Kathy Thomas

Project Manager - Water Infrastructure

GHD

And - RAP (Reconciliation Action Plan) Champion

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The earlier you can clearly articulate your boundaries, the more confident you will be able to move through a variety of situations.

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WHAT DO YOU DO?

I manage the delivery of projects through all phases of their life cycle - from Options Assessment through to Commissioning. I specialise in Water and Wastewater Infrastructure projects, and find these the most satisfying as they are good for public health, reduce waste, increase water resources, and require problem solving using fundamentals of physics, biology, chemistry as well as all your general civil construction constraints. I started my engineering career onsite in Construction, and fell in love with the real time problem solving as well as the tangible sense of creation when a project is finished. I have been in consulting the last two years, and it is fantastic to be able to drive decisions and have access to a massive brain trust - our company has 10,000 people across the world, and knowing who to talk to allows the problems we solve to be far more complex and rewarding.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS FIELD?

I always had a natural aptitude for maths and physics, and throughout high school my maths teacher strongly encouraged me to choose engineering - she even got my mum involved to try and convince me. However, when I asked what engineers did, everyone responded with "bridges". I really wanted to make a positive impact on the world, and couldn't see I would be driven (excuse the pun) by transport infrastructure. I took an exchange year in Brazil, and came across a environmental engineering and water engineering, and thought this satisfies my desire for problem solving for good. The longer I have stayed in this field, the more I feel passionate about what I do.

HOW DO/DID YOU TACKLE OBSTACLES?

When I started out, I was working in the Construction industry and often in remote towns. A lot of water infrastructure construction and investment is happening in regional towns, as it is where a big difference can be made. However, it was quite isolating as a young female - On one site, where there was Naturally Occurring Asbestos (so everyone had to shower to decontaminate for all drink breaks) we resorted to someone holding a piece of cardboard over the shower window when I went through as a small attempt at privacy. Talking to other women in the field and finding strategies to set my own boundaries were crucial at this time, and I have been able to apply them in all stages of my career. Some of these experiences really built resilience, and ultimately I am grateful that the 1% of men onsite questioned my right to be there - as it forced me to defend myself and build my self assurance.

WHAT DO YOU LOOK AT & THINK, "I WISH YOUNGER ME WOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS WAS POSSIBLE?"

2020 has been a disruptive year, which has allowed a huge transition in behaviours and technology. I am so interested to see how transport networks will respond to more people working from home and a decentralised environment. A boy, were there a lot of meetings that could have benefitted from video conferencing tools now available (I'm looking at you "Zoom" and "Teams"). I think the ability for a whole society to change behaviours, habits and processes practically overnight has been incredible, and I hope it allows for a lot of things to shift permanently to a new, better normal!

WHY DO YOU LOVE WORKING IN STEM?

I love working in STEM as you can really drive change. I have always loved the sense of acomplishment with problem solving, the nuance of the arts, and the creativity and connection through langauges. I think engineering allows a little bit of all of these - the essence of the job is problem solving, and it is really satisfying to be able to apply fundamentals learned in physics, biology, chemistry and maths to real life problems. In Construction particularly, nothing goes as planned, and so nuance, flexibility and adaptabiltiy is required - and you can find a lot of beauty in the methodology you use to get to the final product. Communication is so much more important in STEM than I ever anticipated - you really have to learn to express very complex issues in simple, understandable ways to get the best result. Engineering delivery is such a fantastic career.

BEST ADVICE FOR NEXT GENERATION?

My best advice that I was given is to express boundaries in terms of "I feel x when you do y, and if it keeps happening I will be forced to do z". There will always be situations that make you uncomfortable, particularly the more you grow in your career. The earlier you can clearly articulate your boundaries, the more confident you will be able to move through a variety of situations.

INSPIRATION

The ex-CEO of Western Australia's Water Corporation (Sue Murphy) once said (in responding to changing rainfall and ongoing drought in Perth) they are fundamentally moving away from "praying for rain as our core strategy". I love this - the combination of succinct wit clearly outlines the need for innovation and climate resilient resources of water. She is a great example of a leader in engineering - able to convey complex messages to the general public through wit and clear langauge.

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