a minor in environmental studies. Currently, he serves as vice president for Clean Up Cincy, a volunteer litter clean-up organization, and is a member of Beta Theta Pi fraternity and Theta Tau engineering fraternity. He is also one of the first students to enroll in CEAS’s new Master of Engineering in Sustainable Energy, through the ACCEND program. ACCEND enables undergraduate students to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees concurrently.
Why did you choose UC?
I actually transferred from the University of Dayton in 2020, right at the start of the pandemic. I wanted to go to a bigger school and find more opportunities to get involved. Cincinnati is big, and obviously, the co-op program is a huge benefit. On top of that, both my dad and grandpa are engineering alumni from here, so I already knew that UC offers a good engineering program. I also had a great transfer adviser, Madeline Bible, who was fantastic and made the process of transferring much easier.
I love the atmosphere of campus too – it’s nice being in the middle of a bustling city, and it’s fun just to explore when I have time. One of my favorite spots on campus is the gardens right outside of Dyer Hall, but honestly, all of campus is gorgeous (even Crosley, sometimes) and I love walking through it every day. All of this made me feel like this is where I needed to be.
What led you to choose your field of study?
I’ve always had an idea of what field I wanted to be in, specifically the kind of work I wanted to do with power. I have a lot of interest in sustainability and trying to come up with practical solutions for anthropogenic climate change. That is what got me into electrical engineering in the first place. If we’re able to electrify more facets of our everyday lives, we have a huge opportunity to decarbonize a lot of things in the energy industry, which is why I think this is such a great field to be in. There’s also a lot of innovation happening with low-carbon energy generation. Nuclear and hydroelectric are being heavily invested in, as well as new technologies like hydrogen and smart inverters for solar and wind.
Describe the impact of your co-op positions.
I did all of my co-ops at Duke Energy, doing rotations throughout different parts of their business units both in Cincinnati and in Harrison, Ohio. I did almost everything related to electrical distribution (substations to customers). Although I only did four rotations instead of the typical five (since I transferred to UC), I wish I would’ve had another semester of co-op because it was such an incredible experience.
The first department I worked in was network engineering, which was focused on downtown Cincinnati. Everything power-related in downtown is underground, and it’s an incredibly reliable network (it has only ever failed twice). I joined in on a lot of maintenance and design work, which involved jumping into manholes, field visits, and working with contractors to figure out what needed to be fixed or redone – a ton of real-world experience, which was really formative for me as an engineer, thinking about how designs actually get implemented.
My second rotation was in project management. Admittedly, I wasn’t the biggest fan of it, since it’s not a lot of engineering, and just a lot of meetings. But that’s the big thing about co-op – you find out the things you like and the things you don’t. For my third and fourth rotations, I got to work in grid management out in Harrison, at Duke’s Ohio/Kentucky Distribution Control Center. My desk was on the same floor as the distribution operators: the people that open and close switches for power and work outages. It was special being able to see and hear the work they do 24/7 in watching over the grid. I also got to take on a lot of real responsibility, handling things such as automation decisions, simulations, and even commissioning of self-healing circuit teams. I was able to get a couple thousand customers fully automated in the case of an outage. It was exciting to know that I was doing stuff that mattered during co-op: I never had a co-op where I was doing intern busy-work. All of it was work that like, if you screwed up, the company would be out a couple million, and it was great to be able to have and develop that responsibility. The co-ops I’ve had have actually taken all of the theory I learned in class and applied them into the real world, cementing my interest in electric power even further. I’ll be heading to the planning group this summer for a graduate internship with Duke as a part of the Master’s of Engineering in Sustainable Energy program.
What led you to pursue the ACCEND program?
I wasn’t planning to do a master’s degree, but when I learned about the program last spring, I was curious, because I wanted to jump feet first into the industry. Coincidentally, the program director was Dr. Max Rabiee, who I had for an instrumentation/industrial control class in the spring. After talking with him and my adviser, I felt that it was way more doable than I realized. Plus, sustainable energy is the entire reason I became an engineer, so I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn more.
One of my favorite professors so far has been Dr. Fred Chiou, who is teaching Solar Photovoltaic System Fundamentals. I’m learning a lot of new things about solar energy and even get the chance to get the NABCEP Solar certification through his class. The lab is hands-on too. Dr. Chiou has us setting up and testing small PV systems out in Schneider Quadrangle; it’s the first time I’ve ever needed sunscreen for a lab.
What are your plans after graduation?
After graduation, I want to stay in Cincinnati for a bit with Duke Energy. I want to work towards passing my Fundamentals of Engineering and Professional Engineering exams, which are usually required if you want to work in power. You usually take the PE test after you have a couple years of experience. I really want to work with distributed energy resources (DERs), which interconnects and plans for solar or wind from people’s homes. Since so much is changing in the energy industry, I’m just excited to jump in and become a part of the sustainability revolution this field is pushing for. I’ve thought about moving to Chicago or somewhere along the East Coast, but Cincinnati is a great city so I wouldn’t mind staying here. I do also have a bit of a dream to go work on offshore wind with EirGrid Group in Ireland, electricity generation is something I want to gain experience in. I could go pretty much anywhere, there’s no place that doesn’t need power engineers today. The electric power field is leading a really bright future, and it’s fulfilling to hopefully contribute to the changes that are coming.
What are some of your most impactful experiences at UC?
Obviously, my co-ops were really impactful, because I actually got to network and ask questions to people who knew so much more than me. I think being a good engineer is all about asking good questions, because you're always going to be in a room where you don't know something. On top of that, I think extracurriculars in college are a great way to learn and develop yourself. When I was house manager for my fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, I learned a lot about time/project management, delegating, and working around things outside my control.
I have also loved being a part of Clean Up Cincy, which is a volunteer organization that helps with beautification around Cincinnati. It’s really showed me how effective you can be in solving problems if you just work with other people.
I’m also a CEAS Ambassador, leading tours and helping with open houses for prospective students/families. It’s been nice to give back and contribute to my school, as well as improve my confidence in public speaking (something engineers aren’t always known for)!
Great professors have also been a hallmark of UC for me. Dr. Rabiee is obviously one of them, as he’s really encouraged me to go out and learn new things. Dr. Tao Li helped make semiconductors and electronics seem not so scary to me, and the now retired Dr. Punit Boolchand helped me find my love for electromagnetics. I never thought I’d understand systems and signals, either, but Dr. Arthur Helmicki changed that!
I'm also minoring in Environmental Studies, and I've had some amazing professors from the College of Arts and Sciences, especially Dr. David Stradling. He’s also our adviser for Clean Up Cincy, and he’s really encouraged me to consider a lot of things beyond just the technical aspects of engineering. As engineers, we need to consider how the community and the environment will be affected by the work we do. Taking and applying that mindset has had a huge impact on everything I do, both academic and work-related, and it’s made me enjoy my time here even more.
I love UC and Cincinnati. Transferring here was one of the best choices I’ve made for myself, and I wouldn’t have any of these experiences or opportunities if I hadn’t made that decision.
Discover the benefits of our top-ranked co-op program that is integrated into the curriculum at the College of Engineering and Applied Science.