Womens Engineering Society: Inspiring women as engineers, scientists and technical leaders

Athena Livesey

Athena Livesey

Athena LiveseyAt 14, I knew I loved the physical side of Geography; volcanoes, earthquakes, rivers and mountains and I enjoyed being outdoors. I enjoyed arithmetic and I enjoyed putting on a lab coat and goggles to experiment and solve problems in chemistry. I joined a college where I could study all three subjects and I had an incredibly inspirational teacher who used to tell us his pre-teacher career stories when he was an Engineering Geologist. He helped me choose my degree options and told me my Engineering Geology degree from Portsmouth would allow me to achieve whatever I wanted because the opportunities are out there and I have the abilities and enthusiasm to embrace them.

I completed my degree with flying colours because I thoroughly enjoyed the subject, I had an appetite for learning and I wanted to understand as much as possible and master the fundamentals. I had a balanced life style and joined the rock climbing and canoe club where I made lifelong friends, including my husband!

After graduating, I worked in the UK for a year after which I was offered a 3-month secondment to Australia. I jumped at the opportunity and discovered a whole new approach to engineering. I enjoyed the experience so much that I emigrated to Australia for 6 exciting years! Upon returning to the UK I soon sort professional accreditation and became a UK and European Chartered Engineering Geologist.  By seizing those opportunities in my ten years I have travelled from the UK to Australia and across the Arabian Peninsula, creating a global network and leaving behind a legacy of impressive projects that have helped millions of people improve their daily lives.  I have made significant contributions to eight highway schemes, two ports, one railway and five tunnels!

This job is never boring; geology does not have the same properties in all directions like concrete. Soils have formed overtime millions of years to become rock, and those rocks have experienced the force of the Earth by moving around the planet on tectonic plates over millions of years which have been subjected to hot and cold environments, have been flooded and lifted kilometers in the air, and have been eroded by wind, water and ice.  Not to forget, their recent history I being excavated by all the human activities which has changed the surface such as mining, quarrying and tunneling.

I work in near surface geology. So generally within a 100m below ground level but I have designed tunnels as deep as 350m below ground level. No two days are the same at work. I get to work in a range of industries from Power, Infrastructure, Deep basements, Property and Aviation. I work with a range of disciplines such as; civil engineering, structural engineering, hydrology, hydrogeology, heritage, biodiversity, archaeology and environment. There are also supporting staff in this industry such as CADD and micro station technicians. Collaborative working is key to a successful delivery of project and I soon realised the soft skills are as, if not more important than the technical skills.  There is a role for every personality and interest in the civil engineering sector.

In my role, I have to be flexible and dynamic as I can be outside, wearing safety clothing such as high visibility jackets and steel toe caps, logging the rock core being pulled out the ground to develop an understanding of the ground conditions or I can be on a construction site developing a strategy to remediate mine voids so we can build over the top safely, or digging 20m down to create basement and monitoring any movement in the walls to check the surrounded buildings don’t move. 

Other times, I can be in an office environment, wearing a smart clothes, where I will be leading meetings about how we design solutions to problems such as; how do we strengthen ground, which oozes through your fingers? Do we use a big hoover to such out all the water aka Vacuum Consolidation? Do we try and accelerate the process of ageing from several million years to a year? Other problems may be how do we lie cables to the other side of an estuary to transfer power to remote villages? Do we microbore, tunnel or use overhead pylons? The challenges are endless, and I work as part of a team of men and women, to optioneer, develop and design a best for project solution to solve these interesting real-life problems.  

My advice to anyone wanting to get into engineering is that it is not all about science and maths. We have to communicate the problem and explain our solutions. We write quite a lot of reports and I strongly advise those people who enjoy science and maths to also pay attention in English classes and read for pleasure.

I also recommend getting along to some local STEM events and asking teachers to invite local industry into schools so you can hear about our experiences first hand and meet a real engineer! Look around for industry days and work experience opportunities in multi-disciplinary firms where you can move around departments and get a taste for different roles and subjects to see which ones interest you the most. Research the engineering industry by watching videos, reading articles to find out about different roles you could fulfill.

My career has taken me to places I could only have imagined when I did my A-levels. For the past ten years, I have worked across the globe, in a range of climates, environments and cultures. My degree in Engineering Geology has opened doors to places that were closed before I had my university degree. Ive had several mentor throughout my career, who could advice on how to tackle technical problems but also help me decided on the right career choices for me. Those mentors opened doors for me and gave me the opportunity to prove myself. Seek out a mentor at the start of your career and don’t forget when you get an opportunity, grab it with both hands! You never know where it will lead! Hopefully somewhere wonderful! 


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