Cherry Chan, Mechanical Engineer at Elementa Consulting, talks about her life-changing move across the globe, the excitement of seeing a building come to life and overcoming her parents’ concerns around a career in engineering.
When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in engineering and what inspired you to do so?
I studied in both Hong Kong and the United Kingdom so there were two halves to my education, which were vastly different from one another.
I moved from Hong Kong to Surrey at the beginning of my GCSEs at around the age of 15. There was a huge difference in my surroundings. Although I loved both places, moving from an incredibly dense ‘concrete jungle’ to a traditional English school surrounded by natural greenery changed my perspective on a lot of things.
Seeing these differences in environment first-hand and my interest in art and science sparked my curiosity around architecture at the turning point in my education. When I was choosing my degree, I was certain that I wanted to pursue a career centered around the built environment. I went on to study Civil and Architectural Engineering at the University of Bath for 4 years, which is closely related to my current role in mechanical engineering.
The combination of my interest in the importance of sustainability and low energy design and the theory I picked up during my time at university have built the foundations of my career.
What excites you about a career in engineering?
I love seeing design turn into reality. Buildings are always designed for people and the creation of new spaces to work and live in can change people’s lives. Being part of the journey from the design phase all the way through to delivery allows me to see a building come to life and to get excited about the impact of the finished product.
My interests have definitely evolved over time, beginning with that first flash of excitement around the architecture and cultural inheritance of buildings, through to more of a structural focus, before landing on the development of systems. If it wasn’t for that first flash of excitement at age 15, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
What challenges have you faced in pursuing a career in engineering?
I never have the mentality that being a woman will bring challenges.
I personally come from a very traditional Chinese family and when they found out about my aspiration to pursue a career in the construction industry, they were worried about me succeeding in what they saw as a male-dominated industry. My twin sister also wanted to become an architect, which added to their doubts. Although their fears came from a good place, we had to explain to my parents why we enjoyed learning about the built environment and what drove us to push past their concerns.
There shouldn’t be a boundary between men and women and gender in the workplace isn’t at the forefront of my mind. When I’m working, I focus on delivery. If you can do the work then it doesn’t matter what background you’ve come from.
Conveying heavily technical information to the different types of people on a project can sometimes prove challenging but explaining the why and how behind these details brings everyone and their agenda together. I think that my equal appreciation for both the art of a building and its mechanical design means that I can draw on multiple perspectives when making important decisions.
Tell us about a moment in your career that you are proud of.
I have recently been working on the development of the Marylebone Hotel in central London, which is a very special project as it demonstrates that it’s possible to work at scale to create an exceptional, high-end user experience. I always approach projects by looking at their purpose and end goals, in order to champion the client’s priorities.
I have also worked on some aviation projects throughout my career. Airports are special places to me as they represent the first place I arrive at when travelling home to Hong Kong and the last place I see before I leave.
What are your aspirations for the future?
When I was working as a graduate engineer I helped out on a number of design and build project schemes for charity. One of them involved working on a school complex scheme for underprivileged children in India, where I tested various options for natural ventilation in a typical classroom.
I would love to get more involved in voluntary work. It can be hard as you have to carefully manage your time outside of working hours but it reminds me of where I started out and my desire to create spaces that are meaningful for people. I would like to give more of my skills back to others in this way.
Design competitions are also a great way to express your creative freedom, which can be really fun.
How would you like to see the industry progress?
The industry is already very heavily data-driven through different digital platforms, but I would like to see further transparency around this. I think that the data we gather in buildings could have more of an impact on future design and that we should encourage collaboration between stakeholders to use this valuable information to our collective advantage.
What would you tell your younger self when deciding to choose a career in engineering?
I would tell myself not to be afraid of challenges and that when you are faced with a challenge there is always a solution out there, it just requires a certain amount of time, patience and effort to figure it out. I would also say that you shouldn’t be too afraid of the journey to reach the end goal as each journey is different and that’s what makes things interesting.
Who is your engineering hero?
My inspirational figures have always been those that I work and interact with in day-to-day life. People from different industries, cultures, backgrounds and their stories are all a source of inspiration for me.