My life scientific
This month, Helen Pilcher chats with structural engineer Roma Agrawal about her love of buildings and why engineers are the world’s unsung heroes
Helen Pilcher talks to Roma Agrawal about why engineers are unsung heroes.
Why did you become an engineer?
I grew up in India and the US, where my mum was a computer programmer and my dad was an electrical engineer. We had crane sets, Lego and Meccano, and spent every Sunday morning building things. My degree was in physics but I realised I wanted to become an engineer when I did a summer placement and worked with them.
Which of your projects is your favourite?
The Northumbria University footbridge. It’s a lovely little steel bridge in Newcastle that joins up campuses. It crosses a motorway, a bypass lane and a rail track so was quite a complex site. It was great because 18 months after I started working as an engineer, I had a finished project. It gives me a huge sense of pride.
Didn’t you work on The Shard?
I worked on The Shard for six years. I helped prepare the site, design the foundations and engineer the steelwork at the top of the tower. The foundation work was particularly interesting because we used a technique called ‘top-down construction’, which had never been used before for a building of this height. It meant by the time the foundations were complete, we had already finished 20 storeys of the concrete core of the tower.
Yet we only hear about engineering when something goes wrong…
The only time I hear the word ‘engineering’ in public life is when I hear that engineering works have delayed my train, or when something catastrophic happens. It’s a shame because engineering is always there, in the background. Engineers are unsung heroes and we take engineering for granted.
What’s it like being a woman in a sector that is still predominantly male?
When I first started out, I found going to sites challenging. Often, I’d be the only woman there and there’d be pictures of naked women on the office walls. Sometimes, I’d be asked to make the tea and take notes. Since then, things have changed. There’s less overt sexism, but biases are still present. I was last mistaken for a secretary just two months ago, when I was being introduced to a director. He looked very embarrassed when he realised his mistake.
How can we encourage more women?
It’s a complex problem. In the UK, only 10 per cent of engineers are women and we lose people at every stage of the school and then career pathway. Every point needs some sort of intervention. In the UK, engineering is not well-known and not seen as something to aspire to. I go out there and tell people about my projects and why I love my job. I’m trying to light a spark of awareness of what engineering is.
What’s your favourite building?
I love the apparent simplicity of the Pantheon in Rome. The Romans knew how their concrete worked and the technicalities of building a dome. Even 2,000 years later, it remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. I also like Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral. The centre of the city has sunk over 10 metres in the last 150 years because it’s built on a lake. In the 1990s, engineers did this incredible project to stop the cathedral from sinking unevenly.