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GE's got talent: interviews with this years' finalists for Young Geotechnical Engineer of the Year

The shortlisted candidates for this year’s GE Young Geotechnical Engineer award are, without exception, talented and enthusiastic, suggesting that the future of the industry is in good hands

Ask any employer what their biggest concerns are for the geotechnics industry as the economy moves out of recession and chances are that one of the answers will be skills. While there may not be a large quantity of engineers readily available, it is clear from this year’s candidates for the GE Young Geotechnical Engineer of the Year category there is no shortage of quality engineers.

GEeditor Claire Smith was joined by judges Campbell Reith, chartered geologist Liz Brown, Transport Scotland head of network maintenance Graham Edmond, Canal and River Trust head of asset management Graham Holland and United Utilities senior project manager Carl Sanders to decide on a winner.

Profiled here are the candidates that the judging panel had to decide between – something that was not an easy task.

To find out who the judges picked as the cream of the crop you will have to wait until all the winners of the GE Awards are revealed on 14 May at the ceremony at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London.

Chris Brown

Chris Brown

Chris Brown, Tata Steel Projects

Tata Steel Projects geotechnical engineer Chris Brown claims his career path was “mapped out from an early age, even as I selected my favourite toys, such as Lego, Meccano and large Tonka trucks”.

He adds: “My passion for designing, fixing and building things has continued from there.”

At 16, while his schoolmates were having fun in the Yorkshire sunshine, Brown spent the Easter and summer holidays working for a contractor to gain experience before going to university. He ended up going back every year for four years, and was sponsored through his masters in civil engineering at Newcastle University.

That site experience included a range of different geotechnical elements, from surcharging, monitoring and floating roads to piling and reinforced earth walls. This experience – combined with enjoyment of the “challenging” geotechnical engineering modules at university – made Brown “excited and extremely highly motivated” by the geotechnical opportunities he experienced on site, and subsequently led to his decision to specialise in geotechnics.

At Tata, Brown is currently working on a variety of projects, including the Reading Station area redevelopment, and energy recovery facilities in Leeds and Wilton. He is also acting as geotechnical lead engineer on the Sheffield to Rotherham Tram Train project – the first of its kind in the UK – that will see Sheffield Super Trams running on national railway infrastructure.


Emily Cross

Emily Cross

Emily Cross, Atkins

Less than three years after graduating from Loughborough University, Emily Cross has already packed in more than many engineers do in twice that time. As soon as she joined consultant Atkins, Cross was seconded into the Galliford Try/Costain/Atkins joint venture working for United Utilities (UU) – a move she says “gave my career a real kick-start”. She was the geotechnical engineer for a wastewater treatment works in Salford, where geotechnical value engineering led to savings of £200,000, and also worked on UU’s £200M Liverpool treatment works.

Last year she applied for a placement on the M25 upgrade, and was seconded as Atkins’ geotechnical design site representative.

“What a change and what a challenge – a new sector, a new team and more than 270km from home,” says Manchester-born Cross, who has just taken a job Atkins’ Warrington office.

Cross says she was first attracted to geotechnical engineering by the problem solving aspect: “You have to take quite a scientific and analytical approach, and you often have to go back to first principles.”

Cross would like to be a project manager, but says: “To manage people you have to have technical knowledge. I’d like to go towards project management, but want to make sure I am developing the technical side.”


Chris Shaw

Chris Shaw

Chris Krechowiecki-Shaw, Atkins

After graduating from Birmingham University, Chris Krechowiecki-Shaw started his career as a highway engineer, but soon decided that his interest lay elsewhere.

“I was attracted to the variation in the work geotechnical engineers do: every site’s ground conditions are different and every structure needs a foundation, whether it’s a dam, wind turbine or skyscraper,” he says.

He joined Atkins, and has already sampled a wide range of geotechnical challenges, including ground investigation and slope surveys, earthworks and foundations design for large railway schemes, and assessment of pile groups during lifting operations for the world’s second largest semi-submersible oil rig.

Krechowiecki-Shaw is now part of the Atkins team involved in the £250M Stafford Area Improvement Project to improve capacity of the West Coast Main Line around Stafford. The project is run by the Staffordshire Alliance, made up of Atkins, Laing O’Rourke, Volker Rail and Network Rail. “I’m leading the geotechnical design team, driving value engineering for a new stretch of railway which will form a grade separated junction, as well as providing technical oversight for ground investigation works and new innovations in signal bases,” he explains.

