Profile: Athena Livesey (Principal Engineering Geologist, WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff)

athena-livesey-cropName: Athena Livesey

Job Role: Principal Engineering Geologist

Organisation: WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff

Education Background:


1. What inspired you to take up a career in the Geosciences?

At 14, I developed an interest in Maths and loved physical Geography – volcanoes, earthquakes, rivers and mountains – and I enjoyed being outdoors. I would go on countryside walks to Church Stretton and the Malvern Hills and I would wonder how this landscape was created. Then I met Mr Smith my A-Level Geology teacher who used to be an Engineering Geologist. His stories were exciting and captured my imagination and he was incredibly inspiring. He also helped me to choose the right degree that incorporated all my passions and all the subjects I had studied!

2. Can you give more detail about your path to your current job role?

Once I was accepted on my course at Portsmouth University, I volunteered to be on the Universities Geological Society Group and at the same time registered with The Geological Society of London as an undergraduate. The GEOSOC would organise evening meetings and I would go along to these to listen to speakers talk about their projects and about any innovations which helped keep me motivated through my studies because I knew I wanted to make a difference too.

During the holidays I would look for working scholarships through multi-disciplinary firms and also looked at different markets to get an appreciation of different sectors.

Finally, in the summer holidays before my final year of university I researched companies for graduate placements and prepared my CV accordingly. I applied for the jobs at the beginning of my final year and by Christmas I had several job offers ready to start in May the following year. So my advice to you is to be organised and do your research. That is your first experience of strategic planning!

3. What does your current job role involve?

I know it’s a cliché but no two days are ever the same! I work through all project phases and I go from the planning phase, concept design, site investigation, detail design, construction and carry out risk assessment on existing assets such as pipelines at the top of a quarry at risk from slope instability!

I generally work in near surface geology, i.e. within 100m below ground level, but I have also designed tunnels as deep as 350m. I have worked in a range of industries from power, infrastructure, deep basements, property and aviation, and with a range of experts in civil engineering, structural engineering, hydrology, hydrogeology, heritage, biodiversity, archaeology and the environment.

One day, I can be outside in either the countryside or a big city; wearing yellow safety gear and investigating the ground hazards e.g. mapping landslides or drilling boreholes to understand how the strength of the ground varies with depth. The purposes of these investigations are to verify my engineering design assumptions by making accurate and objective field measurements which I can test against my understanding of the ground conditions.

On other days I may be in the office, wearing a suit and leading a design team to find solutions to real-life problems. This role requires vision and leadership. Each project will also have a budget and part of my role is project management and understanding how we will deliver a cost effective safe solution within the agreed time. Project problems can be very varied: how do we strengthen ground which in its natural state oozes through your fingers? Is a bridge or embankment most appropriate to cross this river? How does climate change affect our design? Do we cut round the mountain or tunnel through the middle? If we tunnel, how can we reuse the material we just excavated? The challenges are endless and our role is to design and develop a solution to address them and then communicate the solution effectively so it can be built safely.

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4. What do you enjoy most about your job?

I love the variety of the work, the constant challenges and the people I work with. My career has taken me to places I could only have imagined when I did my A-levels. I have now been working for ten years, and have travelled from the UK to Australia and across the Arabian Peninsula, creating a global network and contributing to a legacy of impressive projects that have helped millions of people. I have been significantly involved in eight highway schemes, two ports, one railway and five tunnels to date.

5. Why do you think it’s important to encourage more girls into Geoscience?

In my experience, I have found that, on site, women make up fewer than 1% of the permanent construction workforce and in consultancy offices there is between 10-20%. In construction, this may be because of the inherent risks and, historically, physical strength was necessary but also because public perceptions are of a traditionally male dominated industry, which has not appealed to women.

However, in today’s sophisticated and highly competitive industry, leaders need to embrace diversity of thought, attract people from widely differing backgrounds and cultures, who approach and solve the same problem from different perspectives. In my experience, this approach stimulates creativity, encourages new areas of improvement, increases efficiency and reduces group conformity.  Managers need to support and develop their female staff and value their perspective which will help tackle the skills shortage too!

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6. If you could give a piece of advice to girls currently thinking about a career in the Geosciences, what would it be?

My top tips for putting together a strong portfolio of evidence during your early career are to:

  • attend and participate in local STEM and Learned Society events (e.g. the Institute of Civil Engineers/The Geological Society/Engineering Group of The Geological Society). Talk to other attendees after the event and start to create a professional network.
  • participate in industry days and seek work experience opportunities/scholarships in large firms where you can move around departments and get a taste for different roles and subjects during half term and summer vacations.
  • listen and look for opportunities within your company and build a network. Participate in young professional networks.
  • identify different types of continuing professional development (CPD) as soon as you graduate and record the evidence and details after each experience. These will include writing papers/giving presentations/entering competitions. With all these objectives, I would approach someone more senior on how to plan, prepare and execute these tasks.
  • request a mentor at the start of your career. They can offer advice on how to tackle technical problems but also help find the right career choices for you. (You can have more than one, and there are mentors for different aspects of your career). My mentors opened doors and gave me the opportunity to prove myself.
  • Invest in your soft skills. Geoscience is not all about STEM subjects. We have to be good listeners to hear our clients and understand their issues, and we need to communicate effectively to explain problems and our suggested solutions on a daily basis. For this reason I strongly advise students to pay attention in English classes and read for pleasure!

 A new profile is added each Wednesday at 10am GMT. If you’d like to be involved, upload your profile today using the ‘profile uploads’ page or email: lara.mani@plymouth.ac.uk

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