Interview: Danielle McGrellis of Arup Advanced Technologies

Recently named one of the top 50 female engineers in the UK, Danielle McGrellis has shifted from structural engineering to working on advanced technologies at Arup

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Danielle McGrellis

On 23 June 2018 — International Women in Engineering Day — the top 50 Women in Engineering (WE50) were announced by the Women’s Engineering Society (WES).

Since 2014, the WE50 campaign has been raising awareness of the skills shortage in engineering and the discrepancy between the number of men and women currently in engineering professions — currently only 10% of those working in engineering are women.

WE50 was also established to help change perceptions about engineering and to encourage young women to consider engineering as a viable and rewarding career.

The theme for 2018 was ‘Returners and Transferrers’ and nominations were open to women working in engineering or allied sectors or disciplines, who have either returned after a break of at least 18 months or have transferred to engineering from another sector.

Danielle is a senior engineer within Arup’s Advanced Technology and Research Division, where she works on a variety of high-tech engineering projects, such as UKAutodrive that is addressing the introduction of driverless cars into the UK.

Commenting on being a WE50 winner, Danielle said: “I am thrilled to be on the list along with some fantastic candidates.

“It is an honour to be recognised by Women in Engineering and it will help to raise the awareness of the profession of engineering, especially to girls that are still at school.”

Her route into engineering was not typical, having studied French, history and mathematics to A-level, but it was her ability in mathematics that drew her into engineering, as Danielle explains: “Engineering is essentially concerned with solving problems and given that complex mathematical equations are essential in the construction of buildings, I was very much attracted to engineering as a career option.

“During my work placement at Mott MacDonald, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I really got the bug for working in a profession where you can see the fruits of your hard work.

“Seeing a building coming out of the ground is very rewarding and since I first joined the profession nearly 15 years ago I have never tired of the satisfaction knowing that I have played a role in the construction of a wide range of buildings and structures in this country and abroad.”

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Inside Abu Dhabo airport, one of Danielle’s projects before she switched from structural engineering

Having graduated with a first class MEng from the University of Birmingham in 2004, Danielle was recruited as a structural engineer by Arup, where she worked on a variety of high profile projects, including King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Saudi Arabia and East End Thames View in London — a major residential development. In the United Arab Emirates Danielle worked on Abu Dhabi Airport, which she acknowledged was one of her career highlights — an extensive project that was technically complex and extremely challenging.

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Strutural engineering at Abu Dhabi airport

As a WE50 winner, Danielle is passionate about promoting engineering and using the award to help encourage more school children and young women to consider engineering as a career.

One of the issues with engineering, as Danielle explains, is that “as a term ‘engineering’ is almost too broad and for many people they have little idea about what the term means or relates to, and from personal experience most people don’t really know what an engineer’s role is in the construction of new buildings.”

In helping to raise the profile of her profession, Danielle visits schools to explain to pupils and students what civil engineering is and the variety of roles that come under the banner of engineering to help them understand that their computer skills can be used in engineering, as Danielle explains: “it’s all about showing young people that the computer and IT skills they are developing could be  applied to engineering.”

On the subject of the shortage of engineers in the UK, Danielle feels that engineering companies have to work hard to attract the brightest and best graduates, whether male or female, but the problem is that career options, such as finance and management consultancy value an engineering skillset and can offer higher graduate salaries.

“In the UK I think that engineering is still seen in terms of muddy boots and construction sites, when in reality computer modelling, complex mathematical calculations and algorithms now literally underpin buildings like The Shard in London and bridges like the Millau Viaduct in France.”

As for the lack of women in engineering, Danielle acknowledges the importance of awards like the WE50 in helping to raise the profile of engineering and attracting women into the profession. However, the problem for Danielle is not only the result of gender stereotyping, but that girls are simply not considering engineering as a career.

Awards like WE50 are important, but Danielle looks forward to a future in engineering when we are no longer talking about gender and equality because it has become fully integrated into the industry: “Wouldn’t it be great if we were simply celebrating the UK’s top engineers — male or female — which would help promote engineering and demonstrate the importance of this diverse and exciting profession, which has a very bright future.”

Danielle very much looks forward to continuing to be part of a profession that transforms and enhances people’s lives and helps society adapt to the fast pace of technological developments, including increasing number of driverless vehicles, which have the potential to significantly change the urban landscape.

“A future with increasing numbers of autonomous vehicles could mean we start to see the end of vehicle ownership — because you would simply order a vehicle on demand — and this could ultimately result in the end of city centre car parks, which would provide opportunities for more green spaces and additional residential developments, helping to address housing shortages.”

“Autonomous vehicles don’t need traffic lights or roundabouts, so towns and cities across the UK could look very different from today in the not-too-distant future, which will require even closer collaboration between architects, engineers and urban designers.”

Danielle also sees a very positive future for the engineers of tomorrow as increasing numbers of engineering companies are talking about diversity and recognising that diverse, supportive and flexible workplaces are more productive and happier places to work — where people are accepted for who they are and what they can achieve.

For the full list of all WE50 winners, visit http://www.inwed.org.uk/top-50-women-in-engineering.html