Her career accomplishments include working on The Shard, the tallest tower in Western Europe. She received a Diamond Award for Engineering Excellence by the Association for Consultancy and Engineering, and has even been appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire.
This is a “close” copy of the words that were spoken during the Podcast, Season 2 Episode 16
It is not 100% accurate.
The guest was Roma Agrawal
Welcome to Season 3, Episode 1 of Engineering Heroes. A podcast that presents the incredible engineers that are shaping our society and battling our challenging issues.
My name is Melanie. My co-host and our podcast’s resident engineer, speaking to us from the trenches, is Dom.
Our guest today is a structural engineer who studied at Oxford and Imperial College in London.
She is the author of Built: The hidden stories behind our structures, a book which has helped show just how wonderful the world of engineering is.
Her career accomplishments include working on The Shard, the tallest tower in Western Europe. She received a Diamond Award for Engineering Excellence by the Association for Consultancy and Engineering, and has even been appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire.
Our guest today is Roma Agrawal.
Roma’s dad was an electrical engineer. But a little like me, she was never really exposed to his work.
As a child she felt she was a secret engineer, she loved playing with Lego and blocks and making or breaking stuff. She had the traditional strengths – was good at science and maths. Roma knew she wanted to do something scientific or technical, but that was about the extent of it. And She found herself at university, not really knowing what she wanted to do, but deciding to study physics……
I appreciated that by studying physics, you can actually do a very wide range of careers. And that proved to be true because I ended up working over one summer to earn a bit of extra money. And I was basically doing a really boring job, but I was surrounded by mechanical engineers they happen to be and it suddenly kind of really struck me that, you know, engineers use maths and physics which I love to create real things. And I think I was just missing that slightly tangible aspect in the pure science. So engineering then make, you know, it was the kind of perfect fit. And then that’s that’s when I went off to Imperial College to study engineering, it became clear to me that it wasn’t just about sitting there and doing numbers or computer models or calculations all day, it was really about solving problems. And I also noticed that I mean, that was quite a small office. But I did notice that they were talking to each other, you know, they were bouncing ideas off each other to solve those problems. And I think I liked that I liked that idea of of sharing knowledge and thoughts and, you know, solving problems. And then of course, once I joined my first job, which was a much larger firm, I was actually really surprised and taken aback at how important communication skills actually are to being a successful engineer. So that that was a bit of a learning curve.
Yeah, definitely. And what was your first project when you started at the firm?
So the first project I did was the Northumbria University footbridge, and that’s in Newcastle which is up in northern England. And the challenge was that there was a new piece of campus being built. But that campus was separated from the old campus by a large motorway and a train line. So they needed a new bridge to allow kind of bleary eyed students to walk from one lecture to the next. And so that was our challenge. So we had these kind of two points to start from, we had all these different constraints, vehicles travelling underneath the trains underneath, and height restrictions and so on. And then yeah, that’s that’s where we started from. So that was really exciting to me, because I came in on my first day and pretty much started on that project. And then 18 months later, it was built. And that was incredible.
Do you still get to see every once in a while you get up sort of drive past and go, “that was me, I did that. That was me!”
You know, I haven’t seen it in a long time. I think it might have been 10 years since I’ve seen it, but I have on good authority that it’s still standing.
Mel De Gioia 3:03
So what’s been the most interesting job in your career?
Kind of obvious answer to that is The Shard because that was such a huge project. And I spent kind of the really formative years of my career working on that. And but let’s talk about maybe another one just just to shake things up a little bit. The other project that I was thinking about is just really as an apartment block in London. So the reason that this particular project was really interesting was because we had a three level deep basement and The Tube as we affectionately call our underground train system in London, ran directly below this basement. There were two tunnels you know, taking the two directions of trains, and there was a vent shaft that basically allows the air pressure to equalise underground and that that vent rose up in the middle of the basement. And we had a Grade One listed structure next door so that’s to do with heritage. So that’s one of the highest ratings of heritage. We also had one one of our large Victorian sewers running right next to the site. So these were from the time of Joseph Bazalgette from the 1850s. And it’s you know, about my height so I’m I’m about 1.6 metres tall. So that that was the diameter of this sewer, it was made from brick, it was built in the 1800s. So that was one of our other neighbours. So admit in amongst all of that, and we basically ducked down 12 or 14 metres to create this basement so that that was an incredibly challenging piece of engineering that I worked on, which was great.
