Fiona Cousins (1986)
Principal, Arup, NY
Trinity Hall gave me the time and space to become more of myself: enough of myself to take the next steps with confidence
How do you look back on your time at Trinity Hall?
Trinity Hall gave me the time and space to become more of myself: enough of myself to take the next steps with confidence. It was challenging and supportive, both academically and on the river.
Why did you choose to study Engineering?
I always wanted to be an engineer – even before I knew what it really meant. I visited my first building site while I was in 6th form, and got my first whiff of welding, concrete and dust. There’s nothing like being on site and seeing and smelling and touching something that’s being built. I also worked as a trainee at Arup in my gap year so by the time I got to Cambridge I was fairly sure of my choices.
How did your time at Trinity Hall impact on your career?
The engineering course at Cambridge turns out a particular type of engineer with a particular way of thinking. We tend to be solidly grounded in mathematics and return to first principles at every opportunity. Other engineers are sometimes more solidly grounded in specifics of techniques or technology. All complex designs need people who can do both, but the interesting, new problems yield better to the confidence that comes from a first principles approach.
Do you have any advice for other women looking to work in your field?
Engineering is male dominated although much less so now than when I started. I sometimes say that I have been the oldest woman in the room since my mid-20s, but I am no longer the only one. If engineering problem solving is what you want to do, don’t let the lop-sided representation worry you. It is a fantastic job for the right people, and if it turns out not to be for you, an engineering background is a good foundation for many other roles and industries. Make sure that you pick a firm with a good attitude to diversity and inclusion and play to your strengths.
Who are your female role models?
Most of my role models have been male – it’s part of being my age and in engineering – and there have been a lot of them. I think it’s important to have a wide range of role models and mentors: everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and it seems to me more productive to take the best ideas from wherever you find them. I was lucky to be greatly encouraged by almost all my bosses and some of my colleagues, and have learned most by watching collaborators, seniors, and even juniors approach tricky technical and people issues in ways that wouldn’t have immediately occurred to me.
What is your greatest career or academic achievement to date?
There are three or four big things: I really enjoy my job as a Principal at Arup, responsible for winning and doing project work, in both building design and sustainability consulting, looking after my team, and looking for new opportunities to use our skills to deliver high-value services to our clients. I have been engaged in sustainable design for the built environment for most of my career and have had some fantastic opportunities to engage with peers in other firms and related industries to try to change the world. I am currently the chair of the USGBC, a large non-profit organization dedicated to transforming the built environment. I was also named an Arup Fellow – an honorary designation given to technical specialists in the firm. Fellows are expected to promote technical excellence in our work through engagement both within the firm and out in the world. This year I gave the annual lecture for the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers on the subject of how engineers can save civilization.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Change broadens your perspective and fills your toolbox. Welcome it and position yourself to learn from it.