Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Young Guns

A last minute surprise awaited winners of the NCE Graduate Awards at December’s awards ceremony when prize money was increased by 50% in recognition of their exceptional talent.

A record 140 entries, from countries as distant as India, Kazakhstan and the United Arab Emirates, gave the 12th annual NCE Graduate Awards judges a major challenge. Not only did they have to mark them; but the high quality of the entrants made it exceptionally difficult to select the six finalists.

As a result, NCE decided to this year surprise the finalists and and increase prize money by more than 50% in recognition of such exceptional talent. Even when the judges had interviewed the finalists, the challenges to identify the winner, runners up and highly commended entrants remained.

This year’s winner is 23 year old Buro Happold graduate structural engineer Emma Kent, who entered the profession from Nottingham University. At last week’s awards lunch in the Great Hall of the ICE over 200 industry leaders heard her described as “passionate, engaging, positive and bubbly”.

She was awarded 1,500. The two runners up each won 750 and three highly commended finalists received 400.

Winner: Emma Kent

Graduate of the Year Emma Kent is almost as passionate about travel as she is about civil engineering. And the unforgettable experience of a trip on the Trans Siberian Orient Express from Moscow to Beijing may now be on her travel agenda courtesy of her 1,500 win.

“But I would definitely extend the trip to central China to hopefully visit some of their fantastic construction projects – always seemingly delivered on time,” she says.

Such duality of passions has long dominated her career choice and leisure activities.

On commuting trips through London’s King’s Cross station she invariably detours past a nearby concrete slab; “where I counted all the rebar” she says, proudly recalling a gap year job with Costain five years ago. And her greatest immediate ambition is to follow through a project from concept to completion.

It was a similar diversion, during a week’s work experience at school, to spend a day visiting a sewage treatment works under construction that sparked the then 16 year old’s interest in civil engineering.

“At my all-girls school, careers advice on engineering was scarce,” she says. “They suggested I study classics at Cambridge so I chose the exact opposite.”

Even the sewage treatment plant appealed because “it was something tangible that could really improve the quality of people’s lives”. Somewhat more exciting was her next site experience at King’s Cross just before university.

Between counting the slab reinforcement bars she thought up a way to improve site safety while handling hazardous substances such as chemical sealants and adhesives. The 18 year old’s quick reference guide to dealing with minor chemical spills was aimed at triggering immediate action before even finding a first aider. It was instantly posted on site notice boards and remains a highly regarded safety guide.

Kent arrived at Nottingham University armed with a prestigious ICE Quest Scholarship. Within months she had become the only civils undergraduate in her year to win a coveted Royal Academy of Engineering leadership award.

She soon joined the university’s civil engineering society. But, prompted by what she describes as a sexist, somewhat offensive T-shirt favoured by the male dominated organisation, she resolved to offer women engineers an alternative forum. As founder and president of the university’s Women in Engineering society, Kent had tapped into a much needed support group which remains a thriving club for several dozen undergraduates from wide ranging engineering disciplines.

“There are a lot of very good women undergraduates on engineering courses, but a good proportion of the best are lost to other professions after graduation,” she claims.

“Our industry is so male dominated that a society targeted specifically at the challenges women face can help ensure they remain keen to become engineers.”

As a graduate structural engineer with Buro Happold, our 23 year old supreme winner has just been invited by the Royal Academy to join its prestigious Executive Engineers scheme.

At work she heads up the company’s Graduate Forum, organising debates and site visits for her 40 fellow graduates. And she is a key member of a small team currently designing the new state of the art football stadium for Tottenham Hotspur.

Away from the office her interests focus on helix turns, side surfs and flat spins – for our graduate superstar is also a star of “something completely different”.

This young engineer is currently the eighth best woman in the UK at rodeo kayaking - a highly skilled version of acrobatic kayaking.

Since she was 13, Kent has been “paddling” some of Britain’s most dangerous river rapids in her quest for perfection.

No wonder the judges described her as “exhibiting confidence, enthusiasm and genuine passion, all contributing to her being an excellent ambassador for the profession”.

- Graduate structural engineer, Buro Happold
- First class MEng Nottingham University
- ICE Quest Scholar and Royal Academy of Engineering leadership award winner
- Nationally acclaimed kayaking expert

Joint runner-up: Chris Lonergan

Chris Lonergan is, he insists, a 110% structural engineer. He has lived and breathed structures ever since the nine year old fanatical Preston North End football fan sat with his dad in a dilapidated timber stand.

Over the following four seasons he saw his team rise from near bottom of the then third division through to star status in the Championship.

All that time he was also watching the rise of something else – a vast new steel frame stand at the other side of the ground. And he marvelled as much at this “amazing and impressive” feat of civil engineering – imagining himself as one of the team that built it – as he did at the similarly amazing success of his local club.

