Published: 02 February 2015

Honoured for engineering

Careers, Women engineers

Sarah Buck (above, at Charlton Farm Hospice in Bristol) is a Fellow of The Institution of Structural Engineers and member since 1978. Sarah was named OBE in the New Year’s Honours List, for services to engineering and education. Here she talks about her career and thoughts on the future profession.

I’d encourage anyone who has an enquiring mind and a love for maths and science subjects to consider studying engineering – it’s a wonderful career. It is varied, you can travel, and you can make a real difference to people’s lives. It can be very hard work, but it gives you a real sense of pride in what you have achieved.

I was brought up on a dairy farm, so from an early age I learned practical things like welding, and even how to get a cow back on its feet using ropes fixed to a roof truss! Such experiences taught me to think through a problem and devise a solution. At school my best subjects were maths and physics, but I didn’t want to study them as stand-alone subjects at University – so my school encouraged me into engineering.

My career started in 1974 with research on artificial hip joints. Many people think that structural engineers only work on building and bridges, but I would argue that the body is just a structure in another guise. The work was useful in demonstrating many important structural principles, such as fatigue and dynamic loading.

I then went on to train as a civil engineer (switching from the study of the hip joint to the M5 motorway was quite a change) but during my training I realised that my passion was for structural engineering and from about 1978 I concentrated on structures.

I am proud of many projects I have designed during my career, but I would say I am proudest of the three children’s hospices I worked on in the South West of England. The hospices provide respite care for families with children with terminal illness. Creating a home-from-home atmosphere, whilst providing hospital like services, was a real design challenge. Each hospice had a unique design. Little Harbour Hospice in Cornwall, for instance, has a light house structure where children can be taken to look at the sea, even if they are bed bound. The hospices’ motto is ‘making the most of precious lives’ and I think each building achieves that aim - which gives me incredible satisfaction.

Little Harbour Hospice

I’m also very proud of my time as President of The Institution of Structural Engineers. Whether it was hosting our highly successful Centenary Conference in Hong Kong, engaging with students around the world, or launching our 2008 strategy, it was a pleasure and an honour to serve.

My first reaction to the OBE was surprise. I had to read the letter a couple of times before the news sank in! Then I felt very honoured, as well as pleased that prominence was being given to structural engineering. I was even more pleased when I saw that fellow structural engineers Jane Wernick and Claire Gott were awarded a CBE and MBE respectively. It was quite a day for female structural engineers!

One of our biggest challenges as a profession is to recruit more female engineers. When I got to university I was the only girl in my year, which tells you something about the careers advice young women received back then. The situation has improved, but old perceptions of engineering as a male career persist. Engineers are still nearly always depicted as male - the vast majority of engineers are - but this puts many women off the profession. We can only claim we’ve achieved real success in attracting the full range of talent when near 50% of university engineering students are female, rather than the current 15%. We need to make the profession inclusive from primary school through to practice - where more flexible working opportunities for engineers with childcare needs would greatly improve retention of talented people.

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