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

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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.

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