I have always been very driven and persistent and this has helped me to progress in life. When I come up against rejection, I come back fighting. At school, my natural sciences teacher was a geology specialist and so passionate about the subject that it inspired me.
No one in my family had gone to university before me and they had limited resources with which to support me, but I actively sought out scholarships so they didn't have to. I came across summer scholarships that allowed me to study abroad, and I spent summers in Ireland, Norway and Sweden. This was before the internet and so I had to be motivated to find these scholarships: I visited different libraries and organisations' offices to find opportunities. These days technology has made things easier, but it's not enough to send one email to ask about graduate opportunities; you need to be persistent and follow up.
A masters doubled
I'd applied for a British Council scholarship to do a masters in engineering when I finished my undergraduate studies. I didn't get it the first time, but I reapplied the following year and was successful; if you tell me no and I want it, I will try again! I found the course tough. I didn't have much practical work experience to draw upon and studying in a second language was tiring, but I persevered.
While on the masters, I was offered a job at Halcrow. This was just after the collapse of the Heathrow Express rail link tunnels and I was employed to work on that site in a geology-focused role. On the project, I was on a short-term contract, but a year later when it finished they took me back at the office and made me permanent. In the office, I worked more on the engineering and structural side than I had done previously, and so I completed another masters in foundations and structures part time to stretch my civil engineering knowledge. I studied in the evening after working all day and, at the same time, I was preparing my paperwork for my professional qualification – and so I was exhausted, but it was useful to my future career progression.
It can sometimes be difficult to progress into senior engineering positions when you have been seen as a graduate. So after a while at Halcrow I moved to another civil engineering consultancy and it was on one of their projects that I learned the most about myself and leadership.
I worked in Portugal on the Porto Metro as the chief geotechnical engineer, supervising the construction of 7km of tunnels and three stations. There had previously been a collapse, which had caused a fatality, and I was brought in as part of the recovery team. I stayed on the project for four years and established a good professional reputation both technically and as a leader. On a personal level, I always think of Portugal as a golden time. I made good friends and met my husband.
On the project, my aim was to make people feel valued and part of a family. I removed the hierarchies between roles on site because every job is equally important in different circumstances. I've carried these principles throughout my management career; I know that individuals work and communicate differently and so I adjust my styles and create an environment in which they can always talk to me. I'm also very hands on and lead by example, by doing whatever needs doing to help out. If the tea needs to be made, I'll make the tea.
After I completed my work in Porto, I came back to the UK with my husband. I was offered a hydro-plant in the Highlands, but it was miles from anywhere and at the time I had just had my first child and my husband was also trying to establish his career in the UK. It was then, while wondering what was next for me, that I was headhunted.
I was offered jobs with both Mott MacDonald and Arup, two consultancies with excellent tunnelling reputations; I accepted the Mott MacDonald role because I had more chemistry with the Mott MacDonald interviewers. My favourite project at Mott MacDonald has been working on Crossrail. We had experienced some technical issues and morale on the team was very low, but with my help we managed to turn it around. On this project I became better known within the industry and it made my bosses take notice of me.
Having a voice
My current role, as one of the account leads, involves identifying opportunities in the underground metro market in the UK and overseas and whether we should put in a bid and then lead on that. However, I still have technical projects and am one of the leads for the HS2 tunnels in Birmingham. I have a team of around 20 people who are designing one of the tunnels. I do work with interns and graduates and I always do my utmost to promote them, such as putting them forward for awards. If I see passion, commitment and dedication, I mentor it.
I was proud to be elected by other members to be a committee member of the British Tunnelling Society. I also guest lecture at the University of Birmingham and give papers at conferences. I always freak out before doing public speaking but, apparently, I come across as self-confident and my passion comes across.
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