An interview with Athena Livesey, Engineering Geologist
The Alumni Association recently got the chance to catch up with Athena Livesey at the University of Portsmouth’s Engineering Geology 50 Conference. Athena is a UK and European Chartered Principal Engineering Geologist for WSP and has just been named as one of the Top 5 Rising Stars in Science and Engineering 2017 by WeAreTheCity.
Catching Athena during the last coffee break of the afternoon on a glorious sunny day in Portsmouth, we sat down to discuss all things Engineering Geology with a little bit of Portsmouth thrown in. I would also note at this point, that when I interviewed Athena, a University Open Day was taking place which reminded her of how she met her husband, “the man with big sparkling blue eyes,” for the first time.
Just by meeting Athena you can see the passion she has for her industry, with the biggest smile on her face she spoke about why she initially chose to study Engineering Geology & Geotechnics.
“From an early age I already knew I enjoyed the physical side of Geography; the volcanoes, earthquakes and rivers, the Geological Hazards side of Geography, as well as the experimentation side of Chemistry and the problem solving of arithmetic. My love for these subjects grew when I started college, I was able to study, Maths, Geology and Chemistry, which to some doesn’t spark much passion, but I had an incredibly inspirational Geology teacher who often spoke about his pre-teaching career stories of when he was an Engineering Geologist. He is also an alumnus of the University of Portsmouth! This was a great help when choosing universities, he told me the applied degree in Engineering Geology at the University of Portsmouth would present many opportunities to work on fascinating projects, travel the world and continue to meet interesting people. As I have often said, it was an obvious choice, I wanted to tell my own captivating stories of adventure!
“I also chose Engineering Geology as I wanted to further understand the purpose of the world and how it was created, and this subject gives you that, especially within the UK. The UK is fascinating when it comes to Geology, we can go out and see almost the full geological record since planet Earth was born. In Scotland we have rocks which are 2.7 billion years old and north of London we have soils deposited in the last glaciation (10,000 years ago) a relative short time ago!”
What would you say are your best memories of Portsmouth?
“My best memories of Portsmouth would have to be the field trips we went on. Geology as a subject, and a career, takes you to places you would never go as a tourist. The field trips and the course itself created lifelong friends, as you build a bond with each other throughout your duration of study.
“A field trip to France was a very memorable trip, we travelled across the whole of the eastern border of France! During one evening our lecturer had met a man in the small village we were staying in and the next day our group were ushered through this man’s house to his back garden when we all had to quickly slam the breaks on before we stepped out the back door into a humongous sink hole. It was like a comedy sketch all of us bumping into one another as we stopped so abruptly, gasping in awe of this significant geological hazard.” Athena gets up at this point to demonstrate the scene that took place in the local man’s house in France.
“The field trips we took during our time at University, and even aspects of Portsmouth itself, puts you in real life situations. We were evacuated from our lecture theatre one day as a World War II bomb had been discovered in the new development next door, we all ran to the window to look into the building site! To some this may have seemed scary but to us we were fascinated to understand how they would manage this risk, and so as we left the building, we watched eagerly to see what equipment was being delivered to dispose of the bomb. Situations like these gave my course mates and I more drive to go out, find and understand technical problems in the ground. Engineering Geology is so unique!”
Did you have a favourite Lecturer and did you consider a mentor?
“I wouldn’t say I had a favourite lecturer whilst in Portsmouth as they all taught different subjects, but I would say during the final year my tutor, Malcolm, became my go-to lecturer.
“Since graduating I have had seven mentors so far, and will continue to seek out mentors as I progress. My advice is always look to have a mentor through the different stages of your life and career development. Also those looking for a mentor, avoid choosing your direct line manager. In Engineering Geology it is best to have a Business Mentor, and a Chartership Mentor. They will be able to let you know about the official do’s and don’ts of your career as well as the unsaid do’s and don’ts.”
What would you say is your favourite aspect of your career or project you have worked on?
“My favourite part of the job would have to be the construction phase. This is the phase where all your assumptions are tested and the design teams hard work becomes a reality! If anything does need changing at this stage though it is very much against the clock as all the different teams are coming together to start building and any changes has a direct impact on the programme and cost!”
Is there anything you would still like to achieve?