It is amazing, all those things that are underground that people just don’t even think about. And when you’re building structure, as soon as we get out of the ground, it’ll go quickly. And it’s just that starting point where you keep getting all the foundations in and, and all the things that happened under there in regards to subsoil drainage and structure and all the existing infrastructure that cacould be running through it that just makes it so difficult, but no one even knows it’s there. It’s this is the building comes up. It’s long forgotten, which is kind of sad that people don’t realise just exactly what’s involved in getting the building out of the ground in the first place.
I guess the only time people think about what’s happening below ground is when things go wrong. And I guess the Leaning Tower of Pisa is a great example of that, isn’t it? Where the foundations essentially failed. And then you ended up with this leaning piece of structure and then suddenly people like, Oh, that’s that’s kind of interesting. Yeah, we didn’t really think about the fact that these buildings that don’t tilt over have fantastic foundations below them.
Mel De Gioia 5:39
And had just add on Dom’s point, how long did it take you to get out of the ground on that one?
if I remember correctly, it was well over a year. So even though the actual size the footprint of the basement wasn’t that huge. I think that the most challenging thing was to make sure that the sewer I talked about, the heritage structure I talked about, the Tube lines below didn’t move. And that was really the crux of of the challenge. So it was monitoring all of the structures, we had to design not only the structure and its final form to make sure it didn’t move, but also really carefully think about the stages of construction. Because obviously, you’re digging down sequentially. And we have to make sure that each stage of the dig that the structures around us are not moving too much to cause problems. So yeah, really, really interesting challenge.
Mel De Gioia 6:29
That really does sound like an amazing challenge.
So where are you working now?
So I work at AECOM now I’m a structural engineer at AECOM. I actually have a slightly different role now. And I think this is one of those interesting things about engineering careers is that it can lead you in all different sorts of directions. So if you think about two projects, I spent most of my career kind of making the project happen and make it stand up and you know, the practicality side of things. But before that project even comes to an engineer’s desk. There’s a whole process of Finding a piece of land creating a vision and working with the client finding the funding, you know, basically putting together the actual project. And I am now working on that front end of, of the construction process, which is really, really interesting.
Okay, so it’s almost more of a development role than pure engineering.
Yeah, yeah. So I’m getting involved early on, I’m looking at different options for the site, trying to figure out how we can unlock the site. So it’s a much more kind of conceptual design type idea. And it’s also about going out there and explaining to clients what we can do because they might not fully understand what, you know, the modern engineering can allow them to do on their site. So we’re in there offering solutions and ideas for how they can kind of best use the piece of land that they might have.
Mel De Gioia 7:51
How did you move into that sort of role?
So it’s, it’s a funny thing. I fell into it because I was given that opportunity when somebody else went on maternity leave. And you know, I will say this because I think it’s a real testament to companies that get it. She was seven months pregnant, and she was promoted to be head of government for the UK at AECOM. So they said, yeah, we understand you’re going to be away for a year, but for the right person for the job, and that’s the job you’re going to come back to. So this vacancy kind of came up. And because I’d been doing a lot of pitching so I’d been writing bids trying to win work. This was almost a natural progression. And to take that even for to expand that role a bit more. So it’s, it’s been a learning curve for me because it’s not my kind of natural state of being, but I’ve really enjoyed it. But you know, I myself am now and currently on maternity leave. So if you want the literal answer to what I’m doing at the minute, it’s looking after a little baby
Mel De Gioia 8:54
The 4th of March 2020 is going to be a very special day. It is the first United Nations recognised, World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development. It’s going to be a day tohighlight the achievements of engineers and all their engineering works in our modern world. It has the goal of improving the public understanding of how engineering and technology is central to modern life and sustainable development….. a little like the mission of this podcast!
And to prepare all our listeners for this momentus day, Engineering Heroes has been asked by the World Federation of Engineering Organisations to create a mini-series which will highlight each of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and an engineer who is working in each space.
So from 3rd of February, we will be releasing 17 short episodes from our talks with engineers from around the globe as they highlight their plans to help the world. Check out more on our website, www.engineeringheroes.com.au
For now, let’s return to Roma as she talks to us about the disappearance of engineers from the public conscience and the engineering skills shortage.
I think it’s quite reserved for places like America and the UK, maybe Western Europe, maybe Australia. Where engineering seems to have kind of taken a bit of a backseat in a sense. It used to be in the forefront of people’s minds. You know, I’m thinking about 1800s. The UK. Yeah, exactly. People knew what engineering was people understood the huge difference engineering was making to their lives. And I think somewhere along the way, we kind of lost that. And, and in some ways, I think it’s for a positive reason. It’s because our basic infrastructure and engineering works. We have clean water, we have pretty decent roads, we’ve got a train system, I’m not going to comment on the amount of delays we have our train system in London, but
Mel De Gioia 11:57
essentially the trains go on them. So that works…
The principle is that the basis is that. So I feel like engineering basically kind of disappeared from our everyday consciousness. And you know, I often say that the only time I hear the word engineering, at least in London, is when I’m standing on a train platform. My train hasn’t arrived. And then the, you know, the loudspeaker says, “due to engineering works your train has been delayed.” Forget not being in your mind as a negative connotation.
