Tata Steel Projects
What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
When I was finishing my BA at Berkeley and planning to go into international relations, I stumbled across a serialised version of Harry Harrison’s novel Tunnel Through the Deeps. For whatever reason, that book got me interested in civil engineering; I wrote papers on the subject as an undergraduate, then had the epiphany, ‘I could write papers about building railways, or I could actually go and BUILD some railways.’ When I finished my BA I immediately started university over again, in a couple of years completing a master’s degree in civil engineering at Berkeley.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to thank Harry Harrison for inspiring me to become a civil engineer; who knows, if I’d stuck with my original plan to be a diplomat I might be stamping passports in Outer Mongolia by now.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The restoration of Hardwick Park, an 18th century landscape garden near Sedgefield. I was brought in to manage the completion of the work because it had gone over budget and was in danger of not keeping its commitment to the Heritage Lottery Fund. I was able to sort things out and get the restoration work completed; the project and county staff did a beautiful job and the restoration won the Georgian Society award for landscape in 2009.
The park is a fascinating example of a mid 18th century circuit walk garden—its design gives visitors who walk the circuit a very specific emotional experience that resembles going to the theatre, reading a novel or seeing a film. While working on the park I learned a great deal about 18th century landscape design, which opened up a whole new field of knowledge for me; since then I’ve visited several other similar parks (none as nice as Hardwick!), and I gave a paper on the design of Hardwick at the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies conference in January 2012.
None, I’m afraid—it would be crass to say ‘I did it all on my own’ since my parents paid for my first degree and supported me sporadically for some time afterward, but my career and my choices have been almost entirely of my own devising, without inspiration from role models or support from mentors. Not recommended!
I will, though, admit some admiration for I. K. Brunel. I’m amazed at how successful he was at talking people into things.
Why do you love working in STEM?
One thing I think is true in STEM that is not, at least not necessarily, true in other kinds of work is that we all understand the importance of interaction and collaboration. I like working in an environment where people routinely help each other, aren’t afraid to make (or acknowledge) mistakes, and are accustomed to working as teams. There are two reasons why engineering offices are like this, I think—first, the kind of work we do is so risky that we just can’t afford to cover up or ignore errors—we have to be open and honest about them, while at the same time acknowledging that mistakes are part of the human experience and not criticising or belittling people who make them. Second, there’s still a strong apprenticeship/collegial tradition in engineering, and people are used to the experience of routinely and casually teaching and being taught.
Also, being an engineer has provided me all sorts of opportunities that most other jobs wouldn’t have—particularly the opportunity to obtain EU citizenship though I was born in California.
Advice for future STEMinists?
Don’t sell yourself short—you don’t have to be perfect to be successful. Spend time with people who appreciate and value what you’re interested in and what you do.
I’m going to plug Sydney Padua’s Lovelace and Babbage comics here, I think, as of possible interest to readers: http://sydneypadua.com/2dgoggles/