International Women in Engineering Day 2020 – Dr Ni An

Dr Ni An, FLEXIS Research Associate

Research Associate, Dr. Ni An, tells us all about her international studies and how she is finding her first engineering role since graduating…

“My adventure with science and engineering began when I was a child. I was born in a family with a good academic atmosphere, both my mom and my grandpa were math teachers. They inspired me a lot and introduced me to science and engineering; the physics behind the invention of cars and planes, the stability principles of the Chinese arch bridges etc. Thanks to them, I understood that gaining knowledge in the field of engineering and science is the key to open a splendid world full of new technologies. My family never told me that as a girl I cannot study or work in the engineering area. That is why I was never afraid to study and work in the often male dominated field of engineering.

My interest in engineering started in childhood and has been growing since then. When I went to high school, I read lots of architecture magazines and developed an interest in that area. My dream was to become an architect. My role model, a British architect, Zaha Mohammad Hadid. Her designs built a magic world in my mind and showed me that brilliant works can be done by a female architect and also that a well-designed building does not only bring happiness and tranquillity to the people who live inside, but also survives harmoniously with our nature and history.

After completing my civil engineering degree in 2010, I got the chance to continue my study on the Master’s Programme at Zhejiang University as a recommended exemption graduate. In Zhejiang University, I started to learn the research skills and obtained the knowledge in the area of shield tunnelling. Three years later, I went to Paris for my PhD study at École des Ponts ParisTech and started the research work on a soil-atmosphere interaction. During my PhD study, I realised that I shouldn’t just focus on an underground construction. I understood how important it is to study the interaction between the atmospheric sphere and the underground environment as I am keen to understand the big picture of the whole environment condition from the perspective of a geotechnical engineer. In 2017, I joined the Geoenvironmental Research Centre at Cardiff University as a Research Associate.

On my way to becoming a researcher, when I faced some hurdles, I treated them as an opportunity to learn new things. I am always very proud when, through my research, I contribute to the development of this area and filled the identified knowledge gap. A moment particularly important in my early career was when I presented my work at ‘Jubilé du Professeur Francois Schlosser’ organized by Comité Français de la Mécanique des Sols et de Géotechnique. My presentation received very good feedback. Professor Francois Schlosser encouraged me to continue my research work, focusing on the geotechnical and geological responses to climate change.

Currently, I am working on the investigation of the potential environmental impact of underground coal gasification (UCG) technology. The essential part of this project is to propose some practical solutions to the problem of UCG technology and, thereby, avoid the potential negative environmental impact of UCG. In my research work, I have investigated the numerical method to evaluate the environmental impact of UCG technology, which will gain more confidence to the public and government for UCG commercialization in the future.


Schematic diagram of UCG process (source – UCG association)

My role in FLEXIS is my first job after finishing my PhD. I am using this opportunity to continue my research and increase my knowledge in the field. As a researcher, I am not only involved in FLEXIS, a world-leading research project, but I am also being introduced to a new scientific world.

Group of women who work at FLEXIS

In the next 5-10 years, I plan on continuing my research on geotechnical and geological responses to climate changes. I also see a potential in expanding my research interest onto some local geo-environmental issues.

What I would say to every woman wanting to study and have a career in the field of engineering is that everything is possible if you try. Don’t limit yourself because you are a woman. Don’t limit yourself without even knowing it. You are free to follow your career in engineering or science if that is your dream.