Vanderbilt Engineering alum breaks down tough concepts … and tough-to-hear news

If Scott Potter is on your TV, it’s probably not going to be good news.

The director of Nashville’s water and sewer system earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Vanderbilt University and often wears his school lanyard on camera. He’s got the difficult job of telling residents when there’s a problem with their water service — but his clear, concise approach offers lessons on breaking down complicated engineering concepts for the public.

In May 2010, a flood took out one of the city’s two water treatment plants. Potter urged residents to take quick showers and shut off sprinkler systems. Upscale restaurants served entrees on paper plates for days to avoid using industrial dishwashers.

Scott Potter

Four years later, Potter took the podium for another news conference, announcing that a broken water main was affecting service to 15,000 customers. He fielded pointed questions from reporters about older sections of the city’s water system and how long the fix would take.

The key is being prepared with both accurate information and the best way to present it, he said.

“If it’s not accurate, you lose credibility,” Potter said. “And if you lose credibility, you’re done.”

Watch a Q&A with Scott Potter and news clips of him in action.

He uses maps, photos and diagrams to explain complex engineering concepts to a general audience. His process includes something a little more personal, too.

“I try to speak (as though) I’m explaining it to my mom, because my mom is a really smart person,” he said. “She’s not an engineer, but she understands when people are trying to tell her something that doesn’t make sense. … She can tell immediately if I’m trying to dance, and she’ll call me on it.”

The Hendersonville native said a youth league baseball coach interested him in engineering and in attending Vanderbilt.

Potter later earned his master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He served 12 years in the Navy as a surface warfare officer aboard the USS Cochrane and the USS Callaghan, deploying to the Persian Gulf in 1987 and 1993.

He’s taught water and wastewater policy at Vanderbilt and serves on the school’s Mechanical Engineering Department External Advisory Committee.

Potter and his wife, Melissa, have been married for 25 years and have three children. When he’s not instructing Nashville about its water supply, he enjoys reading, hiking and bicycling.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering