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What it’s like to be a civil engineer

Natalie Cheung, 26, shares her career as a civil engineer and STEM ambassador coordinator.

Award-winning civil engineer Natalie Cheung is not only a success in her own career, but she’s a passionate advocate for careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).

As well as working to deliver the STEM Ambassador programme in London, Natalie has been awarded the YMCA England and Wales Young Leader of the Year 2018 and University of Manchester Medal of Social Responsibility in 2019. She is also a council member for the Women’s Engineering Society and won their Amy Johnson award in 2019 for promoting diversity in engineering and applied sciences.

Here, the 26-year-old shares her career journey and why she encourages young people to consider a career in civil engineering.

What is a civil engineer and how did you become one?

Civil engineers are responsible for designing and creating lots of parts of the built environment including building, bridges, dams, roads – the list goes on!

I became a civil engineer after studying maths, further maths, computing and physics at Sixth Form. I then went on to study civil engineering at the University of Manchester before starting my career at a global design consultancy.

At school did you know what you wanted to do when you grew up?

At school, I was interested in artificial intelligence and technology which led to me studying computing at A-Level. I wanted to program robots! I considered a wide variety of engineering disciplines to pursue at university and ended up picking civil engineering which was quite different from my original plan. This was influenced by a work experience placement in construction where I realised how many roles there were behind civil engineering projects like buildings.

I am so grateful for the mentors who opened my eyes to career options in construction when I was 16, I had never even heard of civil engineering before that!

Tell us about your role as a STEM ambassador co-ordinator.

I help to deliver the STEM Ambassador programme which gets volunteers from different STEM fields inspiring young people to consider pursuing STEM.

In my day-to-day, I work with volunteers, employers, schools, councils, museums, libraries, youth groups and more! I love organising events and supporting STEM Ambassadors to create resources that can reach young people.

What do you think can be done to get more girls into STEM?

Girls are already interested in STEM fields but it would help to have further support, mentorship and inspiration for groups which are currently under-represented.

We also need to normalise seeing women in all levels of all STEM careers so they are visible to young people of all genders, parents and teachers.

Read more: Why we need more women in tech

What are the common misconceptions when it comes to engineering?

There are many misconceptions about civil engineering fields. Some people think you must be brilliant at maths to pursue civil engineering. Other people think civil engineers do a lot of manual labour. Both of these are huge misconceptions that I hear very frequently and may be a barrier for people who could thrive in a civil engineering career

What challenges have you had to overcome in your career?

Those who know me now would be very surprised to hear I was a very very quiet teenager! Like many others, I have overcome challenges of confidence and impostor syndrome.

Last year, I set a goal to improve my public speaking skills as I recognised this is a skill that can support me in my career and personal life. I sought out opportunities to deliver presentations and talks, especially those which were out of my comfort zone.

The highlights of my public speaking work last year include coaching from TED, speaking at an international conference in front of the President of the UN General Assembly, being part of an engineering panel live-streamed to tens of thousands of young people and my first paid motivational speaking events.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into engineering?

If you are interested in pursuing a career in civil engineering or STEM education, I would advise using online networks to learn from other people in the field. I have met lots of people from LinkedIn and Twitter who I can learn a lot from, including those in other fields.

If you approach people in a polite way, they are often willing to provide advice from their experience or direct you to resources. As a mentor, I have really enjoyed working with engineering students and those seeking to find a STEM education role.

Can you tell us about your podcast?

Outside of my day job and voluntary work in STEM, I have started a podcast Yellow Bee Pod which highlights the experience of East and Southeast Asians in the UK, like myself. This is an underrepresented group in media and I am grateful for the opportunity to provide a platform for other voices.



Bex Bastable
Bex Bastable
Bex is a journalist and the co-founder of The Women's Work Collective.


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