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Profile of Sakthy Selvakumaran

Sakthy is a PhD student in the Laing O'Rouke Centre for Construction Engineering and Technology


How did you get in to engineering?

I was lucky to have some good role models around me. It was my father’s career that showed me the direct link between engineering, humanitarian development and an international career. He studied Civil Engineering and became a water and wastewater engineer, working in state and private sectors in developed and developing contexts across the globe in Singapore, Sri Lanka, Canada and the UK.

I went through the university route, gaining an engineering degree from Cambridge University (2006-2010) and have since worked as a civil and structural engineer across multiple roles, continents and cultures.

The full story on why I went into engineering:

What are you doing now and what are you plans for the future?

Project highlights so far include inspection design and assessment of various rail bridges owned by Network Rail, the design of various UK highway bridges and civil infrastructure, the design of a tunnel and approach structures in Gibraltar, and leading the design of ExCeL Bridge as part of the Crossrail Station at Custom House (London). I was later part of the site team that installed this 34m long steel-concrete composite footbridge in 48 hours over a railway. In 2013 I joined the Engineering Excellence Group of Laing O’Rourke, working on developing new design solutions and technologies to change the way infrastructure is designed, constructed and maintained.

Time lapse of ExCeL Footbridge installation:

My career has allowed me to live and work internationally in the UK, Canada, Sri Lanka, Peru and Spain, and I hope to be doing more work internationally in the future.

All of these experiences have led me back to Cambridge University in 2015 to undertake a PhD in the remote monitoring of bridges and other civil infrastructure using satellites. Through gaining skills and knowledge in the application of technology and big data my ambition is to use this research to deal work on global issues – working on remote monitoring technology that can be applied in disaster zones through to revolutionising the way we interact with tunnels bridges and transport infrastructure in the UK.

What motivates you?

I became a civil engineer because it gives me the skills to work on tackling global challenges, as well as making a difference to local communities and to the lives of the people I have met.

What has helped your career – fellowships, support from the Department, inspirational teachers and colleagues?

There are a number of things that have helped my career and these include everything from the strong support of my family, to great teaching from the Department, to meeting inspirational people and those who have pointed out opportunities along the way. There has also been a significant amount of financial support that have made many opportunities possible. These include a QUEST Scholarship from the Institution of Civil Engineers to help pay my undergraduate degree tuition fees, travel grants from colleges and the university to travel to places such as Peru, Israel and the USA, prize awards, free access to career-developing training courses…the list goes on!

How have you overcome challenges and knockbacks in your career?

I have certainly had challenges and knockbacks in my career, some of them associated with the lack of diversity in industry. I have suffered discrimination (indirect or otherwise) at different times as well as direct harassment issues. These have ended up taking their toll on my job role. I am a confident and direct person professionally, but I tried to avoid the trouble associated with these issues through fear of being further isolated and losing out from not being in the same club as everyone else. What terrifies me now is watching some of the young women I supervise start their careers, and thinking that I cannot let them go through the same things. For that reason, I am actively involved in trying to get people to talk about and address workplace culture issues, and generally try and share my experiences to help others and motivate companies to change. It is not worth staying silent and being unhappy!

How have you managed to balance family life and other interests with your career?

I try and drag many of my interests (and family and friends) into engineering-related things and my career!

For example, I’ve always been interested in international development. This began in my role as National Executive for Engineers Without Borders UK whilst I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, and has been continued through my ongoing role in charities such as EcoSwell in Peru and through a Vodafone World of Difference Award which funded a role for me at Engineers Without Borders UK. I dragged this into my university work when I developed my own Masters research project proposal with Practical Action (ITDG – Soluciones Prácticas) looking at micro-hydroelectric power schemes in remote rural areas of Peru. This work involved investigating sites around Andean Regions of Peru followed by research back in Cambridge.

I really enjoy working with young people, and am a STEMNET and ICE ambassador, a youth work volunteer, as well as part of the ICE Inspirations Panel. I also developed and ran an education initiative with Serious About Youth (SAY) called ‘Construkt’ on behalf of the ICE. I’d love to see the growth and further development of the scheme to enable young people to better understand different career pathways, and I am engaging with additional companies and institutions to encourage them to become involved.

I have always loved art and being creative, and this year the Dyson Centre in the Engineering Department granted me some money to get undergraduate engineers involved in designing and building engineering sculptures!

Construkt scheme: featured in New Civil Engineer magazine

Do you have any advice for women who are considering pursuing a career in Engineering?

People thinking about a career in engineering should realise that there are so many types of roles, many ways to learn, and many career paths…you could be working in a design office or out on constructions sites, in the town you grew up in or halfway round the world. Each engineer has their own preferences and personalities. Most importantly, the stereotypes are wrong - there is no such thing as a “typical engineer”!