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Q&A | 'Notre Dame made me want to be a structural engineer'

Rossella Nicolin’s interest in engineering started with a visit to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Here she describes a typical day and her most interesting projects.

Describe your job

I am a principal structural engineer in Aecom’s sports structures team in London, specialising in large sports venues and stadium projects. Since joining the company I have taken on responsibility for a number of high-profile projects, including major international stadia in Northern Ireland and Saudi Arabia. My job includes all stages of technical design delivery for large projects, from inception through to construction. Building relationships with clients and architects is an important part of my role, as coordination and collaboration across the design team are key to successful project delivery. I also take time to mentor the less experienced members of our team.

Rossella Nicolin

Rossella Nicolin

Rossella Nicolin

What do you most look forward to on a Monday morning?

It is particularly exciting when a new project comes into the office and I can start sketching out ideas on a blank sheet of paper. Finding a technical solution to a specific problem on a project is also very rewarding.

Why does your job matter?

Structural engineers are critical to realising the architect’s vision for a building and have a leading role in the decision-making process about a scheme. Engineers are not just ‘fixers’, we have to be creative when solving problems so that a project is both visually beautiful and technically sound. The role of the engineer is becoming increasingly important in today’s era of integrated design using BIM and other technologies.

Tell us about being shortlisted for the Young Woman Engineer of the Year award.

As a woman working in a predominantly male industry, it is important that I act as a role model to other women entering the industry as I progress in my career. I was really proud to be nominated as a finalist for the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s (IET’s) Young Woman Engineer of Year award in December. Recent statistics from the IET’s Skills and Demand in Industry survey showed that women represent only 9% of the engineering workforce. Recognising and celebrating female engineers has therefore never been so important. It is essential that role models come forward to encourage women into the engineering profession.

What specific skills have you learned through the job?

Working as a structural engineer has taught me how to apply the technical skills I gained at university to real-life projects. Knowledge of the theory is of course essential, but on-the-job working has given me an understanding of how to give designs ‘constructability’, as well as a commercial focus. An amazing solution is not always buildable, so learning how to design within a project’s constraints is a key skill.

What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on?

I’ve worked on some really exciting new stadium projects, including Northern Ireland’s national football stadium Windsor Park, as well as the Al Wakrah 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar Stadium. But I also feel passionately about the role of engineers in helping to prepare for and respond to natural disasters. Last year I was the only UK-based structural engineer to take part in an Aecom-led mission for the New Zealand government to provide Nepal’s government with technical support following the country’s devastating earthquake in April 2015. Assisting with the reconstruction programme for five weeks in Kathmandu is certainly a career highlight.

Rossella Nicolin

Rossella Nicolin

Rossella was nominated as a finalist for the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s (IET’s) Young Woman Engineer of Year award in December 2015

How does your role impact on the built environment?

Engineers develop the solutions that allow iconic buildings to become a reality. We are creative problem-solvers with the ability to bring innovative, sustainable and efficient approaches to projects. Our work impacts the lives of so many people; they live and work in and around what we’re creating.

How do you explain what you do to your friends and family?

I describe what I do as shaping cool buildings, such as stadiums, and making them stand up. I also often find myself pointing out the long-span roof structures of venues when watching football games on TV!

How did you get into the job?

Being an engineer is the perfect job for me as it combines my love of art and science. A visit to Notre Dame in Paris during a school trip was when I first realised I wanted to design buildings, I was truly inspired by the creative use of the pillars and other structural forms that were supporting the building.

I trained as both an architect and an engineer, gaining a Bachelor of Architecture at the University of Venice in Italy before studying for my Master’s in civil engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, USA in 2007. I first worked as a graduate engineer in New York before moving to the UK in 2010. I started at Aecom in 2014 where I have worked on a range of iconic projects all over the world. I’ve always been interested in earthquake-resistant design and chose to gain my professional engineer licence (the US equivalent to chartered status) in California so that it could include seismic design. Since then I have further developed my expertise in seismic design and at Aecom I help to coordinate our global capabilities in this field, often giving internal and external technical talks.

“It is essential that role models come forward to encourage women into the engineering profession,”

Rossella Nicolin, Aecom

How far removed from the traditional role of the civil (structural) engineer do you think your job is now?

Nowadays the role of structural engineer is a far more integrated part of the project design team, typically sitting around the same table with the architect and other disciplines to make key decisions from the beginning of the project. The discipline is involved in and often leads decision-making about how best to achieve design intent.

How do you see your role changing in next five years?

The continuous development of BIM and parametric design has given structural engineering a bigger role and creative influence on building projects, with engineers taking more of a lead in coordinating the different disciplines and technical aspects of a project. I think this is likely to continue growing as these types of technologies advance.

What is the logical career progression for you?

I would like to continue to develop my technical knowledge of long-span structures and seismic design, and also progress in my career at Aecom with the aim of taking on a leadership role. I remain dedicated to responding to and preparing for natural disasters, and would one day like to lead structural engineering consulting projects for organisations such as the UN and World Bank.

What’s going to be the most exciting thing about it then?

The most exciting thing happening at the moment is the advancement of new technologies. I look forward to adapting and changing how we work as an industry so that we become even more efficient and sustainable, but without losing our creativity.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about becoming an engineer?

Don’t be put off by the stereotypical view that an engineer is a ‘fixer’. An engineer must solve problems in a creative way. We are technical artists. I would also advise that it is important to have a dream in mind and to follow clear milestones, as well as to study hard. I would love to encourage more women into the industry. I have never felt that my gender has held me back – a rewarding career in the industry is open to anyone who possesses the right skills.

What would you be if you weren’t in this role?

When I was younger I was always interested in discovering things and learning about the past so perhaps I would be an archaeologist. I also love to sing and am a member of a choir. I would have loved to be an opera singer.


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