Janak Patel

Janak Patel

Janak Patel, Keller UK

The spark that ignited Janak Patel’s enthusiasm for geotechnical engineering occurred during a year out in industry as part of his civil engineering degree at Bradford University. While managing a section of a flood alleviation scheme, Patel found himself working closely with the project’s geotechnical subcontractor Keller.

“I learnt much from the Keller team, and it made me investigate geotechnical engineering,” he says. “I found that geotechnical engineering is something present in a wide range of projects, and is literally the basis that all projects start from.”

Not only did that experience push him in the direction of ground engineering, it also impressed him so much that he joined Keller, where he is now part of the design team. Since joining, Patel has worked as a site engineer on one of the company’s most high profile projects – installing 2,300 subsurface jet grout columns on London Underground’s Victoria Station upgrade project. The jet grouting section alone has a value of £39M, and is claimed to be the largest and most challenging jet grouting project in Europe.

He says his experience on that project informed the way he approached his latest challenge – designing a 17m deep, 10m diameter shaft for Thames Water.

Janvi Shah

Janvi Shah

Janvi Shah, Amey

In an industry that constantly searches for ways to attract talented people, Janvi Shah’s experience suggests the best thing to do is to get them out on construction sites at a young age. Shah’s father was a civil engineer, and she spent school holidays helping out on his sites.

This led to Shah taking a diploma in civil engineering in her native Mumbai, where she ranked first in the state of Maharashtra, followed by a degree. While studying, summer placements piqued her interest in the geotechnical side of the industry.

“I got the opportunity to work on India’s first indoor stadium, as well as a slum rehabilitation project, and both were at the foundation stage, so I got very interested in ground and foundation engineering,” she explains.

In 2008 Shah came to the UK to do an MSc in geotechnical engineering and management at Birmingham University, and on graduating she joined Amey.

Shah is now studying for a PhD in resilient transportation infrastructure asset management, supported by Amey. “The research focuses on developing a decision support framework which assesses the long-term resilience of potential geotechnical design solutions in the light of changing social, economic and environmental changes facing the transportation network,” she says.

Alice Spence

Alice Spence

Alice Spence, Buro Happold

With the London 2012 Olympics now two years in the past, options for working on the Games site are limited, so Buro Happold geotechnical engineer Alice Spence is making the most of the opportunity. She is part of the team that is designing the remodelling of the Olympic Stadium for its final legacy condition – a project she describes as “definitely a challenge”.

“There are a lot of constraints,” she explains. “There is contaminated ground, and access is very constrained. Also, some of the new piles have to go right inside the building, so we have to use small rigs.”

Prior to this project, Southampton University graduate Spence spent six months on cliff remediation at Southend-on-Sea. “I had supervised the second phase of the ground investigation works, which included a variety of investigation techniques,” she explains.

With this information Spence moved on to detailed design, production of construction documentation and evaluation of tenders, then supervised the work on site. Her report on the project formed part of her submission for chartership with the Institution of Civil Engineers, and she successfully sat her professional review last autumn. Spence is now doing a part time MSc in soil mechanics at Imperial College, London.

Victoria Turner-Weare

Victoria Turner-Weare

Victoria Turner-Weare, Parsons Brinckerhoff

It was much to her delight that Victoria Turner-Weare discovered that such a thing as geotechnical engineering existed as a career. She has been interested in geology since childhood, having spent family holidays on the Jurassic coast examining fossils, but also – encouraged by her chemical engineer father – is fascinated by problem solving and finding out how things work. “I did AS-level geology, and was tempted by a geology degree, but I really, really wanted to be an engineer,” she says.

A degree in engineering at Durham University enabled Turner-Weare to study a broad range of engineering disciplines for two years before specialising in civil engineering, and she then undertook a masters in geotechnical engineering with consultancy skills at Newcastle University. She spent two and a half years at Mott MacDonald before moving to Parsons Brinckerhoff in Bristol.

She says her best experience has also been the biggest challenge – the design of slope stabilisation measures at the Beaminster tunnel in Dorset. “This project was unprecedented in its scale, complex geometry and level of media interest,” she says. “It was critical to find the right stabilisation solution and reopen the tunnel – it is the main route to the small town of Beaminster, and a lifeline to local businesses.”

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