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Graduate awards: Future faces of excellence

This year’s Graduate Awards winners are already showing exceptional levels of leadership and ability, using their passion for civil engineering to inspire young people and to create a sustainable future for all.

Sophie McPhillips

Social conscience: Sophie McPhillips is driven by a desire to help others

The 2014 graduate of the year is Atkins’ water engineer Sophie McPhillips, with structural engineer Camilla Nicholson also from Atkins coming a close second, followed by Amey geotechnical engineer Monica Steele in third place.

With a record 130 entries submitted, of which 28% were female, the top three awards winners received their prizes at One, Great George Street on 3 December. Mike Frazer (Amey), Richard Lebon (Mott MacDonald) and John Donaghy (Aecom) were highly commended by the judges and also received prizes. All six finalists will share in the £4,000 in prize money and McPhillips will have the opportunity to meet with construction minister Nick Boles.

Ahead of the awards ceremony, the finalists were grilled for 30 minutes by a judging panel made up of 19 representatives from leading civil engineering ­organisations.

Flying in from the Gambia to attend the judging day, the judges were bowled over by McPhillps’ enthusiasm, technical knowledge and first class communication skills and she scored exceptionally high marks in all criteria.

Atkins graduate water engineer McPhillips is currently representing the Engineers Without Borders charity in Africa where she is working with a non-governmental organisation to provide clean, safe water to 10,000 people in rural villages.

Judges commented that she had a depth of understanding about the industry,which was exceptional for her years, was a genuinely enthusiastic individual who answered questions posed by the judges very intelligently.

Inspiring presentation

They also commented that her presentation was inspiring and demonstrated real passion for how civil engineering can have a positive impact. “She was able to connect high level issues faced by society with very practical solutions,” commented one judge.

In her presentation, McPhillips described her reaction to discovering that many of the village hand water pumps she had visited in the Gambia had been poorly installed: “I vowed to fix it and to create a fair deal for the people living in poverty”.

A Bristol University graduate and feminist, she says that the construction industry needs more feminists to encourage more women to join and that, given the opportunity, she would also urge prime minister David Cameron to support feminism to demonstrate the importance of equality.

Second placed Camilla Nicholson was also described by judges as “inspiring” and “engaging” with considerable commercial awareness and showing genuine interest and ability in her day-to day-job. “On a clear trajectory for success,” commented one judge. Nicholson presented the challenges faced by the industry with remarkable insight. The Imperial College graduate’s passion for diversity - that engineers should “design for a population, not a demographic” - and her ideas to include lectures about inspiring engineers to motivate undergraduates were extremely well received by the judges.

Third placed Monica Steele was described as passionate about civil engineering and sincere in her endeavour to “find solutions to global challenges.” The judges praised her determination for becoming a graduate civil engineer, having initially worked as an engineering technician. Her presentation was inspiring, clear, and concise and she answered questions constructively.

Amey graduate engineer Mike Frazer won a high commendation. He was described as an “irresistible communicator” with lots of ideas and lots of enthusiasm. Judges were impressed by his thoughts on how to increase the profile of civil engineering and inspire the next generation of engineers by engaging with the public through social media and television.

Another High Commendation went to Mott MacDonald graduate engineer Richard Lebon. Judges praised his presentation for demonstrating the importance of good communication and teamwork to deliver a project successfully. The panel also admired Lebon’s sense of “global responsibility” and passion for how UK engineering skills can improve the lives of those living in poverty around the world.

Aecom graduate engineer John Donaghy also won a high commendation. He impressed judges with his passion for the way innovations in engineering design can bring about improvements to society and with the progress he had made already to spread his ideas.

2014 grad awards logo


Sophie McPhillips

Sophie McPhillips

Driven by the desire to help people less fortunate than herself, Sophie McPhillips volunteered as a teaching assistant at a school in Kolkata, India. Still at sixth form college at the time, the experience taught her that she was more interested in physically building educational establishments than teaching the children within them. “I kept asking if I could go and help in the village where they were building a school … I was sure there was something else I could do to help people - something more practical and problem-oriented”.

Getting hold of the ICE’s Little Book of Civil Engineering helped McPhillips understand the challenges of population growth and climate change and the challenges of a career in civil engineering which could tackle both.

Working for Atkins on sustainable urban drainage schemes for a year prior to studying at Bristol also cemented her interest in water engineering.

While at Bristol, this ICE and Atkins QUEST scholar was awarded the University’s prize for contributing to the faculty and lives of other students.

She also received the Bristol Outstanding Plus award for demonstrating outstanding ability in leadership and team working and used funding from the award to help set up a social enterprise to improve recycling habits.

McPhillips is currently in the middle of a three-month placement for EWB in the Gambia working with non-governmental organisation Africa Water Enterprises to provide clean, safe water to 10,000 people in rural villages.

“This will be done with traditional borehole setups, with hand or solar-pumps, but crucially, we’ll be concentrating on setting up small scale businesses to manage them, run
by local people known as village water entrepreneurs, she explains.

