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How civil engineering puts you in control of the elements

07 March 2022

A student shares how her degree inspired an interest in controlling fire and making a mark in the cities of the future.

How civil engineering puts you in control of the elements
Sulakna in the lab observing the way an acrylic burns and the characteristics of the flame.

Engineers are the problem solvers of the world.

We have the skills and knowledge to enrich communities and provide citizens with a safe and happy environment, while tackling future global challenges such as flooding, the rise in wildfires, demographic changes, and more.

What you actually do as a civil engineer can vary hugely. There's so much infrastructure in the world beyond bridges and roads (which is what most people seem to think civil engineering is). Plus, you can specialise in many areas.

Playing with fire

One of my favourite subjects is fire safety engineering, which isn’t just a reason to play around with fire.

It's an essential part of engineering which helps us understand fires and thus be able to build structures that are better adapted to keep people safe and limit fire damage. Studying this has changed forever the way I look at my surroundings in enclosed spaces!

Civil engineering is a degree that allows you to really make a difference, and I’m finding it very fulfilling.

Other civil engineering subjects I’ve really enjoyed in my degree have included humanitarian engineering, earthquake engineering and green building design, but there are so many more I’m yet to explore.

Being inspired by sustainable development

Like many before me and no doubt many who will come after me, I experienced the feeling of not knowing what I wanted to do with my life when I 'grew up'.

As the final years of high school approached, I frantically searched for ideas about my next steps but I didn’t magically stumble on the answer.

It was only while studying A-level geography that I became fascinated with issues surrounding sustainable development.

I was amazed by how much good infrastructure can improve people's quality of life. It can help some communities thrive, while others that lack good transport, safe water to drink, reliable power supplies and durable homes and buildings will sadly struggle.

I was also interested in science and maths, and after looking up careers in all these areas I began to consider a path in civil engineering.

Thinking outside the box

Civil engineering is also a very creative subject. One of my courses involved building a functioning paper crane. That was a tricky one to wrap my head around!

It requires a lot of out-of-the-box thinking because that’s what engineers must do – develop solutions to our new (and current) problems.

There are also many technical skills to obtain, many of which are transferable to other professions. For example, we learn computer science-related skills such as coding in Python, drawing with AutoCAD, and modelling and data analysis using MATLAB.

Working together

Something I didn’t know about civil engineering before starting my degree was how much civil engineers work in teams.

It’s been really fun to do group work at university because it's sociable and collaborative.

One of my favourite projects challenged us to come up with an innovative solution for sanitation in a developing-world community. My teammates and I had to use all our different skills and work together to find an efficient solution.

We came up with the idea of using community biodigesters (a device that biologically digests organic material) to help tackle the sanitation and sewage issues, which would then also provide fertiliser for sustenance farming.

With this teamwork, my degree has helped me develop better skills in communication and organisation, which have been beneficial in all aspects of my life.

Our duty to protect our environment and our futures

I’ve had great experiences studying civil engineering so far, learning about the built environment and the duty I now have to protect it, and our futures.

I was able to see this in action during my work experience with Brent Council Town Planners. I was involved in discussions about the design of a main road linking a church and a mosque, which would help connect the community’s diverse groups.

I learned that the design and location of a structure has an everlasting effect on the community where it's placed.

Making my mark

Having always been passionate about the world around me, the power that civil engineering has to enrich so many lives inspires me to look forward to the future of my career.

I believe that to design a city is to design a community, and I'm excited to one day make my mark on cities around the world.

Although I have many years to go until I become a Chartered Engineer, my aim is to one day work with the UN, preferably in the research and fieldwork aspects. For now, I'm buckling down and studying hard!

On a final note about the career, civil engineers are in demand across the globe (and also well-paid) so if you want to join me in shaping the world, you’ll have lots of freedom to decide where you work, what you do and who you work for.

Get involved

  • Sulakna Herath, Civil Engineering Undergraduate, University of Edinburgh