Solid foundations: One student’s path in structural engineering

With a proud family history in engineering, 20 year-old Grace Wright always had a good chance of ending up in the profession herself. Now in her second year of engineering studies at the University of Derby, last summer she earned a scholarship placement at multidisciplinary engineering firm Rolton Group.

Speaking with The Student Engineer ahead of International Women’s Day, Grace gave us some insight into university life at Derby, working at Rolton, and what more can be done to address the gender balance issue in engineering.

Can you tell us about your family’s engineering background? Did they encourage you to pursue a career in the profession?

My grandad was a chartered structural engineer who owned a steel fabrication company – Norsteel in Northamptonshire – and my Dad is a quantity surveyor. I always knew I wanted a career that gave me a different challenge every day and that included maths, so after conversations about engineering and the more I looked into it the more I felt it was for me. I’ve always been grateful to my family for their encouragement towards my career. They never made me feel like I was choosing a ‘man’s’ career. They’ve supported me as I forged a role for myself, not just as a woman in engineering, but a person in engineering on an equal platform to my male colleagues.

University of Derby main campus (Credit: Dommccas)
University of Derby main campus (Credit: Dommccas)

What made you choose the University of Derby?

Unfortunately I didn’t get the grades to go to my first choice of university, so I had to go through clearing. One of the biggest appeals of Derby was that I spoke to the Head of Engineering on the day and he was able to answer my questions. Derby’s courses were all accredited by the JBM which is extremely vital when choosing a degree.

How have you found the course so far?

The course has been just as exciting and challenging as I have wanted. Studying civil engineering allows me to explore a wide range of careers in engineering that I previously hadn’t thought of, for example surveying and geotechnical engineering. I’ve learnt a wide range of skills that have equipped me for my placement such as basic CAD skills, introduction to Revit [a building package from Autodesk] and concrete and steel beam/column designs.

Is there a particular career path you’re leaning towards?

I am interested in structural engineering as this involves a lot of maths and challenges. Structures in general have always appealed to me.

Structures, such as Scotland's Falkirk Wheel, have always held an appeal for Grace (Credit: Sean Mack)
Structures, such as Scotland’s Falkirk Wheel, have always held an appeal for Grace (Credit: Sean Mack)

How did the scholarship with Rolton come about and what does it involve?

I first started at Rolton Group for a summer placement in 2015 to gain more experience in structural engineering and engineering in general. At the end of the summer I sat down with the chairman, Peter Rolton, who told me I had received a lot of positive feedback from various people in the team and he offered me the opportunity to work with them after I graduate.

I work at Rolton during Christmas and summer breaks whilst they funded the remainder of my degree and providing I achieve a 2:2 I will work for them. I will then go on to study my Masters part-time in structural engineering, which they will fund as well. After all this I will continue to work at Rolton where they will support me into becoming a chartered structural engineer.

How does Rolton shape up with respect to gender balance?

I have never been made to feel out of place at Rolton. I personally was surprised at how many women there were working for a smaller firm. It is comforting to know that they have a woman in most departments. For graduate engineers at the company it is roughly a 60:40 male female split, which is an amazing number for how many graduate female engineers are produced.

What one thing would you do to encourage girls to enter the profession?

Visiting schools during important decision making times, during GCSEs, A Levels and when students are choosing degree courses, and making girls understand this isn’t a ‘man’s’ career. It is simply a career in engineering that makes a difference to the world we see every day.

Thanks Grace!