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Chartered engineer on top of her game

By | Published Sat, December 31st 2011 at 00:00, Updated Sat, December 31st 2011 at 00:00 GMT +3

Sheila Wairimu-Mwarangu is a trailblazer in engineering. Her academic and professional track record is coloured with accolades which have secured her a place in the hall of fame of global engineers, writes GRACE WEKESA

It is often considered a man’s forte but Sheila Wairimu-Mwarangu has not only made inroads into the exclusive club but is also a trailblazer with impressive accomplishments.

Sheila is not your ordinary engineer. Behind her trail is an academic record that has propelled her

Sheila receiving an award from The Institute of Structural Engineers President, Professor Roger James Plank {Photo/Courtesy]

to the hall of fame of global engineers.

While a high number of university students who study civil engineering score bare minimum due to the rigorous demands of the course, she earned a First Class Bachelors degree at the prestigious University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) in the UK, which is now known as the University of Manchester.

That was just the beginning of greater achievements in an academic and professional voyage that has placed her in the league of elites in the coveted profession. Today she holds the distinct honour of being chartered with two of the top engineering institutions in the world — the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and the Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE). These honours did not come on a silver platter, as Sheila had to endure one of the most rigorous examinations.

"For both institutions, I had to submit reports and attend interviews with experienced engineers. For the IStructE charter, I had to sit a seven-and-half hours exam, arguably the most difficult in the world. The exam requires the candidate to come up with two schemes for a building, then design and detail the preferred scheme," Sheila says.

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Great achievement

According to the Institution of Structural Engineers, Sheila is the only Kenyan female registered in their current database as a chartered engineer.

"This is a great achievement for which I am immensely proud," Sheila says.

However, this pride is not easily noticeable in her humble demeanour, as she can easily melt in any crowd.

Right from childhood, Sheila expressed keen interest in engineering. She followed the footsteps of her father, James Gathara Mwarangu, who is also a civil structural engineer and former lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Civil and Construction Engineering department.

"My early childhood memories consist of being on construction sites, engineers and architects design offices, and attending design team meetings. I occasionally accompanied my father on his work duties. Little did I know that I would one day become a civil and structural engineer, until I did my A-levels many years later," she reflects.

Sheila’s journey to engineering stardom is a result of the firm foundation she established while in primary and secondary school. She won the best effort prize while in Form Three and Form Four at Kianda High School in Nairobi.

First class honours

"In particular, I excelled in Math and Physics. I chose these two subjects for my A-Level at Brookhouse School. It was at this point that I chose my career path — civil and structural engineering. I was fascinated every time I saw my dad’s designs on paper actually turning out into real projects, particularly building structures," she says.

Sheila at a steel fabrication factory in the UK.[Photo/Courtesy]

Sheila joined the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in UK in 1999 and three years later, through hard work, she was awarded a First Class honours degree.

She proceeded to study for a Master of Science course in Structural Engineering at Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, in London. Here she was awarded the Master of Science degree in structural steel design and the Diploma of Imperial College (DIC) in 2003.

Thereafter, she worked for a large UK consultancy firm for three years. She was involved in the design of Liverpool South Parkway, a steel-framed multi-modal transport interchange.

"Later, I joined another consultancy firm to gain greater exposure and involvement in projects. It was a great career move, as I got the chance to work on varied projects, from racecourse stadia to warehouses, restaurants, apartment blocks and private residences," says Sheila.

Always a woman in search of new challenges, Sheila joined yet another leading firm, which offered her greater career progression. She is currently working on the design of a health centre as well as refurbishment of an 18-storey office block.

"My current role also involves concept and detailed design, liaison with the design team, clients and contractors; site visits and design team meetings.

"I am also the representative on the staff committee for the Civil and Structural Engineering department in the Manchester office, which involves meeting twice annually to discuss staff matters and help make decisions on the future of the firm," Sheila says.

Woman’s world

It is her career progression at her current company that eventually led her to achieve the great feat of being chartered with the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Institution of Structural Engineers.

"The journey has been challenging. It required hard work, focus, discipline and sacrifice. My parents brought me up to always believe in myself and that I could be whatever I wanted to be regardless of gender or colour. They advised me that with hard work I could achieve my dreams. In addition, my husband, who is also a civil engineer, encouraged me all the way," says Sheila.

Despite her busy schedule, the engineer often finds time to pursue her hobbies. When not grappling with structural designs, she unwinds by reading novels, photography, swimming, yoga and travelling.

At the local scene, her immediate wish is to get registered with the Engineers Registration Board of Kenya and become a Member of the Institution of Engineers of Kenya.

Sheila at a Rugby game with her children [Photo/Courtesy]

"I also plan to do an MBA in one or two years and later become part of a management team of an engineering consultancy or construction firm," she says.

The young engineer dismisses the belief that engineering is a man’s world and urges women to pursue all the opportunities available.

"For as long as you focus your mind on a particular goal, the sky is the limit. It all depends on what you want to achieve, not your colour or gender," the chartered engineer advises.


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