When I was at school I was already interested in rainfall and run-off. For one of my projects at school in A level Geography I made a Lysimeter which is something that hydrological researchers use to measure rainfall and run-off through natural soils and vegetation systems. Mine at the time was a washing up bowl! My tools and techniques have got a little bit more sophisticated but it’s remained an interest ever since.
I think it was fairly natural for me to choose to do Geography at university and at the end of it, I had a thorough understanding of many natural systems such as glaciers and weather systems but I didn’t feel like I could do anything. I was increasing feeling like I wanted to solve problems for society.
After finishing my Geography degree, I was really lucky to get involved in two research projects, focusing on sewage discharge into urban rivers and the impact that they have. The second of those became a PhD here at the University of Sheffield in the department of Civil and Structural Engineering.
My PhD was using laboratory models to understand how sediments move within the sewer system and how they might get discharged into the river. Interestingly we used crushed olive stones in the place of sediment which was quite fun. I used computational fluid mechanics modelling tools to understand the flow patterns and how those flow patterns affect the movement of pollution.
Most of the research I’m doing now relates to the urban hydrology or the detailed understanding of those hydrodynamic processes of what goes on inside man holes, sewage tanks and other components of the sewage system as well as ponds and vegetation which is another current project I’m involved in.
The one single best thing about being an engineer is the focus on making things better - for society, for urban systems, for river quality, whatever it might be. There’s a very constructive, creative focus on doing something that makes a difference. I get to liaise with people from a lot of different disciplines from industry and within the university. For example my green roof work is collaborative with people from the Department of Landscape and other work has involved people from Animal and Plant Sciences. Engineering can be a melting pot for many multidisciplinary activities and that’s one of its great features.
The best thing about being an engineer is the focus on making things better
Dr Heather Powell
Acting Associate Dean (Academic Planning) at the School of Science and Technology at Nottingham Trent University
Chemical Engineering student
PhD student in the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering, University of Sheffield
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