Buildings, bridges, structures and strength
Tomorrow's Engineers caught up with Roma at the WSP Group offices in central London to find out more about her life as an engineer, her education and why she thinks that tying animal skin to our feet was a good idea 8000 years ago.
You can watch our video and read the interview in full below...
Name: Roma Agrawal
Job title: Senior Structural Engineer, WSP
So what does a structural engineer do?
Structural engineers are responsible for making sure that buildings and bridges stand up - the architects tell us what they want it to look like then it’s up to us to make it work.
We have to deal with “vertical loads” which means the weight of the building itself and everything inside it, and “horizontal loads” such as wind.
We work closely with the architects, mechanical and electrical engineers and the contractor to ensure that the structure is elegant and safe to construct.
What first got you interested and involved in engineering?
I did an internship with some mechanical engineers at the Physics department at Oxford and they were designing particle accelerators at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research – this is where the Large Hadron Collider is based and where the internet was created - Ed) which was very exciting.
I thought that engineering is quite an interesting combination of the technical and practical. I looked at universities that did good Masters courses and I thought that structural engineering fit my profile and my qualifications quite well.
What did you study at A-level and university? And why?
At A-Level I did Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Design Technology because I’m quite a practical person and I enjoy logical and technical things.
I went on to do Physics at Oxford University mainly because I enjoyed it. I didn’t know what career I wanted to do but a bit of research showed me that having a maths or physics degree was very flexible for any future career that you might want.
So is your broad background helpful in your life as an engineer?
My company was very keen on the fact that I had a broad background. Since I joined I’ve found I look at problems in a slightly different way and it’s just about bringing lots of different ideas to the table.
But I think the main point is if you’re a good problem solver and good at maths then you can be an engineer.
You won the Young Structural Engineer of the Year Award from IStructE in 2011. Can you tell us about that?
The YSE Award is sponsored by The Institution of Structural engineers and they’re an institution that looks after our profession. You become a member once you join the profession so they do provide a lot of opportunities to young engineers to develop.
Last year I applied for the YSE engineer of the year award and had to write a report about the work I’d done on a particular project - The Shard. I also wrote about some of the things I do to raise the profile of engineering as a career and I think a combination of that actually led me to winning that. I won a certificate and money and it’s a massive honour
How did you find out about and then start working for WSP?
I was wandering around careers fairs at university and I think those are very helpful for students to go to. I found WSP there - they take on graduates every year in the structures team and I handed my CV in. I went through the application process online, was invited for an assessment day and offered a job.
How long have you been at WSP and how long does the graduate programme last?
I joined WSP about 6 ½ years ago as a graduate as my first job out of university. We had courses where we improved our technical skills and were taught how to apply what we learnt at university to real life so that was very helpful.
I’ve also recently become chartered with the Institution of Structural Engineers which is a fairly important thing to do as part of an engineering career (A Chartered Engineer is an engineer registered with Engineering Council UK - the British regulatory body for engineers). WSP supported me and helped me to meet the minimum criteria required for that as well as preparation for the interview and the exam.
What’s your favourite part of being an engineer?
My favourite part of engineering is when I get to see my projects being built. We spend a long time designing things in the office on paper, so seeing it in real life, many times bigger than the drawings, is exciting. I really enjoy going out to site to watch the construction progress.
With the Shard, it’s especially satisfying because you can see it from everywhere around London, and those who worked on it can say that they have contributed to a truly iconic building.
What was it like to work on the Shard? Can you tell us about your involvement in the project?
I’ve been working on the Shard for over five years now. That’s been fantastic because I’ve seen it through all the different stages of the building, starting from conceptual design to detailed design, to being on site.
The first year and a half I was involved with what’s called enabling works. So you’ve got a site with a lot of stuff already there including an existing 22 storey building and a lot of work needs to be done before construction of the Shard could even begin. I spent some time looking at the Victorian arches that surround the site and refurbishment work on London bridge bus and train station.
I designed the concrete raft – the foundations at the very bottom of the building that makes sure the building stands up. On the opposite scale of things I worked on the spire which is an architectural bit of steel at the top of the building. Here we’ll have the viewing gallery and millions of people visiting each year to look at the views of London from there.
Have you been to the top of the Shard?
It was nearly the top - level 81 of 87 which is the highest floor and they’re building that at the moment. (Almost 270 metres - Ed)
Do you need to have a head for heights as an engineer?
You do, I did not start out with a head for heights - I remember the first time I went to site I had to walk up some scaffold stairs on the side of the building and was absolutely terrified. I’ve actually got more used to it since then!
So is it worth it - are the views good?
Going to the top of the Shard is just amazing. At the minute you can see the views without any glass in and it’s an absolutely clear view of London which is just fabulous.
Is it high pressure working on such a high profile project?
It’s a bit scary in the beginning because I was just a graduate and I only had about one year’s experience but I received all the support I needed.
It’s very satisfying - there used to be a footbridge right next to the Shard and there were always people standing there looking up and pointing at it. I always walked past thinking “that’s brilliant - that’s something I’ve worked on and no one can take away the fact that we’ve made a very significant contribution to London.”
What advice would you give to people who have read about you and would like to do something similar?
The most important thing is to do what you enjoy. If you enjoy your job then you’ll be good at it. If you study what you like then the career will follow from there. There are different paths to get to engineering so if you’ve done a different degree and then think you want to be an engineer you shouldn’t feel as though it is too late.
Traditionally there haven’t been many women involved with engineering. Do you think women are well suited to a career in engineering?
Engineering is traditionally a male dominated industry but there are lots of women in engineering now. I think there is still a way to go but there’s nothing to be intimidated by. Often I’m also at meetings where I’m clearly the youngest person there and sometimes that is maybe a bit more intimidating than being the only woman there.
Do you have a favourite invention or piece of engineering you would like to go back in time to create?
My first thought was the wheel, because machines and transport all depend on it. But then I found out that the shoe was actually a very cool invention from about 8000 years ago. The idea of tying animal skin to your feet has not changed much seeing as we wear leather shoes now. I also read that civilisations that had shoes first were able to go out and conquer other ones because they could walk further.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I practice classical Indian dance, I started training when I was 6. I also read a lot, all kinds of books. I like going to museums, especially The Science Museum.
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