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Making it all add up

Working lives - Ben Gibson keenly believes that maths underpins good engineering.

Su Doku and crossword puzzles are part of Ben Gibson's daily diet. The 36 year old Mouchel Parkman team leader and self-confessed 'puzzle fiend' consumes them with the same kind of relish as his Weetabix.

'I love problem solving, ' Gibson says with a distinctive Belfast drawl, and when NCE's Cleverclogs maths quiz was launched last year he threw himself at the challenge of answering the weekly numerical teasers. 'It was a good Thursday lunchtime challenge, ' he enthuses.

Last summer Gibson found himself battling it out in the Cleverclogs final, and carried off the crown. He can now hardly wait to defend his title: Like all other CleverClogs contestants Gibson must fight his way through to the last round, but as reigning champion he fully expects to see off challengers and be the one at Civils 2005 collecting the prize.

Although Gibson did not set out with the express aim of becoming a civil engineer, his interest in problem solving is what steered him through an engineering degree at Cambridge to Mouchel Parkman.

'I was a good all-rounder at school. I had a sort of intuitive feeling that I should play to my mathematical hand, which is how I ended up studying engineering at Cambridge.

'Even at university I was initially more interested in electrical engineering, ' he says.

But as his studies progressed he was put off by electrical engineering's 'black box' abstraction. 'As a child I was a Lego freak, ' and Gibson's interest in the visual and tectonic reasserted itself mid-way through his course.

Graduating in 1991, Gibson leapt at the chance to convert academic theory to practice, getting stuck into structural engineering projects as a Mouchel Parkman graduate engineer at Chatham, Kent.

This was followed by a stint doing bridge assessments back home in Northern Ireland, which marked Gibson's transition from structural to civil engineering. 'I felt I was in the right field, ' he says.

Two and a half years on the M25, widening the motorway's Surrey section and doing 'lots of heavy, complicated structural work while keeping the road open and seeing how things were built' gave his career a huge boost. 'On that kind of job you develop the ability to supervise people doing the kind of roles you were doing yourself only six months before. It offered a very rapid learning and career progression.

Moving on to act for the Highways Agency during construction of a new approach to London's Blackwall Tunnel catapulted Gibson from project leader to team leader for engineering services. His group is working for Transport for London, with around 20 projects on its books. 'We're all over the network. There's a major refurbishment of a big flyover on the A232 in Croydon town centre; we're replacing a foot bridge over the A2, and there's a lot of smaller jobs, replacing parapets, subway refurbishments. . . that kind of thing. A lot of highways structures are 30-40 years old and showing their age, and my team's taking stock of the situation, prioritising projects for TfL and taking them forward as funding becomes available.' Gibson's job involves logistical and strategic planning, and appeals strongly to his problem solving instincts. 'I get equally excited by non-maths problems.

The job I do is primarily not about maths now. Sure, it lends itself to solutions that involve maths but increasingly I'm not doing that part. I've now got a team of graduates to do the number crunching for me.

CleverClogs was actually a good reminder of the mathematical basis I believe engineers should have.'

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