My story

I was the type of student who really applies themselves once they get interested. I was pretty average in high school, just ticking along, until I decided I might like to do physics. Once I decided that I wanted to do physics, then it was my choice to be in that class. As I went through school and uni, I worked harder and harder because I knew where I wanted to go, so I suppose my advice with that is to really pick out those things that you enjoy!

For me that's how I can get the best out of myself. I was initially worried I wouldn't get through some of those early subjects in engineering, there was a lot of really tricky mathematics. Once I started to apply myself and made sure I was learning everything I could out of my tutorials, I started to get a bit of success out of it. I realised it was something that I could achieve. The sense of achievement, of learning something that I wanted to learn, kept me going. If you keep going with what you enjoy, what you end up as might be a bit of a surprise. but I don't think you can go too far wrong if you keep choosing what you enjoy.

I realised on the last day of my engineering degree that uni wasn't about memorising textbooks, they had taught me a way of thinking that I can use to forever solve problems. Every day at work as a civil engineer is just another set of problems to work through. I've got the basic skills to start tackling those problems. If I don't know something, I go to the big library in the sky and I work it out! Or I find people who know more than me about a particular task and I work through it until I know what I need to know. I think there's creativity in the way that engineers use facts and numbers to look at a problem and try to come up with as many solutions as we can. I suppose the art in it is searching for the right fit, the perfect solution for a given situation. There are lots of solutions that can meet the objective of a problem, so there is a lot of scope for creative thinking and research.

I look at civil engineering and what I do as technical in some ways, but I rarely have my head in a textbook. The cool thing for me is that I'm not always at a desk. I'm supervising construction, I'm going out and looking at the pavement on the road. I'm walking on it to see what it sounds like and consider if it will make a good road. And sure, there's a numerical test result on how compacted that layer of pavement is. But the real work for me is going out to actually see what it looks like. I talk to contractors about what the weather conditions and materials are like and how it's all coming together, and what they are going to do next. A lot of my job is talking to people, communication is such an important aspect of engineering.

My life outside of work? I live on a bit of land with my husband and our two boys, I've got some cows that I look after. I come from a farming background, my dad's still a farmer. I am not great at gardening, but I really enjoy it. That's one of the areas of my life that I like to be a bit less formal. I've met other engineers who are like that as well, they say gardening is a real release from the very technical work that we do. The rest of it is a lot of running after kids, doing swimming lessons etc. I also really enjoy hiking, that's something I'm trying to do for myself. It gives me a lot of thinking time which is nice. I am a day hiker now, but I'm very interested in getting into some overnight hikes. My scary goal, that no one knows about yet, is to walk across Spain on the Camino trail. One day!

Career path in civil engineering

Once I finished university, I went straight into an 18-month graduate program with VicRoads. I was shipped around the state, I got a pretty diverse experience in many areas. It was mostly roads based, since that's what I wanted to get into. After the graduate program, I went for a permanent road safety job in metro northwest. I developed projects for road safety initiatives, around black spots for example (parts of roads that have historically had many accidents). In that job I was looking at lots of different designs, but I wanted to know how they were designed from first principles. A design job came up at a consultant firm in Ballarat, which was near my hometown. I worked there for 12 years, give or take maternity leave to have two sons. I got to design all kinds of infrastructure: sewers, water mains, subdivisions, intersections. I got experience working with a lot of developers. I had the opportunity to work on a business case with VicRoads and I really enjoyed it. I felt like I had done enough design now, I was ready to move into more high-level stuff again. I jumped back to VicRoads, which is now the Department Of Transport. They're part of the public service now which is great, it opens a lot of opportunities across varied departments.

My current position is in integrated transport and land use, where we respond to the changes in land use. In Ballarat for example, their precinct structure plan will have growth areas that they're expecting to occur within the township. So then we start to target our bids for funding into these growth areas and work out what needs to be done to support these growth areas. Developments in one of those areas often need to access arterial roads (major roads that connect different regions). The role of our team is to look through their plans to access that road or intersection, to make sure that they are as safe and as efficient as they can be. The main purpose of the department of transport is to keep everyone safe.

In terms of my substantive role: a developer will come to me with a planning permit and some conditions that the department of transport has put on that permit regarding how they are going to access the road. I take that from a functional layout of the intersection, comment on it, and eventually get a detailed design from them. We approve that and supervise the construction for that work until it can be signed off.

Working in a state government department is a different experience to working in the private sector. In a big department there is a lot more variety and opportunities to get involved in things that aren't fully aligned to your actual position but can grow your career. You might call them “extra-curricular activities” in the workplace. It's good to be a part of a workplace where all of that additional learning and knowledge comes freely. You can still do these kind of activities in the private sector, but you might have to seek them out.