Mel De Gioia 12:27
Yeah, it is. It’s like the engineers are always talked about, but they’re not as celebrated as they used to be. The role of engineers has changed significantly.
Yeah. And I think the, the impact of that is that we’ve seen women not going into engineering people from ethnic minority backgrounds. You know, people who haven’t been exposed to big engineering projects, you know, the whole kind of raft of different types of people that are not attracted or not even aware of engineering as being an option for them.
I suppose that is something I hadn’t really thought about where those projects, particularly those, those large scale infrastructure projects were celebrated whilst that were being undertaken, whereas now it’s just an inconvenience. And look, they’ve been doing light rail down the centre of George Street in Sydney. It’s just like, it’s always in the paper because it’s blocking traffic. And it’s has there have been problems associated with it. But, you know, the people should be celebrating the fact that there’s this best transit system that’s being developed this kind of help everyone in in Sydney, but it just kind of gets pushed into the background, I suppose.
And so that brings me to the really important point, which is about how do we actually communicate the advantages of engineering and the benefits that it brings to society? You know, I think, to try and reverse this trend of people dropping out of engineering, we’re not even considering engineering as a career I think us as engineers need to be a lot better at getting out there and explaining to people what it is we really do. That it is a human, that humans are behind all these amazing innovations and, and explain how it benefits society and also on an individual basis, like what an amazingly rewarding career engineering is. So you know, your podcast is a great example of, you know, getting out there and humanising engineering for people. So that’s brilliant.
Mel De Gioia 14:32
Yeah, I mean, you’re you’re an excellent case study in this in that if you almost didn’t become an engineer, because you know about engineering, you lived with one but you didn’t even know about engineering. What can we actually do? Like, I’m thinking we need more statues and, you know, we need more chief engineers. But what are you thinking? Like Rockstar engineers, I don’t know…
That’s a really interesting thought. I think in some ways, we’ve probably moved past that rock star engineering era. So you know, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, he was that Rockstar engineer. So I’m thinking, I feel exactly what I feel like. I feel like because engineering is a much more collaborative, you know, professional. So before we had engineers and architects with almost the same people, now we’ve got all these different specialisms. And it’s clear that there’s not one person that’s responsible for creating a structure, whatever. And I think it’s just more about getting out there and talking to people. And my book Built was also kind of born out of that desire to make engineering accessible and interesting to people who wouldn’t have thought that interested in in engineering. And, you know, of course, there are loads of people out there doing schools events, and, you know, role model case studies and stuff on YouTube. And I think It’s really important, like if you even I’m old, even I’m getting really out of date. It’s like it’s the young 25 year olds that are on YouTube blowing stuff up and creating Rube Goldberg machines or whatever it might be that that really engages with young people. So I think it’s really important to understand where society is and then understand how we can communicate best with the young people that would be interested.
Mel De Gioia 16:21
Do you think it’s enough? I just worry it’s not enough, without the rock stars, without the figureheads. Because to your point, there are so many people doing all that stuff and I don’t know if the numbers are budging enough.
It’s, it is tricky. I think there’s another side to the coin so you can attract all the women and people from minority backgrounds and and men to the profession that you like. But if they then arrive at that profession and find that it’s not a very welcoming place for them, then they’re not going to stay. So on the flip side to the whole, yes, let’s attract loads of people into engineering as well. How do we actually make them stay? And that comes to, you know, organisations respecting different working styles and valuing different types of contributions and making workplaces inclusive, and fun and supportive and you know, all of these different types of things. So I think both things have to go hand in hand if there’s going to be an impact.
Yeah, we really need to get… encourage people to have that passion in engineering and then getting them into engineering as well.
Mel De Gioia 17:37
Do you think the society has caught up? So we’re, we’re doing a lot of the front end in encouraging people into engineering. Do you think we’re actually… the companies are coming along and society for that matter, as well? Because you get into it thinking “Yes, I’m going to be innovating. I’ll create the next bionic ear or the next .. I’ll be the next Tesla or something” and then you see that is like, okay, you gotta draw a pot from this corner to that corner. And then you got to do that for 30 levels and yeah, that sort of reality check. is that happening?