“I have just reached the 11 year mark in my career where I can now make a change. Every 10 years in this industry is different, it changes. The first 10 years of your career you are constantly learning to do things on your own, you are growing and understanding more, the next 10 years will be completely different, you can move to the next level of your career. You become more senior, and start making more decisions and becoming influential. The tough question for any passionate engineering geologist moving to this stage is; how much of the everyday technical (geology/geotechnics) work are you willing to handover to move into a leadership position?
“I have a few routes I’m exploring now I have reached this crossroads. I am currently gaining experience on the ACE Board (Association for Consultancy and Engineering) and lead the ACE Progress Network. I am looking to further this experience by exploring routes to the chief board level. However once again I question, would I have to leave my passion for the job behind? I also have a huge appetite for learning and would consider a PHD as another career move. It would have to be worthwhile, looking into areas that aren’t investigated as much, It wouldn’t necessarily be in ground engineering, but it would be applied and something that would change and improve our industry. We need to keep evolving.”
“The dream however, is to become a leader and run a mega infrastructure project! I am inspired everyday by my team but my personal career goals have been driven by the people I worked with in Australia on projects such as the $1bn Hunter Expressway. This was a multi-disciplinary team of 1200 who were delivering something important for the people of Australia. A team who were productive, happy, and eager to learn and grow whilst giving us all an opportunity to build relationships, become innovative and creative! We also gave a back to our local community.”
“What’s great about all this is that I have 25 years ahead of me to gain experience with these routes. I don’t need to choose all the above in one moment, but maybe a couple of years here, and a couple of years there, if it works out then I will go and learn more about it, if it doesn’t suit me at least I know and then I’ll explore different avenues. Maybe it will interest me in 5 years’ time. I can’t predict the outcome but it’s good to be open to opportunities and plan your career perhaps with the help of a mentor.”
How did you feel as a woman entering a male dominated subject field?
“When I started at the University of Portsmouth I did not find it difficult being a woman. The lecturers saw you for who you were. I had come from a male dominated field with the A-Level subjects I took, so I didn’t see this as a problem. I was finding my feet like everyone else starting university. I did at times question if I needed to be “blokey” but ultimately no, I had [and still have] amazing friends on the course including three other women who became my best friends. They made it fun in and beyond the lecture theatre, and the university gave me confidence to follow my dreams!
“I am proud of women in the field and I am proud of this subject! We keep the world safe, contribute to the economy, and improve society! I am always trying to encourage females into the Geosciences, but not just females, everyone who is interested in the subject or don’t even realise that what they are searching for is Engineering Geology! Geosciences in general, and the fundamental science and math subjects at A-Level can lead you to this course, the route needs more exposure! Female or not, I am very hands on with promoting the field. The basic courses like Science and Maths can lead to so many different courses at University, which in turn can lead to so many diverse and various careers in different sectors! I hasten to add there are so many different jobs in engineering and most don’t have the title ‘engineer’ within them! So please explore!”
Any other thoughts?
“On Portsmouth, on my career? I have so many stories to tell, that is what is so great about Engineering Geology, it is a career full of stories and why I think the Engineering Geology Community is really fun and inspiring! There is always laughter when we get together!
“Portsmouth’s Engineering Geology & Geotechnics course is very applicable to the industry, lecturers have real life industry experience and offer you an applied way of thinking, which gives graduates the edge in the competitive job market. They have a strong network across the globe which present students with job opportunities during summer, sandwich and your final year.
“During my time at Portsmouth, I worked hard for everything, I had at least three jobs at anyone time to earn money so I could go to networking opportunities in London, as well as normal fun trips with my friends. I was also a member of the rock climbing club and canoe club. I felt my university life was well balanced, but in order to do this all, I planned everything! This paid off in the end and I was fortunate enough to have five job offers when I graduated.
“A big piece of advice I would give to students now would be, don’t miss lecturers, ask questions, go out and look for opportunities, network, stay in touch, plan and prioritise, and don’t let anyone hold you back!
“Every skill I learnt at University has been used during my career. I owe everything to Portsmouth, it has been life changing with quantifiable opportunities for the better – the course content, the staff, the industry and the facilities.”
“Portsmouth is so down to earth, builds strength and keeps you grounded. Go forth and bring back your own stories!”