Case study: Designing an intersection

We were part of a fairly recent project in Mildura. It was a new sporting precinct that they're now finishing construction on. It's a council driven project and we see our role as supporting the development. We're not here to say “this is our road, you can't access it.” We just want to get the best outcome for the development. We were there from the initial stages, we discussed the project with the council and came up with conditions on the planning permit that we require. Right through to approving functional designs and details that were cost effective for them and still provided the outcomes that we needed. There was lots of back and forth.

What needs to be considered when designing access to the roads?

We had to create a new intersection and consider the traffic implications of new turning lanes and new turning movements. We need to look at all the movements to and from the site. That includes, say, buses of school kids coming to use the facility-it's intended to be a sporting facility for the region. So, they could have a huge basketball competition that draws in people from all over the place, but you'll also have your regular Thursday night netball.

It's also located a little bit out of town, so you need to think about where the nearest public transport option is. And then, how can people get from that public transport to the site, safely. Being the department of transport, we really want to encourage active transport. That means-how can people cycle there, are there facilities to keep their bikes there? How can people walk or run there? We try to look at it from the whole transport perspective, providing opportunities to support all modes of transport. We certainly don't want everyone rocking up in their car, that's the worst possible scenario because it would just cause traffic congestion.

Active transport has been spoken about for a long time, it's important to the inclusiveness of our transport network. We hope to encourage people by creating links for bikes and pedestrians throughout existing cities. That generates more need and it flows on from there. It's one of those things that can take a long time to get it off the ground, but we hope it becomes more popular going forward. There are certainly examples across Europe where cycling is more accepted and part of everyday life. It's just not as common or automatic in Victoria currently. The push behind active transport is both for health and sustainability reasons. Health and wellbeing is a big part of it, encouraging communities to be more active has flow on effects into other departments. If we've got healthier people, we're spending less in hospitals. But it is also in terms of congestion. Ultimately there is a certain amount of space to put roads in, we can't just keep building roads forever. The more we encourage people to use the roads in more efficient ways, the easier it will be to manage all of the network.

Non-textbook side of engineering

I look at civil engineering and what I do as technical in some ways, but I don't have my head in a textbook every day. I often wonder if people in other STEM fields have more technical and numbers based day-to-days than I do. I can only go from my perspective; I don't feel like my day is all about research and numbers.

The cool stuff for me is that I'm not always at a desk. I'm supervising construction,

I'm going out and looking at the pavement on the road. I'm walking on it to see what it sounds like and consider if it will make a good road. And sure, there's a numerical test result on how compacted that layer of pavement is. But the real work for me is going out to actually see what it looks like. I talk to contractors about what the weather conditions and materials are like and how it's all coming together, and what they are going to do next.

There are often local residents there, they can see I've got a jacket on and work for the department of transport. They ask what's happening and they'll tell me what the traffic conditions are like because they live there. I can get lots of intel about day-to-day life, and what it's like to live on that street. A lot of my job is talking to people. So, aside from the textbooks, I think one of the most important aspects of engineering is communication. The skill of being able to take textbook material and explain it to someone that has a completely different job. They might be a schoolteacher, they might be an artist-you meet every different type of person. And the skill of understanding what you can learn from others. You might be an expert on one particular thing, but you are not an expert on life. Everyone has their part to play. Everyone has something to contribute to a conversation. Having an open mind about all the different types of people is one of the most important things in engineering.

Life outside of work

What are you most proud of outside of work?

I hope that I'm being a good role model for my boys. It's quite amusing to me that I'm the first female in my family to do engineering. I don't know what possessed me to do it, I didn't even know anyone that did anything like it growing up! Looking back I suppose I look at my dad and I think that he could've been a great engineer, we're a bit similar in the way we think. I realised on the last day of my engineering degree that that's effectively what they taught me: a way of thinking that I can use to forever solve problems. It's funny, being a female engineer, that I've had two boys. What I do think is that they can grow up seeing their mum do something that not all the other mums are naturally expected to do, yet. Just being me, and helping them to grow up to be productive male members of the community, is probably the greatest thing that I want to do.

I want to use the skills that I've gained in my career to help my community. I'm involved in a few different committees in my local area, I try to be another member of the crowd with a different perspective. I'm part of the local agricultural society, we organise the Beaufort show. I'm on the community bank board, which facilitates the running of the community bank (that's the only way to have an actual physical bank in a small community these days). I think it's really important to get as much diversity into all the groups that I'm a part of. Sometimes I'm the younger person, sometimes I'm the only female. We need to surround ourselves with people that are different to us.

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