Inspiring women in structural engineering: Rossella Nicolin
Date published

9 March 2021

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Inspiring women in structural engineering: Rossella Nicolin

Date published
Date published

9 March 2021

Rossella Nicolin talks to us about some of the people and experiences that have shaped her career. She shares her thoughts on bias and inclusivity within our profession.

Tell us about how you chose structural engineering and became chartered?

I am a structural engineer thanks to an iconic building. It instilled in me a life-long desire to make a difference to people’s lives. I visited Notre Dame in Paris as a schoolgirl and that was the moment that made me become an engineer.

I was inspired and fascinated by how columns and vaults were expressed in framing the space. I saw creativity, analysis, art and science combined into a sacred space for people. This epiphany moment turned into a career journey.

It led to a combined academic training in architecture and engineering and later a professional career as a structural engineer.

I worked in different consultancies including BuroHappold, Atkins and AECOM. I am now a Technical Director for Laing O’Rourke and I’m still proud of the choice I made that day in Paris.

Getting chartered in the US as a Professional Engineer and then with IStructE in the UK has been a fantastic way to be recognised for my work. It’s been great to play a part in a renowned international institution like the IStructE.

What shaped your development?

I consider myself a life-long learner. I believe that we can never truly stop learning and absorbing new things. I’ve learned by working on new projects, studying in formal settings, reading books and talking to inspiring people.

I never considered myself ‘done’ or ‘settled’ in my development. Every milestone or success leads to a new adventure and to learning new things. The biggest shaping factor of my career has been the constant hunger to learn.

I try to adapt and pursue innovation whenever possible. Engineering is first and foremost the art of creative problem solving and I’ve always believed that the best problem solvers never stop looking for new answers.

What role models have had a positive influence on you and your career?

My first and most important role models are my parents. They have always supported my choices and encouraged me to pursue my dreams. They have showed me first-hand how a dream can be realised by setting a clear vision, laying a path with clear milestones and working through them with passion and tenacity.

I’ve had several great mentors throughout my career that have helped at specific moments or at a crossroads in my academic and professional journey. The best role models were those that showed me the importance of being a rounded person.

This means being great in your work, your personal life and great with peers, colleagues, clients and direct reports alike.

What have been your career highlights so far?

Through almost 15 years in the industry, I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in several remarkable and iconic projects. These range from stadiums to airports in different corners of the world.

The richness and diversity I’ve experienced, and I still experience today, is a continuous reminder of why I chose engineering. I love working and leading on projects and interacting with project teams.

I have reached a senior position in an inspiring company and have received industry awards but, to me, seeing a building take life remains the great beauty of being an engineer.

I have also been involved in disaster relief efforts after the earthquake in Nepal in 2015. This remains to date the most fulfilling personal and professional experience of my career.

Have you experienced any type of bias in your working career and if so, how were you able to handle it?

Bias does exist in our industry and I have experienced my fair share of setbacks and difficulties. These have been due to either my gender, accent or nationality.

The biggest challenge for me has been the feeling of always having to go the extra mile. This means showing more knowledge and expertise than required and having to prove my worth more than other people.  

However, in retrospect, these challenges only contributed to making me stronger and more willing to really go the extra mile.

Most importantly the issues I experienced led me to recognise the need to find peers, mentors and role models. It’s helped to openly share stories, discuss issues and find positive ways forward.

Having a support network for sharing stories has been for me a great way to turn challenges into opportunities. This has helped with my own development and with gathering insights to help change the industry.

What three things would help structural engineering become truly inclusive?

Structural engineering is a great profession and it can be made so much better by learning from diverse voices and experiences.  My top three things for ensuring a more inclusive environment are:
  • Addressing education and the need to encourage more people into the profession from early years of schooling. This is a key focus area. Making participation in STEM educational activities a compulsory CPD requirement for chartered engineers would surely ensure that we target the educational gap in a more structured manner
  • Keep promoting positive and diverse role models from different backgrounds, particularly in wide-reaching outlets like The Structural Engineer. Career stories from female, BAME or other minorities should be regular features
  • Stronger campaigning for workplace equality of benefits, particularly in terms of parental leave with the same benefits available to both men and women. A couple of colleagues in my current and former companies have taken month-long paternity leaves and stories like theirs should be shared and celebrated as great examples


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