Sakthy Selvakumaran

Sakthy Selvakumaran - Civil and structural engineer

1. When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

It is hard to make a decision on what you want to do for the rest of your life when you're in your late teens. I certainly did not have a clue - I just knew one thing: I am a humanitarian; I wanted to help people and make a difference.

The all-girl sixth form I attended certainly was not a source for encouragement. I excelled in maths and sciences, but worryingly, engineering was not even suggested. My strong academics meant I was pushed by both school and my parents towards medicine - which made me not want to become a doctor at all! Admittedly, a poor reason, but such was the nature of my teenage years. Wanting to investigate the idea of engineering further, I found the only advice and support was a bookshelf full of standard prospectuses and career description books. Thankfully universities provided opportunities to attend "Engineering Experience" courses to find out more and it went from there. 

2. Who or what inspired you to become a civil and structural engineer?

I was lucky to have some good role models around me. My uncle is a retired engineer and university professor who spent much of his life working on jet engines for Rolls Royce. He is someone I had a lot of admiration and respect for. A friend of mine in the middle of a Mechanical Engineering degree at Swansea gave me a current student's perspective on what studying engineering would actually be like.

However, it was my father's career that showed me the direct link between engineering, humanitarian development and an international career. He studied Civil Engineering and became a water and wastewater engineer, working in state and private sectors in developed and developing contexts across the globe in Singapore, Sri Lanka, Canada and the UK.
I realised that I could also have a profound impact through engineering in addressing the wider issues that, left unattended, result in the need for medical treatment. There is scope for a wider reaching impact to thousands in preventing, rather than treating disease, through basic infrastructure.

This led me to study General Engineering, later specialising in Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering. I have found that even in my few short years in industry, I have been able to apply my engineering skills to projects that directly contribute towards the development of society, both in the UK and overseas.

3. Tell us a little bit about your role. What does your typical day involve?

It varies…. quite a lot! I graduated in 2010 and have had different jobs and roles in different countries. The day to day even in a single job would vary. I could be doing calculations to design a new footbridge, working outside in a cherry picker inspecting a bridge, in meetings with a construction team and architects, or on site supporting the building of a new train station.

I returned to Cambridge University after working as a Civil Engineer to undertake research, with a drive to use technological advancements to support the monitoring of infrastructure systems, and I am currently applying a rapidly advancing radar satellite imagery technology to reduce vulnerability of infrastructure within the urban environment. I have learned new skills and perspectives related to image processing, deriving value from ‘big data’, mapping, and other tools to support me in leveraging technological developments to shape the built environment.

Sometimes I am processing imagery, sometimes in discussions with asset owners, and often collaborating with people working in the space sector, to understand how the satellites they design can be used for applications on the ground.

4. What do you love about your job and what would you change?

I love the variety, and the opportunity to use the skills I learned as an engineer to work on solving a huge array of problems and global challenges. The path you can take as an engineer is so varied (I am a bridge engineer working with the space sector – not what I imagined when I started my degree in engineering!).

The change I would make would be to have a more diverse range of people in what makes up the average engineer – the role is varied with no “typical job”, and so there should be no “typical engineer”. A greater variety of people is needed to come up with a greater range of solutions to problems, and I’m pleased to see this changing.

Sakthy at leisure

5. What qualifications did you take at school/college?

A Levels – Maths, Further Maths, Chemistry, Physics and Biology (to AS).

6. Did you go to university? Was a degree required for your role?

Yes – Cambridge University to study Engineering (General then specialising in Civil, Structural and Environmental). At the time, this was presented as the most direct route into an engineering job and I enjoyed studying and the chance to experience university life. There are alternative routes into Civil Engineering, for example, through Apprenticeships that pay you to work and study, and there are a lot more of these positions available currently than there were a few years ago.

7. What gives you the most job satisfaction?

When I am working on something that has a direct and practical application to a problem. I get an incredible feeling from working on something that I think will make a difference to people’s lives.

8. What’s the most unexpected thing about your job?

I think I’ve already mentioned it – the unbelievable number of options. In my case, from construction to the space sector.

9. If you could give one piece of advice to a young person who is considering becoming an engineer, what would it be?

Talk to current and young engineers, and if you can get it, do some work experience. This is incredibly useful; even if the answer is “no, this is not for me” then at least you have figured that out. Saying that, there are just so many different roles – different disciplines (aerospace, environmental, chemical, civil, electrical, etc), different work environments (design studio, outdoors on a construction site, in a laboratory, in a workshop, in an office, etc), and so many different skills required to solve even one problem…it’s worth exploring and seeing what might suit you.

10. What do your friends/family think about your job?

They always seem to be impressed. No matter what I’m working on – whether it’s designing bridges and tunnels, or using satellites to measure things – it’s always met with a “wow, that’s pretty cool!”.

Sakthy helping to plant trees

11. Do you have any hobbies that you like to do to relax?

I love walking in nature, exploring and travel. This career is useful in facilitating such opportunities as I have had the chance to work all around the world, and I have met the most incredible people along the way – from local communities in the Andes in Peru, to scientists and physicists in Germany to living in vibrant cities like Madrid.

I also love music - listening to and making it! I regularly go out to live music concerts, and I like playing music. I’m a flautist so I sometimes just play by myself at home, but it’s more fun playing in groups and orchestras with others.

12. Would you say that you had a good work/life balance?

Most of the time. Sometimes a big deadline comes, or a project in construction has some critical aspects which require more of a time commitment. Overnight rail possessions come to mind…

13. What are the biggest implications your work will/could have in the future?

The deterioration of bridges, dams, tunnels and other key services has highlighted the importance of monitoring the structural health of our bridges, tunnels and other infrastructure. I am using a radar remote sensing technique that can measure millimetre level movements of structures from space – the successful application of this technique could enable us to spot certain types of problems in infrastructure assets and prevent collapses.

14. What excites you most about engineering?

Working on solving problems by using technology to help society move forward.

15. What should no engineer leave home without?

Pen, paper and their smart phone are what I never leave home without. Very few challenges are solved by a single individual, and teamwork is important. Even if you’re working by yourself, at some point you’ll need to communicate your thoughts and ideas, and being able to draw good diagrams to convey your ideas is key! Pictures are also very helpful when visiting sites to capture lots of details and convey information to others.