My Engineering Career? A Series of Disasters!

Posted by Professor Tiziana Rossetto on 30 May 2018

My Engineering Career? A Series of Disasters!

“I want to become a civil engineer because ever since I was a little girl I have been fascinated by bridges and Lego…”. This is what I wrote on my UCAS application, and have seen many similar statements in the applications of others entering an engineering education…..in short, all untrue!

The truth is I didn’t know much about what engineering was, (we are not taught this at school), but I liked maths and physics (and art) and so why not!  At the time, my father, (an engineer turned antique dealer), gave me the following advice: “If you don’t know what you want to do, an engineering degree will give you a way of thinking through problems and designing solutions that is unique, and which you can apply to any profession”. He was right!

Many years down the line I am thankful I made this choice as it has indeed armed me with problem-solving skills, has allowed me to express my creativity, brought me to meet many interesting people and exposed me to some incredible experiences….and I have stuck with engineering!

So why is my career a series of disasters?

Well, I am a structural engineer with specialism in earthquake engineering….which is not engineering an earthquake (we leave that to Nature). What I do and research is how to design and strengthen buildings and infrastructure such that they preserve life (ie still stand up) or preserve function in the case of an earthquake. This has taken me to visit many sites of real earthquake events, to study the performance of the built environment, and my career can almost be mapped onto a number of significant disasters.

The 2001 Bhuj, India earthquake was the first disaster I experienced. I had recently started my PhD and the extent of devastation I saw, the collapsed high rise buildings, the bridge damage due to soil liquefaction, the loss of cultural heritage, branded in me the importance of my role as an engineer to ensure disasters like this didn’t happen again. However, the aspect of the disaster that most deeply marked me, was the incredible resilience of the people affected. Children were playing in the rubble as parents were rescuing building materials from the sites of their damaged houses.

Until then I had seen civil engineering as just being about buildings, steel and concrete, roads and bridges etc. After Bhuj I realised that it is not. It is about the living conditions, livelihoods and safety of the people the built environment serves.

It was with this in mind that when I joined UCL I set up EPICentre: the Earthquake and People Interaction Centre. This research Centre, now the largest in the UK for engineering against natural disasters. It brings together different kinds of engineers with earth scientists, statisticians, social scientists, urban planners and psychologists to study the resilience of infrastructure and communities to earthquakes and other natural hazards.

Across the EPICentre team and with support from EPSRC we have studied almost every major earthquake and tsunami in the last 15 years, each leading us towards new research. Some examples:

Visiting Sri Lanka and Thailand after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, brought me to apply my earthquake engineering knowledge and methods to this new hazard, and has resulted in a collaboration with HR Wallingford that has seen us recreate tsunami in a laboratory and develop new methods for assessing buildings for tsunami actions.  More information about Professor Tiziana Rossetto's tsunami research work with Wallingford is available on You Tube.

The 2005 Pakistan earthquake inspired work on using remote sensing and satellite images to look at damage in remote areas, and further research into building assessment and strengthening.

The 2008 Wenchuan, China and 2009 L’Aquila, Italy earthquakes started a stream of research into earthquake risk perception and its role in disaster preparedness. This research has recently led to the design and implementation of an intervention that has been successfully applied in sample communities in Seattle, USA, and Izmir, Turkey, to improve earthquake and fire preparedness in the home.

A woman engineer…NOT a disaster!

I love my research and have fantastic colleagues and students with whom I embark on exciting work. Being a female engineer has, I think, helped with the collaborative and inter-disciplinary nature of the work I do. Though engineering is a male-dominated environment, this has changed over the years and more women are now in the profession. At UCL I am fortunate to be in an environment that promotes diversity and this diversity of cultures, religions and gender enriches my work life.

Has being a female engineer always been easy? No. But no-one’s career is, and success is built on hard work and not gender. The one thing I have found hard is the lack of senior female role models to look up to. However, again, this is changing and many more senior female engineers now exist. More importantly, more exist that have families and manage a work life balance.

Is having a family and maintaining an engineering career difficult? Yes, and let’s be honest, it does slow our career down a bit. But this is common to females in all careers. I have two small children and, for example, have had to reduce the amount of travel I do and work hours (nb I am more efficient during those hours). But it is my life choice, and having a family is incredibly rewarding; my children inspire me every day, as well as remind me that life is not all about work.

A short video featuring Professor Tiziana Rossetto’s research on Earthquake Engineering at UCL, is available on the EPSRC website.

Year of Engineering

2018 is the Year of Engineering, and throughout the course of the year the EPSRC blog is exploring how engineering touches upon a number of themes, creativity and inspiration to health and wellbeing.

Author

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Professor Tiziana Rossetto
Job title: Professor in Earthquake Engineering and co-Director of EPICentre
Organisation: UCL

Professor Tiziana is a Professor in Earthquake Engineering and co-Director of EPICentre (www.ucl.ac.uk/epicentre) at University College London.  She is a Fellow of the Institution of Civil engineers, Chair ex-officio of the Society of Earthquake and Civil Engineering Dynamics (SECED, www.seced.org.uk ), an active member of the UK Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team (EEFIT, https://www.istructe.org/resources-centre/technical-topic-areas/eefit  ) and of the Willis Research Network (http://www.willis.com/willisresearchnetwork/ ).