Associate at Arup based in Beijing, China
An Engineering degree seemed an obvious choice for me: Maths and Physics had been my strongest subjects the whole way through school, whilst my Design and Technology A Level had led me to start thinking about the practical aspects of what I was learning in the classroom. Meanwhile, I was already developing an interest in the built environment.
Therefore, when I started looking through university prospectuses, I concentrated on Civil Engineering courses. I was attracted to the Cambridge course despite the fact that it offered a general curriculum for the first two years, since I felt that it would be useful to maintain some level of knowledge in a range of fields. I was also well aware of the value of a Cambridge degree, and liked the collegiate system there. This decision was to give me a valuable grounding in "total engineering" when I was offered a job at the multi-disciplinary consultant Arup upon graduation.
I took a year out prior to beginning my degree, spending most of the time working in the highways and structures divisions at JMP Consultants Ltd, who kindly sponsored me through my course. The industrial experience provided by such companies is an important part of the course - once again, linking the theory to practical aspects of engineering.
By the time I started specialising in Civil Engineering in my final two years, extensive practical work formed part of the main course, culminating in a year-long project in the fourth year. I worked with the Bridge Assessment team, who were developing techniques for assessing bridges that needed to cope with trucks of ever-increasing weight: they were trying to predict the actual strength of the structures, often significantly higher than that to which they were designed. My task was to investigate some unexpected results in an earlier project, which proved to be an interesting and worthwhile mixture of theory, research and experiment, including the destructive testing of a number of concrete beams.
Engineering is certainly one of the more intensive subjects at Cambridge, but employers recognise this: the numerate, practical, hard-working graduates that the Department produces are highly sought after by many industries. Despite the demands of the course, I had plenty of time for College life, including rowing, magazine editing and a stint on the JCR (Junior Combination Room) committee.
At Arup, I joined one of the building design groups, where I have worked ever since, apart from one year getting experience on a construction site. Every project has had challenges that have required me to ignore the rule books and think back to the first principles that I learned at Cambridge: for example, how to make a tall tower comfortable for its occupants in high winds, or how to 'isolate' a theatre from its foundations so that it is not affected by an earthquake. A significant amount of my career has been spent on the Escher-like CCTV Headquarters Tower in Beijing, where I am now based. This building broke virtually every rule.
My task was to take the results of the extensive seismic analysis being carried out by my colleagues, and sit down with the architects to try and understand how we could create a functioning building inside the forest of steel beams, columns and braces required to hold it up. We spent the first month coming up against a seemingly unsolvable problem every day, but eventually we had developed a working scheme. Once again, my general engineering knowledge helped me to understand the problems faced by other parts of the design team, and come up with appropriate solutions.