Professor Sarah Springman CBE FREng is the Rector of ETH Zürich and a Professor of Geotechnical Engineering
“It is exciting to conduct research to find answers to problems.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
I taught and researched in geotechnical engineering (building on, in and with the ground) and natural hazards (such as rainfall-induced landslides and dams for flood protection) for the past 19 years at ETH Zürich, until I became Rector in 2015. I now have responsibility for teaching throughout the university and for the 19,000 students who are registered for their bachelor’s and master’s courses, or a doctorate.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I was completely fascinated by the ways in which enormous structures had been built to dam lakes and direct the outflow to generate hydroelectricity and control excessive flooding of rivers. It seemed to be a highly sustainable way of providing energy. The combination of creativity, critical thinking, analysis and problem solving sounded like an ideal way to spend my working life, to add value to a range of communities.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
No two days are the same. Civil engineers build prototypes all the time and our work never becomes repetitive. Even when teaching courses as an academic year after year, the ongoing development of content and the students’ individuality guarantees novelty. It is exciting to conduct research to find answers to problems, and to be able to share these developments in teaching and with our colleagues in practice, to help them become even more efficient or safer with their designs.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
I conceived and led a landslide experiment on a field site close to the Rhine. About 30 researchers and students were engaged in instrumenting the ground and applying extreme rainfall, while measuring the response to saturation. Cameras recorded the eventual failure of 130m3 of debris, which slid downhill, with no damage to the nearby road or any of our students and local inhabitants! We learnt a great deal from analysing the data. The experience was extremely valuable for us all and has had impact too.
How do you think gender parity in engineering can be achieved?
The ongoing increase in numbers of girls emerging from school to go to university will have an effect in the longer term, although male students still tend to prioritise mathematics, physics and engineering. Providing evidence of exciting careers in engineering that tackle the global problems facing society today will attract more young women to contribute to engineering. The most important factor is that competent and diverse teams come together to solve such multidisciplinary problems, with mutual respect.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the engineering sector?
So few women engineers studied in the 70s; we were still ‘objects’ of some interest and surprise. Our lecturers did not know about acceptable use of language for an audience of young women as well as men. Their general behaviour and approach to assessment was sometimes very awkward. Nowadays, women do not feel as if they are the first or the only ones. There is a critical mass, which has been extremely important for gradual and sustainable growth.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
Choose a university and a course that provides you with the fundamentals and helps you to develop your ability to extend your knowledge in areas that interest you, as well as to absorb from neighbouring subjects and to contribute to the solution of multidisciplinary problems. Interacting with outstanding lecturers and your peers will help you to develop the ability to think critically. This is essential in a modern era, where the availability of information and data is accelerating almost on a daily basis.