The hope is that this approach will ensure sustainable water supply in these villages for many years to come.”

Before leaving for the Gambia, McPhillips was involved with managing the budget on an £8M project to replace 9,000 flow and pressure data loggers across Severn Trent Water’s distribution network, while coordinating the installation of around 400 new ones. McPhillips has clearly packed a lot into her career so far and has been able to do so by fearlessly grabbing opportunities.

“Water engineering is about making water supply more efficient and better for the consumer. It’s got a people element to it. You can relate to it. I also feel strongly about international development, simply because billions of people are still living in extreme poverty, and engineers and their skills are key in the fight to end that.”

McPhillips also works tirelessly to inspire school students, particularly girls, to understand the exciting career opportunities in civil engineering.

  • Atkins graduate civil engineer on secondment to Severn Trent and currently on placement with Engineers without Borders in the Gambia
  • Bristol University, MEng Civil Engineering (1st Class honours)


Camilla Nicholson

Camilla Nicholson

The young Camilla Nicholson considered being a detective, an actress, an archaeologist and an architect before realising at the age of 17 that her skills were perfectly suited to civil ­engineering.

Although a keen Lego and K’nex enthusiast, Nicholson only found out about the grown-up career which uses such creative and problem-solving skills while researching what to study at university.

Nicholson’s passion for civil engineering grew during her undergraduate years at Imperial College fuelled by her interest in maths and physics.

While studying, she put in the hours for a first class MEng qualification, and also packed in three or four rehearsals a week for termly drama productions, fundraising thousands of pounds for charity and leading the programme of events for the university’s civil engineering society.

While at university, Nicholson also two summers of work placement with consultant Ramboll in its offshore wind team. Armed with a first class dissertation on floating wind turbines - which involved designing and constructing a scale model floating wind turbine, intensive tank testing and the use of an optical motion tracking system to record data - she has pursued a career in the energy sector.

Now working for consultant Atkins, Nicholson is part of a team which assesses offshore oil and gas structures and produces solutions for their upgrade or refurbishment. “It is fast paced work with a steep learning curve, which I love,” she says.

Her interest in drama is still part of her extra-curricular interests, and has given her the bonus of being a competent and articulate communicator at work and when visiting schools to promote engineering to young people.

Nicholson is currently the graduate representative for energy at Atkins, representing over 300 graduates across the UK. Along with seven other graduates representing other disciplines, she works with the firm’s learning and development department which inputs into Atkins’ graduate development programme. Outcomes of her involvement have included organising a two-day graduate induction event for 450 staff and developing a UK-wide graduate forum for oil and gas.

Nicholson is also a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network ambassador and gives career talks at schools. Her experience is that school children still consider mathematics and physics as subjects which have no real purpose in the real world.

She expresses her views on her profession thus: “Engineering” translates to “make a difference”, “affect change”, “problem solve”, not “man’s work”, “grubby”, “head-in-a-car-bonnet”“.
Nicholson is passionate about attracting younger people into the profession, especially women. “My career as a civil engineer has always felt somewhat like a hobby to me. How many people can say that?

As a school student, you might never dream of finding a career that is rewarding, stable, exciting and ever-fascinating.”

  • Graduate structural engineer, Atkins
  • Imperial College, MEng Civil Engineering (1st class honours)

Third place

Monica Steele

Monica Steele

Civil engineering was not an obvious career choice for Amey assistant engineer Monica Steele. Although she had a healthy talent for maths and an interest in science subjects from a young age, it wasn’t until she found out that civil engineering was about, “improving people’s lives and the natural environment for future generations,” as she says, that she decided to pursue a career in the profession.

Steele considers civil engineers as being pivotal in tackling global challenges such as population growth, food supply and clean water, pollution and energy demand: “As engineers it is our responsibility to apply the knowledge of science and technology to real problems and deliver practical solutions.”

While at university, it was geotechnics which Steele found the most interesting and this is the focus of her role at Amey. Unlike many in her profession, Steele has taken the longer, more scenic route to get to where she is now. In her words: “My first job in the industry was a part-time technician role in a large office of a major UK consultancy. Before too long, my enthusiasm and ability shone through and my tea making duties were a thing of the past. I went on to master AutoCAD and managing contract drawings for a number of major and minor highway schemes.

“Today, six years on, I’ve graduated with a first class master’s degree in civil engineering and have been promoted to assistant engineer within a year of graduation. I’ve had the opportunity to travel for four months to other UK offices for specialist geotechnics training and I’m currently leading geotechnical designs in a variety of challenging projects throughout the UK.

Steele is currently part of Amey’s Belfast office geotechnical design team and is working on the M8, M73, M74 motorway improvement schemes for Transport Scotland. She works closely with the structures team to deliver foundations solutions for highways structures.