I think that’s a really really, really interesting point. I think different types of engineers will have different answers to that. So I personally sadly think that construction lags quite behind. And I think it’s quite a clunky industry and I think especially now you know, we mentioned climate emergency and with that now at the forefront, that’s going to be a real challenge to the construction industry because we are one of the biggest emitters of carbon as industries go, amount of materials we use and waste that we create. And, and I think, on the other hand, if you look at like you said the but you know, bionic arms or what you know, nano robots, and the All sorts of other types of research and things that are happening, you know that there are really exciting possibilities and really stuff pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. So I think it’s a bit of a mixed bag, depending on what sort of engineer you are. And also then within that, are you doing research? Or are you working for a company that is really at the forefront? Or are you working for a company next door that might not be? So I think there’s a huge amount of variation. So I think what I would encourage people to do is to seek out the companies that get it at the end of the situations and places that they think will allow them to really make an impact and, and so and there are companies out there which, you know, which are much more forward thinking than others. So, hopefully, what will happen is that as they become more successful and other companies start to lag behind, they will be forced to, you know, push themselves forward as well and kind of bring the whole industry up with them.
Mel De Gioia 19:57
What are your thoughts on the future of engineering?
So if I think about structural engineering more specifically, I find it kind of funny, I think might be a sort of word to use that we still use bricks as the main material to build houses in the UK. And that’s a technology that’s been around for 10,000 years. And it’s a material that’s been around for 10,000 years. And then we started using concrete, which has been around for more than 2000 years. And then steel is a slightly kind of more modern invention. But I’m interested in what’s the new big change in material? You know, so we’ve had all these materials for ages, but you know, kind of what’s next. So it makes me kind of laugh when I go to these future of construction summits. And they play these films about how we’re going to use robots in construction. But what are the robots doing they are putting brick up!
Mel De Gioia 20:54
Yeah, I’ve seen those movies.
and so I just What a kind of question and push people a little bit further and say, “Well, actually, why the brick? What, you know, what’s beyond that? What are the materials we can use? Is it recycled stuff? We’ve got all this waste from different industries, how are we going to use that?” So that you know, of course, there are people at different universities doing some really interesting research about that. And again, if I just give you a little example, I visited the University of Berkeley, just outside San Francisco and I met an architect, they were using rubber tires. And it’s essentially creating a paste or a resin, which they used to 3d print with. And at the minute, they’re making kind of small prototype sized stuff. But, you know, arguably, we might be able to make bricks or kind of any version of bricks from that type of material with which we could build future housing. So I think for me, the material science is probably one of the most interesting pieces and you know, how are we going to move away from using as much concrete as we do, I don’t think we can ever stop using concrete, at least in my lifetime. Because the basements I talked about, I can’t really see what else you would use. But above that, you know, I think we can start challenging what materials were using a bit strongly.
Mel De Gioia 22:17
Yeah, the construction industry seems to be just, right. Ready, it’s just ready for this innovation to come into it. So if you are working in this area in the space, this is what you’re saying is that this is the space where there’s going to be big changes.
I think so. I mean, we’re currently having severe flooding in northern parts of England. And the world is, you know, surreal. And and yeah, I mean, of course, you’ve got these absolutely awful fires happening around Sydney as well as in it. And, and you know, if, if we need to fix these problems, we need to kind of get there with with the sustainability with the materials and things, but also how do we actually manage the flooding and the fires in the short term and and that requires infrastructure and defences, and, you know, whatever else is required to this kind of, there’s a lot of really, you know, important and challenging things that need to be addressed. And which I think, you know, we should see as a real opportunity, and young people should particularly see that as an exciting opportunity to really make an impact
just on that, what would you say to people that are just starting in engineering?
Yeah, I think it’s such a kind of crucial time to be in the industry, I think you would really be able to make a difference on multiple different levels. And I think it’s important like you were saying, to keep in mind that end goal, which is that in the long term, just think of the difference that you can make to people’s lives in whatever form that might be whether you’re making them houses or bionic arms or you know, saving their land from flooding, or building a footbridge. So I think I think it’s important to remember that people are at the heart of engineering.
Mel De Gioia 24:08
Absolutely. I love that it’s it’s such a big call that one because I think engineers forget that, you know, even though they’re building a footbridge, it’s… there safely connecting a person from one transport into the university, they’re going to like … that’s the story. That’s, that’s the key element of what they’re producing. And just to wrap up, we love to hear what is a piece of engineering that has impressed you.
