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Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction

Transforming infrastructure through smarter information

Name: Nicole Badstuber, (Former) Research Assistant in Urban Systems and Infrastructure

• How and why did you get into engineering?

I was fascinated by all the ‘invisible’ things that make a city work from a young age – the city’s infrastructures that provides us with clean water, electricity, and allows us to travel across and to other cities. It seemed we only truly appreciated infrastructure and the service it provides when it breaks, or fails to work as well as we have become accustomed to.

I embarked on a Civil Engineering degree for my undergraduate studies. In my first week at university we were tasked to write an essay about infrastructure in London. I spent the week reading books about the London Underground at the British Library. I was absorbed by the feat of engineering – the transport infrastructure more than 150 years old that we relied on to keep the city moving today. That week I fell in love with the transport network that kept London moving and discovered my passion for transport. I went on to study Transport Policy and Politics at Masters level and am currently working on my doctorate in Urban Transport Governance and Policy at UCL.

• What is your current position and what does it entail?

I joined a research project investigating the local governance of digital technology at the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction in January 2019. The research project I am working on is looking at the concept of a digital twin, a smart cities model that would give cities real-time information on its infrastructure and built environment but would also allow cities to forecast impacts of new developments or infrastructure upgrades. Our research is seeking to understand how a city region might govern such a digital twin, what information they would want it to capture and what are the obstacles to implementing a digital twin. At this stage of the research our work is focused on a Cambridge city region case study. In the coming months it will expand to include case studies of the experimental use of digital twins in other cities in the UK and across the globe. The research is intended to inform the creation of a prototype of a digital twin for the Cambridge city region.

• What have you gained from working with CSIC?

I have learned so much since joining CSIC, even though it has only been two months. Through this project I am working on I am learning about a whole new sector: digital technology and digital infrastructure. I have also had the chance to apply my research and knowledge of governance studies to this new sector to distil new insights. From our research interviews with local government staff working at different government levels in the Cambridge city region, I have learnt a lot about the infrastructure and governance challenges in the region. One big take away has been how complex and multi-layered the government structure here in Cambridge is.

• How have you overcome challenges in your working and academic life?

My biggest challenge in the past few years has been a new visual impairment, its related health issues and the huge impact it has had on my life. I have had to learn to live with the new impairments: to completely restructure my life around managing my symptoms and learn to live life at a slower pace (because I need many more hours of sleep than before). Since the summer of 2016, I have been struggling with blurred/double/unstable vision and many accompanying symptoms – migraines, dizziness and nausea. It has involved time consuming visits to medical specialists. Yet, so far, nearly three years later, I still do not have a diagnosis. After a year of medical trials, with each new prescription coming with its own set of adverse side effects, some medication that helps manage one of the symptoms has been identified.

Saying it has been anything other than difficult would be a lie. Because of the migraines I could often not read (text-based work is particularly difficult because of the double vision). I love books and reading and I was pursuing a career in academia that was based around books and reading and writing – how was I ever going to make it work? Would I have to give up on my career ambitions?

At times it felt like a loss of my identity and my vision for the future. I felt like I had little value. I wanted to work in transport, produce research and inform policy-making, but whenever I picked up a book and tried reading the migraine would kick in and I would tire quickly. Everything was an uphill battle.

It has taken time, a lot of time. After nearly three years of experimenting with lifestyle changes, medication and technical equipment, I have broadly found a way to work, a pace to work at, and a balance of work that allows me to pursue my career and passion again. It has been such a joy and boost to morale to return to working in research and managing to work full-time. It is still a daily challenge. When I will have ‘good’ and ‘bad’ heath days remains fairly unpredictable. Yet, I am thrilled to be back working on new research, teaching when the opportunities come up and working alongside smart and friendly colleagues.

• Do you have any advice for women who may be considering pursuing a career in this area?

Follow your passion and interest. Don’t be deterred by joining a male-dominated industry – don’t give up on your passion because of the lack of diversity in your sector.

Speaking from my experience, I have often found it difficult, frustrating, and demoralising working in a sector with so little diversity.  There are ‘invisible’ obstacles and everyday battles to just keep pace with male colleagues. From my view it seemed my career was stalling when colleagues with comparable skills and experience were being fast-tracked or offered opportunities to prove themselves.

You may have a similar experience, many moments that might make you question why you are pursing this career. It will not be easy. But also, this should not be the way things are. The fact that many of us have similar experience does not make them acceptable or OK. You should pursue your passion, whatever you are interested in. I find pursuing my interest in transport research very rewarding and know there would be a large gaping hole in my heart if I had given it up. I love transport and research and I am delighted to have found a supportive environment and welcoming colleagues.

I hope by highlighting the work of women in sectors dominated by men, the next generation will see diverse role models working in a breadth of sectors and roles within them. I hope it encourages them to follow their passion.

But it is not only about attracting women; it is also about retaining them and their talent. We need to support women in developing and advancing their careers long term. Women need to be supported in overcoming structural discrimination to reach senior leadership roles. We need equal pay and better parental leave arrangements (paid and allowing parents to share child care responsibilities). More widely we also need to normalise truly flexible working and tackle the stigma of part-time working.