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I fluked my way into engineering – and now I’m a superhero

22 March 2019

Hiba Khan, a hydraulic engineer, is one of the seven new ICE Invisible Superheroes helping to raise the profile of civil engineering and to promote the new Water From Source to Tap exhibition now open at ICE’s headquarters.  

I fluked my way into engineering – and now I’m a superhero

It all started in October last year when I received an email with the subject “We think you’re a superhero". I filed it away in my fan mail folder and went about my day.

No obviously that’s not true. This whole thing was completely unexpected, and it means a lot to me to be able to represent the Institution of Civil Engineers like this.

I also think that the concept of Invisible Superheroes for the work that we do is spot-on.

‘The best I could hope for was to be invisible’

I remember clearly at university that one of my lecturers told us that civil engineers only get recognition from non-civil engineers if we do something wrong or something breaks down, so that the best I could hope for was to be invisible.

And in the same way as superheroes, I think we engineers have pretty good motives for doing what we do and really are passionate about doing the right thing.

Why I’m the ‘People Protector’

My superhero identity is the ‘People Protector’ and I ‘use my mind to save lives and protect communities.’

I think that could apply equally to any civil engineer working in any role, but I was selected because of my work in international development, and in particular after a Twitter post about my work on a project to help protect rural communities in Bangladesh against flooding from the Jamuna and Padma rivers.

Riverbank erosion, which can be hundreds of metres of the banks of the 10km-wide rivers every year, is a cause of such misery and poverty and so the project really does help to protect whole communities.

Riverbank Erosion. Image credit: Northwest Hydraulic Consultants
Riverbank Erosion. Image credit: Northwest Hydraulic Consultants
Riverbank protection. Image credit: Mott MacDonald
Riverbank protection. Image credit: Mott MacDonald

I think the superhero sums up my motivations for going into engineering pretty well – I wanted to do work that’s challenging and that helps people. I’m glad these come through enough to have been picked up by the Invisible Superhero team in coming up with my alter-ego.

My career so far

In terms of my career, I’ve worked at Mott MacDonald since graduating from Edinburgh University in 2013.

I’ve moved around a lot, from dams and reservoirs in Cambridge to UK water supply in Brighton, before ending up in international development in London.

In international development I’ve worked on irrigation schemes in Myanmar, Tanzania and flood defence in Bangladesh.

In the UK, I’ve modelled spillways, supervised the construction of coastal defences and helped design flood defence schemes.

The common theme across all my different roles is usually hydraulic structures and I think I was drawn to this field because I’ve always liked the diversity of needing to be a geotechnical engineer one day and a hydraulic engineer the next. Or perhaps I’m just a commitment-phobe!

‘I actually fluked my way into engineering’

In terms of my goals as a superhero, I hope I can encourage people to see a different side of engineers, particularly those who might be put off in choosing engineering as a career because of any of the numerous misconceptions.

I certainly had no idea when I picked it how much I’d get to travel or that I’d get so much job fulfilment.

I actually fluked my way into engineering, going to university to study physics and switching to engineering when I found that physics wasn’t for me and because a friend who was studying civil engineering and told me I might like it.

As it happens, it was the perfect career for me, so I think it says a lot that I’d never heard about it before I went to university. It proves the point that we as a profession need to do more to engage with schools, young people and the public as a whole.

Civil engineering – a career with meaning

As part of the process of coming up with the characters, I was asked to name one civil engineering myth that I’d like to bust and to share one surprising fact about my area of work.

I wanted everyone to know that civil engineering isn’t all about maths, and that engineers save more lives than doctors, because even now, poor sanitation is responsible for one third of childhood mortality globally.

For budding engineers in particular, I wanted them to know that in our current job climate with more and more complaints of job insecurity and work without meaning, civil engineering gives you the mastery, autonomy and purpose that studies show we need to be happy in our careers.

I’m confident that ICE’s new exhibition in London, Water From Source to Tap, will be a positive step in communicating this.