Alumna Professor Dame Sarah Springman is an accomplished academic geotechnical engineer and a pioneer in the study of soft soil mechanics, ground improvement and mass movement of slopes, renowned for her research, teaching and academic leadership. She is also an acclaimed international triathlete and sports administrator. Springman won the British and European Triathlon Championships several times. As Vice- President of the International Triathlon Union, she played a central role in making the sport an Olympic and Paralympic discipline.
As an engineer, you are likely to be able to achieve so many different things, to contribute to solving global challenges such as climate change, water and food shortages, to build prototypes, to design state of the art devices, to protect people, infrastructure and the planet from the merely undesirable to the catastrophic influences and generally to enable more people worldwide to live more sustainable, resilient and fulfilling lives.Professor Dame Sarah Springman
What inspired you into your field?
I discovered engineering as a possible career on a post O-Level excursion and was fascinated in how my summer holiday exploits of damming streams could be used to generate ‘cleaner' hydropower.
How did your career develop?
After three degrees at Cambridge (Girton, Catz, Magdalene) and engineering overseas in Australia (designing diaphragm walls for water cooling culverts), Fiji (building 85m high Monasavu Dam to provide over 90% of the island’s electricity demand at that time, and still nearly 50% today) and in Reading (Head Office), I left the world of consulting engineering to study for an MPhil and PhD in Soil Mechanics. Obtaining a Junior Research Fellowship at Magdalene was the key to an academic career, followed in short order by a university assistant lectureship, gaining tenure 6 years later as I was moving to a chair at ETH Zurich, as I turned 40.
What contribution to your field are you most proud of and why?
It’s difficult to choose so here are a few:
Working with some amazing students, both in Cambridge and at ETH Zurich, as undergraduates and doctoral researchers, in learning from them and helping to start them off in their careers.
Having been able to advance the application of centrifuge modelling to understand mechanisms in soil structure interactions and for some geotechnical aspects of natural hazards, initially at the (Andrew) Schofield Centrifuge Centre and later founding the ETH Zurich Geotechnical Centrifuge Centre, and contributing to expert international technical committees.
Unpicking the different contributions to what causes lateral deformation of a bridge abutment when building an embankment on soft clay. Thereafter, recommending a design method and applying a similar approach to other types of soil-structure-interaction. And then, it was applied to the design of the approach embankments to the Prince of Wales (second Severn) bridge.
Exploring constitutive response of postglacial lacustrine clays in Switzerland through site investigation, in situ testing and state of the art laboratory testing, and in order to improve prediction of deformations and the potential for failure.
Carrying out multidisciplinary field tests in Switzerland to investigate mechanisms of mass movement and erosion associated with rainfall-induced landslides, river dyke stability and overflow, rock avalanches and the degradation of permafrost. After analysis, advanced lab testing and sometimes modelling numerically, or physically at enhanced gravity in a centrifuge, producing practical engineering advice to local communities affected.
What do you see as being the next big thing in your field?
Multidisciplinary approaches to providing sustainable energy from the ground or from structures founded on and in it under challenging environmental conditions, reducing the CO2 budget in material usage and construction with bio-inspired materials.
Managing real-time data from a range of measurements to monitor potential mass movements, and through smart design then to manage lifetime performance. If not possible at least to be able to predict when an event will occur ‘precisely’, minimising damage and saving lives.
What is the best career decision you've made?
I have two:
Leaving industry after being attracted back to Cambridge by Professor Andrew Schofield (1983) to study for an MPhil and to stay for a PhD and becoming part of the world-leading ‘Soil Mechanics Group’ under Andrew’s leadership. It has formed the basis for many fascinating and rewarding research co-operations and lifelong friendships.
Subsequently, leaving Cambridge to go to ETH Zurich. This was quite courageous at the time, since I could only speak some beginner’s German and knew little about Switzerland and the Swiss academic landscape. Fortunately, I had instigated the installation of the Language Programme for Engineers at Cambridge and taken a 2 x 8 week beginner’s course in German, so I had some confidence!
Have you had a career-defining moment?
I have had several:
1. Being accepted by Girton to study engineering science from 1975-1978, and jointly winning the University’s Roscoe Prize for Soil Mechanics on graduation.
2. Being attracted back to Cambridge by Professor Andrew Schofield (1983) to do an MPhil and to stay for a PhD.
3. Winning a non-stipendiary Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) in 1988 at Magdalene (1st woman) after being encouraged to apply by the Department’s Lecturer in Nuclear Engineering, the late Dr Jeffery Lewins.
4. Founding the Language Programme for Engineers at Cambridge (1990-1993) with Anny King and Edith Esch of the Cambridge University Language Centre.
5. Being awarded a grant by the Danish Geotechnical Association for promising young women geotechnical engineers to chair a session at the European Conference of Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering in Copenhagen, after which I was invited to apply for a professorship at ETH by an attendee and eventually finished, as the only female candidate, in 1st place ahead of 34 men.
6. Not becoming President of ETH (2008) and later becoming Rector (2015).
7. In parallel, having had a rewarding and successful career as an elite athlete and subsequently as a volunteer, in roles as a politician and administrator in sport.
All of which has been recognised in some thoroughly unexpected ways.
What is your advice for someone considering a career in engineering?
An engineering degree is extremely motivating and rewarding, as well as being a great investment in your future career. I have enjoyed working for all of my degrees and especially when I could focus on my interests. In my experience, 1 degree opens up 1000s of career options. As an engineer, you are likely to be able to achieve so many different things, to contribute to solving global challenges such as climate change, water and food shortages, to build prototypes, to design state of the art devices, to protect people, infrastructure and the planet from the merely undesirable to the catastrophic influences and generally to enable more people worldwide to live more sustainable, resilient and fulfilling lives.
The Department of Engineering Centre for Languages and Inter-Communication impact
I believe the Department's Centre for Languages and Inter-Communication (CLIC) is about to celebrate its 30th anniversary. It may be relevant to record how it started; I had the idea to include languages in the new BA/MEng degrees while cycling in the summer of 1990 in Switzerland and Germany. Dame Ann Dowling was a supporter of the idea and obtained almost instant support from Lord Alec Broers who was then the Head of Department at the Department of Engineering and who told me to ‘get it done' in the equivalent parlance of the day.
The University Language Centre, in the form of Edith Esch and Anny King, designed the CLIC according to good practice at the time and helped the Department obtain money from the French Government and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) for the first two lectors. Alec Broers approved the new Language Lab to be created on a new mezzanine floor and members of the Department worked with University development office to raise the money to pay for it. It is so exciting to witness the growth and success over 30 years since then. Well done to the Department!
The Department's language lab had a huge impact on my career - I went to ETH after 2 x 8 week courses in beginner’s German and eventually was elected as Rector - the second woman and as first ever Rector since foundation in 1855 who did not have German as either a mother tongue or who had been educated in German. Thank you!
Sarah is currently Principal of St Hilda’s College, Oxford.