Hmm. So my current response to that question is the Pantheon in Rome. So that’s a 2000 year old structure. And you kind of walk into it and you just see these, I think, the 16 huge columns that kind of greet you at the entrance of the triangle sitting at the top, and then you go in, and you’re in this kind of big open space. And if you look above you, there’s a perfectly hemispherical dome. And the dome has these quite modern looking recesses in it. And if you look really carefully, you might see a bit of cracking, which is old cracks, they’re not new cracks. And I just think it’s so incredible because this is a piece of engineering that was built by the Romans. And like I said, about 2000 years ago, it was made from their recipe of concrete, which is fairly similar to what we do today. And I think what really impresses me about it is that not only did they have a really deep understanding about how concrete works, but also really deep understanding of how domes work, and kind of brought those two bits of knowledge together and created this incredible structure. So this concrete doesn’t have any reinforcement in it. So you know, modern concrete has steel meshes and steel cages that basically binds it together. The Pantheon doesn’t have that because that’s an How they used to build from concrete back in the day, and 2000 years later, it’s still the largest and unreinforced concrete dome in the world. And I think that’s just incredible.
Amazing, isn’t it? It’s probably gonna be standing for
centuries. Yeah. It’s still going anyway, I think that they had the technology and foresight back then, to be doing those sorts of things that we haven’t. We’ve obviously, you know, come a long way since then. But by the same token, the fundamentals are all still inside.
Mel De Gioia 26:38
Yeah. Yeah. It’s incredible. Have you seen it personally?
I’ve been twice. And I think what’s interesting about that is the first time I went there, I wasn’t an engineer. So I was there as a tourist. And for me that that was all about, I guess, just the experience of being in the space with the light shaft that shines through it and the scale of it and what it felt like being in there and then When I went there, after I’d studied a bit of engineering, I just saw it from a completely different perspective. And I think that’s, that’s been fun. So I think, you know, when we talk about the book that I’ve written and the podcast, I’ve done three episodes of the podcast myself. It is really trying to encourage people to look at things from a totally different perspective.
Mel De Gioia 27:21
Yeah, I love that. I love that about engineering. From what I’ve heard from engineers, it’s like it, it does teach you to think and to see things differently. So.
And just to finish up, do you have an engineer that you admire?
And yes, so it’s an engineer from the 1800s. And I’m going to get to the who the actual person is in a second. But john roebling, was a very celebrated bridge engineer that emigrated from Germany to the US in the 1800s. And he’d been building these huge bridges all around the country. So he got engaged to build a bridge to connect to Manhattan and Brooklyn. He subsequently tragically dies in an accident on site. And then his son who’s an engineer starts to take over that project. And he also basically becomes very ill from basically going up and down deep under the river back up, gets the bends it’s said. So the engineer coming back to your question that I most admire was his wife. She’s called Emily Roebling. And Emily Roebling – isn’t she fantastic? So she basically was thrown into the situation. She wasn’t trained as an engineer, but she learned how to be an engineer. And that entailed not only the technical aspects of, well, how does the cable work? And how are we going to build a foundations, all of that, but also all the communications that I’ve talked about before. So she used to engage with the politicians, with the funders, and with the workers on site. And this is all in an era where, you know, let’s face it, Darwin was saying that women were intellectually inferior to men. So that was the context in which she was operating. And she ran the project for 11 years. And it was 11 years and she was the one that rode with the President of the United States at the time to celebrate the opening and I just absolutely love that story.
Mel De Gioia 29:17
She is amazing like we’ve seen… Dom and I like watching engineering documentaries, we’ve actually seen one you’re in as well. And it just the the Brooklyn Bridge still the story of that one still stand out for me. The innovation that they did for the … that caused them to discover the bends for instance, like but the fact that they discovered that and they had to do this and and then the personal stories about the father dying and the son carrying it on and then the son, getting really sick and then the wife actually stepping into that role and in this time and age … it’s just amazing.. just … it’s got everything.
I know, they need to make a movie. There was talks at some point that Daniel Radcliffe, was gonna play Washington Roebling. But I don’t think anything ever came with that because I heard that rumour, like five years ago. So yeah, maybe I hope they do kind of make a film of that because I just think it’s so incredible. So she got up because of that incredible story. She gets a whole chapter in my book, and she gets a full podcast episode as well, in the kind of limited stuff I’ve done.
Mel De Gioia 30:24
That would have been in the days before women could have even gone to school, perhaps to universities and things rlike that.
Right. So she wouldn’t have been allowed to get an engineering degree so she was school educated, but at the time they weren’t awarding degrees to women. Yeah. So yeah, it’s it’s, it’s a really incredible context in which to to do what she did.
Mel De Gioia 30:45
I want to thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a marvellous discussion. I’ve really enjoyed us. Really great. Thanks for joining us.
No, thanks for having me. It’s been fantastic.
Mel De Gioia 30:55
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