Gemma James

Gemma James – Civil Structures Engineer

Engineering passion from an early age

‘Engineering’ (sadly) isn’t a subject you can get a real taste for at school. I was fortunate in that my secondary school had an electronics department and electronics was part of the curriculum during my early education. I enjoyed the subject and joined a lunchtime electronics club where I spent time soldering and making various gadgets. My friend and I made a device called ‘Cloudburst’ which fitted to a washing line and could tell you when it was raining and when your clothes were dry. We entered it into the Young Engineer for Britain competition in 1998 and won 1st prize in our age group. Our achievement gained a lot of publicity in local newspapers, as well as an appearance on Blue Peter! It was these experiences that inspired me to go on to study electronics at GCSE, and provoked thoughts that a career in engineering might be right for me. I discovered that physics and maths A-levels were required to take an engineering degree, and since these were subjects that I enjoyed, I took them along with my favourite subjects, French and German. Sadly there just wasn’t time for Electronics. 

My path to a profession in engineering 

In Sixth Form I got involved with the Engineering Education Scheme and went on a Headstart course to Imperial College London where I discovered more about the various engineering disciplines and options for study. Having seen my older sister graduate in Modern Languages without a clear career path, I decided to do something that would lead to a guaranteed job at the end of my studies, and make all the hard work seem worthwhile. I applied for mainly mechanical/electrical engineering degree courses, based on my limited experience of engineering at school. Fortunately, I obtained the grades for my first choice institution, University of Cambridge, and I went on to study for a general engineering degree. I say ‘fortunately’ because I later discovered mechanical engineering was not for me, and I eventually graduated with a degree in civil, structural and environmental engineering.

Engineering as a rewarding career  

I currently work as a civil structures engineer with Arup in London, specialising largely in bridge design. Working for an international consultancy means that I am fortunate enough to work on a wide variety of projects, both in the UK and overseas. I have completed three assignments in Australia; and am also involved with the charity Engineers for Overseas Development (EFOD) that undertakes development projects in rural Africa. It is through this charity that I have really realised my passion for engineering; I have travelled to Ghana and also to Uganda on three occasions to supervise the construction of an orphanage and schools that a team of young engineers, including myself, have designed in our free time. I have seen first-hand the benefits that engineers, and not just structural engineers like me, can make to society in terms of contributing to sustainable infrastructure and improving living conditions and quality of life for people who are less fortunate than us. Our skills are equally important in the UK: we design the infrastructure that keeps this country moving and contribute to building a sustainable society, present and future.

I know that the experiences that led to me choosing an engineering career are not typical. I was lucky that they led me to choose a career in engineering and that my teachers recognised that it might be a degree I would be interested in. My advice to those considering a career in engineering would be to try and obtain work experience with local firms to get a real taste and feel for what type of engineering interests you the most. Get in contact with Professional Institutions like the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institution of Civil Engineers to learn about the schemes they run for people interested in a career in engineering and to obtain advice on educational routes to achieving your goal.