At Cambridge University he thought the first two years of general engineering invaluable, as it highlighted the importance of understanding wide ranging engineering principles. “Studying the workings of aircraft or racing car engines taught me to think logically when trying to achieve economic, practical designs,” he says.

Also at Cambridge he began living his “greatest achievement” – better even than being a 15 year old guitar player headlining his local village fete. “Just getting to such a great university made me feel immensely proud,” he recalls.

He did not waste the opportunity, achieving top marks in exams every year and consequently becoming the only civils student to be awarded a full academic scholarship throughout his course.

Joining the Arup division charged with designing sports stadia seemed the obvious sequel to his Preston North End experience. And the now 23 year old has already spearheaded complex foundation designs for a prestigious Middle East stadium.

That his boss trusted him to explain the complex foundation design face to face with the local planning authorities – subsequently securing essential approval – led the Arup director to comment: “Chris is one of the best graduates I have ever worked with.”

Now an accomplished lead guitarist in an upcoming group, Lonergan is a different sort of fan – one who arrives early at a Wembley or Millennium stadium gig just to admire the structures.
“Totally on top of his game – self assured and authoritative,” said the judges.

- Graduate structural engineer, Arup
- First Class MEng Cambridge University
- Four year running top of the class academic scholarship
- Has a paper on 3D software design about to be published by the Institution of Structural Engineers.

Joint runner-up: Oliver Broadbent

Oliver Broadbent’s “conversion” to civil engineering occurred somewhat later than most of his contemporaries. He was about to enter his final year of a chemistry degree at Oxford University when he spent a life-changing week’s holiday visiting a long lost Canadian cousin on a remote island off Vancouver.

His relative’s 20 bedroom log cabin hotel – built entirely by the self taught cousin and his five children – immediately “struck a chord” with the then 21 year old. “Building such a tangible structure was so much more in touch with the real world than anything to do with chemistry that I knew immediately what I wanted to do,” he recalls.

He finished his chemistry degree – gaining a first – but soon enrolled at Imperial College London for another four years of lectures. “My first year was a bit scary as I was considerably older than my classmates. But it was the best decision I have made,” he says.

At Imperial he was president of the engineering society and organised an eco-friendly trip to Paris for 80 fellow students.

He managed to get recycling bins placed in every lecture hall and transformed the department’s single page occasional newsletter into a 12 page monthly colour magazine – with online version.

While at Imperial he was also charged with craning into position the prefabricated steel superstructure of a 1 in 10 scale model of a seaside pier just as the Duke of Edinburgh wandered along.

When the visiting Royal questioned robustly the practicality of such an operation, Broadbent responded with equal strength. This “friendly argument” remains a popular yarn in Imperial staff common rooms.
But the switch from lecture halls to real work was a challenge after eight years studying. “The financial incentive inherent in running a consultancy means you have to become very efficient. Time is at a premium.”

His employer, the relatively small 50-strong consultant Expedition Engineering has given the 28 year old “diversity and responsibility from the start”.

The judges describe him as “engaging, provocative and very confident: an engineer who will inspire others”.

- Graduate engineer Expedition Engineering
- First class MEng Imperial College London preceded by a first class MChem Oxford University
- Experienced, a late “Damascus moment” to become a civil engineer
- Took on, and won, “friendly argument” on construction safety with Duke of Edinburgh

Highly commended: Kate Cooksey

At Cardiff University, Kate Cooksey was very busy. She revitalised a dormant civil engineering society and, as its president for two years, attracted 500 students and lecturers to talks, visits and a sell-out ball.

She helped set up a Cardiff branch of the fast growing student-led charity Engineers Without Borders, dedicated to improving the infrastructure of developing countries.

She was on the committee of the local ICE and of industry-led Constructing Excellence. She taught around 100 local school children all about water and its importance

And, on her day off, she climbed five, 1,000m high “Munro” mountains to raise over 600 for Water Aid.

“All my eight fellow team members backed out at the last minute but I found the climb exhilarating.”

It is surprising then that she still had time to achieve a first class degree plus a string of academic and “outstanding achievement” awards.

Her “passion for everything civil engineering” continues as a now 24 year old tunnelling engineer with Underground Professional Services, the design arm of contractor Morgan Est.

She has founded a much acclaimed young members branch of the British Tunnelling Society and is chair of its 30 strong committee. And she has organised a “future of construction” networking dinner for over 130 young engineers of all disciplines.

“In some branches of our industry, notably tunnelling, there are major skills shortages especially at graduate level,” she says. “We must attract and keep good young engineers by offering them involvement, networking and excitement.”

“Kate is a truly exceptional young engineer and is insatiable in her enthusiasm for her chosen profession,” claims her managing director.
The judges endorsed his opinion with the comment: “A dynamic communicator and a civil engineer full of ideas.”