Since graduating, Steele has designed highway structures for 14 projects throughout England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. They are either under construction or will break ground in the next 12 months. She explains further: “As the only geotechnical engineer with design experience in the Belfast office I have been encouraged and empowered to take on significant responsibility for design packages. I have written specifications for ground investigations, supervised geotechnical and environmental site investigations, processed site investigation data through to completion of detailed designs and mentored a number of new additions to the team. I have designed retaining walls, bridge abutments, spread and pile foundations and earthworks.

Outside engineering, Steele plays rugby for Ballinahinch Ladies and recently ran the Belfast Marathon. She also still finds time to visit schools to promote engineering to “inspire the next generation of engineers to think bigger and take on the myriad of challenges we face as a society”.

  • Amey assistant engineer
  • University of Ulster Jordanstown MEng Civil Engineering (1st class honours)
  • Belfast Metropolitan College HND Civil Engineering
  • Belfast Metropolitan College BTEC Manufacturing ­Engineering
  • Belfast Metropolitan College City & Guilds in Computer Aided Design (2D) CAD

Highly commended

Mike Frazer

Mike Frazer

With accolades in broadcasting and film-making as well as in civil engineering, Amey graduate engineer Mike Fraser is a rare breed who combines the creative skills of an engaging performer with the technical abilities of a highways designer.

Both streams of this Surrey University graduate’s talents have yet to cross, but he hopes that the platform of the NCE graduate awards will allow him to bring these two worlds closer together to boost public understanding and appreciation of civil engineering. “I would want to push the envelope on the way that civil engineers are portrayed in the media,” says Frazer.

Although actively involved with promoting engineering in schools, he considers his personal mission is to promote it using the media. “It isn’t just about placing a few enthusiastic engineers in schools - we need to engage and communicate what we do, rather than [only] making [it into] the press when something fails or our works cause added congestion”.

He already possesses much of the experience and ambition to do just that. While studying at Surrey, Fraser helped start up an internet-based television station where he produced and presented, cookery shows, comedies and documentaries.

His day job with Amey currently involves working on a highways improvement scheme in North Farm, Tunbridge Wells. He has been involved with this project from design development and through procurement and is now part of the site supervision team, acting on the behalf of Kent County Council.

  • Amey graduate engineer
  • Surrey University, MEng Civil Engineering (2:1 with honours)

Highly commended

Richard Lebon

Richard Lebon

“Infrastructure does a lot to solve humanitarian problems,” says Mott MacDonald graduate highways design engineer Richard Lebon. With three year’s experience in the field of managing the effects of disease, conflict and natural disasters in the developing world, Lebon’s comments come with real conviction.

An interest in international development and travelling led him initially to study geography at Cambridge where he took the opportunity to work for two months in Uganda and six weeks in Nepal. While at Cambridge he was also expedition coordinator for his friends Rob Gauntlett and James Hooper’s successful bid to become the youngest Britons to climb Mount Everest, and later to travel from Pole to Pole.

After graduating from Cambridge in 2008, Lebon’s interest in humanitarian work continued as he spent three years as a logistician and project manager responsible for building health centres in Congo, cholera camps in Haiti and one-room houses in Pakistan. Such experiences spurred Lebon to return to academia to study for an MSC in civil engineering at Southampton University.

Now with Mott MacDonald, Lebon has already spent eight months as a project coordinator for an urban transport masterplan to bring bus rapid transit to Nairobi, Kenya, and is currently working on drainage plans for a new 14-lane orbital highway in Doha, Qatar.

  • Mott MacDonald graduate highways design engineer
  • Trinity College, Cambridge University, MA Geography (2:1 with honours)
  • Southampton University, MSc Civil Engineering (Distinction)

Highly commended

John Donaghy

John Donaghy

Understanding the relationship between civil engineering and the challenges faced by society on a local and global level enthuses
22 year old graduate civil engineer John Donaghy. It is also what is propelling this creative and determined Salford University graduate to do amazing things in his career.

“Civil engineers must have a passion for the people and the environment in which they work for their designs to succeed. In doing so, innovation will occur naturally with new techniques and processes brought about by a passion to do what is best for the community,” he says.

Not one to just absorb knowledge without taking action, he has also established an online platform where he can express his views to the civil engineering -

Donaghy’s interest in civil engineering matured from playing with Lego at home to designing bridges and seeing them built on site after he contacted a civil engineer who had given careers talks at his brother’s school.

Work experience under the guidance of the friendly engineer near his home in the Paris district of Fontainebleau, cemented Donaghy’s interest in civil engineering when he helped design and, then later saw the construction of a small bridge on a primary school site.

Donaghy is now part of the team at Aecom’s Manchester office, responsible for managing new rail projects.

As well, he is an ambassador with the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Network

  • Graduate civil engineer, Aecom
  • Salford University, MEng Civil engineering (1st class honours)

Awards sponsors

The 2014 NCE Graduate Awards are sponsored by: Amey, Balfour Beatty, Ferrovial Agroman,Heathrow Airport, the ICE, Laing O’Rourke, Mace, Mott MacDonald, MWH, Murphy, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Ramboll, Thames Tideway Tunnel, Topcon and Transport for London.


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