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GE jobfile

Name: Helen Smith


Occupation: geoenvironmental engineer and director, Southern Testing Laboratories

Route to the job: When I graduated from Imperial College in 1984, I intended to be a mining geologist. This was not a great move during a worldwide mining recession and at a time when the only companies actively mining and exploring were fundamentally sexist. I switched to engineering geology after experiencing gold exploration in Scotland with BP Minerals, geochemistry with the British Geological Survey in London and biostratigraphy at the BP Research Centre in Middlesex. I joined Southern Testing Laboratories in 1987 for a year's industrial experience in geotechnical engineering before returning to Imperial College to do a masters. My dissertation thesis was in landfill gas, which turned out to be one of the hot topics of the decade, and I was well placed to take advantage of the dramatic increase in geoenvironmental work. In 1997 I was made a director of Southern Testing with particular responsibility for contaminated land. I have taken opportunities to interact with and learn from the wider geotechnical/environmental community, through committee membership of the Association of Geoenvironmental Specialists and involvement with the Environmental Industries Commission.

Typical day: I spend most of the week in the office, planning site investigations, organising site staff, liaising with regulators, writing reports and keeping track of all our validation work. There is also a fair amount of general fire-fighting. I also contribute to the management of the firm and help to train new graduates. This is punctuated by the occasional day of peace and tranquillity out on site. I am fortunate in being able to juggle motherhood with a demanding career, working from home when necessary and working a reduced week.

Highs and lows: Highs include working with a dedicated and enthusiastic team and winning an argument with science and common sense. Lows are the endless repetition and paperwork required by some regulators and the unrealistic deadlines of some clients.

Ambitions: To build on the company's growth, taking account of technological developments and regulatory changes.

Advice: Start from a sound basis with a good degree in civil engineering or a fundamental science such as geology. Give up all aspirations of wealth.

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