- Graduate tunnelling engineer Morgan Est
- First class MEng Cardiff University
- Relaunched and led her university’s civil engineering society
- Conceived and set up a young engineers branch of the British Tunnelling Society.
- Hockey player

Highly commended: Hugh Pidduck

It might look massive son, but this bridge is actually moving.”

This casual comment, from Hugh Pidduck’s father as they crossed the Forth Road Bridge, proved to have a pivotal influence on the then six year old’s career choice.

As he looked across at the even more impressive Forth Railway Bridge nearby, young Pidduck wondered who it was who could design and build such amazing structures.

Ten years later, during a week’s work experience in his school’s sixth form, he knew.

Shadowing a range of Costain site engineers building Silverstone bypass, Pidduck realised civil engineering was for him.

“It seemed a profession where you can really make a difference and leave your mark on society,” he recalls.

While studying at Imperial College London he found the knowledge transfer a good balance between academic learning and the “real life”
experiences of visiting engineers.

He would have welcomed more of the latter. “But there were so many more non-academic opportunities and it was up to you to grab them.”
Top of this list was a two week visit to El Salvador to help build rural schools, nurseries and a radio station.

As a memorable bonus, he stayed on to trek deeper into the countryside to provide a very remote community with a couple of latrines – the first ever seen by the villagers.

“We had to explain how and why to use these simple structures,” he recalls. “So siting them with the best views over the surrounding hills helped.”

“Looking back,” he adds, “we learnt much more from the villagers about the importance of basic civil engineering projects than we could ever teach them.”

Heading a string of academic awards at Imperial was a coveted ICE student prize as top undergraduate in his final two years.
As a now 23 year old graduate structural engineer with Arup, Pidduck rates his employer as one of the few pioneering consultants around still able to offer innovative engineering and widely varied training.

The judges described Pidduck as “focused and confident”.

- Graduate structural engineer, Arup
- First class MEng Imperial College London
- Four major academic prizes including top civils graduate in final two years
- ICE Quest Scholarship. Helped fundraise for, and build, community buildings in El Salvador

Highly commended: Anna Lea

I did a degree somewhat distant from reality,” reflects Anna Lea. She thought her engineering, economics and management course at Oxford University excellent, if lacking in sustainability content.

“One essay in year two was the only time we looked at sustainability,” she recalls.

“Construction can generate a large carbon footprint and engineers should be more at the forefront of promoting sustainable design and building methods,” she says.

Fast forward three years and the now 25 year old graduate water engineer with Mott MacDonald devotes much of her spare time to promoting just that aim.

As a member of the House of Lords’ young engineers parliamentary group she debates sustainability issues with politicians and engineers. She is also a regional coordinator for the charity Engineers Without Borders.

The grant she received for winning a Royal Academy of Engineering leadership award allowed her to see at first hand the needs of rural communities in India and Senegal.

“Anna is an outstanding graduate and will go far with Motts” says her training director. The judges endorsed his view, commenting: “She is committed, vibrant and full of optimism for her profession. She shows maturity beyond her years and will make a difference.”

- Graduate water engineer, Mott MacDonald
- 2:1 MEng Oxford University
- Royal Academy of Engineering leadership award
- Regional committee member RedR disaster relief

Chairman’s comments

We seem to be caught up in a world where confidence in investment and innovation has suddenly fallen like a stone. But arguably there has never been a more important time for investment in our future.

There is a pressing need to improve the infrastructure that supports the wealth and well-being of society as a whole. Here in the UK the government sees three areas of infrastructure as in particular need of investment: energy, water and food.

Skilled, innovative and imaginative civil engineers will be needed to take a lead role in all three areas.

And so, once again, we have cause for optimism. This year saw the largest ever number of entries to our graduate awards scheme.

The candidates were all a credit to the broad civil engineering education provided by their university experience, and subsequently in the world of work. The six shortlisted finalists thrilled the judges, setting a wonderful example of emerging talent.

They were all asked to write an essay on the merits of government proposals for establishing a number of eco-towns in the UK. The judges were not looking for a particular answer, but a well thought out and presented argument.

Interestingly, the vast majority of entrants thought the proposals misguided and, although very keen to promote design for sustainable cities and infrastructure, they felt that policymakers were looking at the problem from the wrong end of the telescope.

We may be in a crisis of confidence and a credit crunch. But the need to educate and train the brightest and best for careers in engineering is greater than ever. And the potential is there to excite us. These awards celebrate that success.

Chairman of judges Richard Haryott


Awards sponsors:

The 2008 NCE Graduate Awards are sponsored by; Amey, Arup, Atkins, BAA, Balfour Beatty, Black & Veatch, FaberMaunsell, Gifford, Grontmij, Hays Civil & Structural, The Institution of Civil Engineers, Morrison Construction, Mott MacDonald, Mouchel, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Transport for London, White Young Green and WSP Group.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.