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From paving local roads to pioneering the world’s greenest reinforced concrete: how one engineer solidified her career in tunnels

From paving local roads to pioneering the world’s greenest reinforced concrete: how one engineer solidified her career in tunnels

Carola Edvardsen is one of the world’s leading concrete experts, specialised in major international bridge, tunnel and marine projects. But getting to this point was no easy feat and she had to learn early on that it would take a lot of work to get ahead in this dynamic and highly complex field. So how did she do it?

It seems Carola Edvardsen has had concrete running through her blood from the day she was born. Born in Germany to a family full of engineers and craftsman, she was constantly brought along to construction sites.

“I was the oldest child in my family, and was very tall and strong growing up, so I was the one who would push around the wheelbarrow on site,” explained Carola. “It wasn’t that fascinating at the time, but it was part of my family. My grandfather always told me that I’d make a great engineer one day.”

Following her grandfather’s advice, Carola applied for RWTH Aachen University, one of Germany’s leading technical universities, where she was accepted into their highly regarded engineering programme. Before her first semester, she took a summer job working on roads and pavements with a construction company.

“I loved working outside with all the guys. For some of the people on the crew, it actually took a while for them to realise I was a woman. I actually kind of liked that – being appreciated for my skills and hard work rather than my gender.”

After completing her civil engineer bachelor’s degree, she began a master’s programme where she had to cast a huge concrete beam and conduct lab tests to inspect the cracks in the concrete.

“These cracks followed me for the rest of my life.”

Truer words may have never been spoken. Carola is now one of the world’s leading concrete specialists, consulting on some of the most complex, multi-disciplinary infrastructure projects around the globe. 

Concentrating on concrete 

Carola’s work can be seen on some of the most prestigious major tunnel, bridge and marine projects in Qatar, the UAE, Turkey, Denmark and Singapore. She has been a keynote speaker at dozens of international conferences and is currently the Danish Representative for the International Federation for Structural Concrete (also known as Fédération internationale du béton) and a member of Commission 8 'Structural Service Life Aspects'. Her PhD was awarded two prestigious prizes from the German Concrete Society – an honour that no other woman in the country has accomplished before.

Carola is also a pioneer in the development of Steel Fibre Reinforced Concrete (SFRC), a new concrete technology that reduces carbon dioxide emissions by a remarkable 60-70 per cent compared to traditional reinforced concrete production.

But getting to this point wasn’t a walk in the park.

After completing her master’s thesis, Carola managed to secure a position at the Concrete Materials Institute in Aachen (ibac) with the world-renowned expert in concrete Professor Peter Schiel. Here she worked towards a joint research and industrial PhD project, which took her 7 years to complete.

“This combination really helped me build my network across Europe and gave me a robust technical and practical background. It ultimately led to a job with the concrete team at COWI, where I’ve worked for almost 25 years.”

Making moves in the Middle East

When Carola started with COWI some years later, she estimates that it was only 20-25% women at the time working as an engineer.

“I always liked being one of the few women. But something I had to learn early on is that you must better than the men. If you want to advance in a male-dominated field, you have to be technically stronger and more eager to learn than everyone else. I’ve always had to fight for work. Nothing was ever just handed to me, especially in the beginning. You need to first prove yourself both inside and outside the company and develop your own reputation. If you have this skill, it opens doors.”

This was especially true when working on huge international projects in the Middle East.

“I had to be better than every single man in the room. But I could do that.”

One of her projects in the Middle East was a marine project in Saudi Arabia. All work had been halted due to a disagreement about the concrete selected for the project.

“I was called in to educate the client on the concrete and convince them to allow work to continue. We met His Excellence’s engineer / client for a meeting in Bahrain and I was sat in the second row behind all the men. Surprisingly, the client invited me to sit in the front row and talk him through the situation. He was a chemist by trade and appreciated my specialised knowledge in concrete. I was invited to host a workshop for all of his engineers, which went exceptionally well, and we were given permission to continue with construction.”

Carola’s continued work in the Middle East has provided her with many unique and exciting experiences, and she has truly enjoyed and appreciated learning about different cultures.

One experience that she remembers fondly was when she was invited to present her findings from a concrete inspection of a tunnel that was 30 metres deep in Doha. There were about 30 people in the room at the client meeting, including senior project directors and company executives, but the client insisted that Carola be the only one to sit with him at the front of the room – a cultural surprise to many.

“After I gave my presentation, I brought out a small COWI instrument that we use to measure cracks in the concrete. I gifted one to him and gave strict instructions that the other two were given to two female engineers on his team. We developed a great rapport, as he appreciated my experience and technical knowledge, and finally gave the go-ahead for the contractor to continue the work.”

Advice for the next generation of engineers

Carola credits her success to a few key things.

“I’ve had two incredible mentors throughout my education and career. During my PhD, Professor Schiessl motivated me to work harder. He brought me along on many business trips, where I was often the only female in the room at meetings. Whenever he could, he gave me the opportunity to speak up and make a name for myself.”

Another one of her mentors was Steen Rostam, who was one of the world’s leading concrete experts and her first manager at COWI. He gave Carola the opportunity to work on his team and learn from him first-hand for many years.

“I think it’s so important to have mentors, and I’ve made a conscious effort to pay it forward with the members on my team by giving them the opportunities to experience things that they would never have learned during school and encouraging them to build their own networks.”

Secondly, Carola is adamant that you need to have a strong technical foundation and force yourself to continuously learn.

“Yes, you have to be better technically than everyone else in the room, but you also have to be consistent, strong and confident in your knowledge and communication skills.”

This is advice that she has also passed along to her daughter, who is now working as a civil engineer at COWI too – the third generation in her family to carry on the engineering tradition.

When asked what she wants her career to look like in the future, it’s a simple answer for Carola:

“I want to keep doing more of this: dedicated to concrete, and those cracks that have been following me for the past 30 years. Also, helping to develop my technical team. I want to empower them to network and grow, like my mentors have done for me. I want them to feel confident enough that they can pass their expertise on to the next generation of civil engineers too.”

Carola   Carola

If you have any questions or comments please email sam@tunnelbuilder.com and I will pass them on to Carola – Thank you.