Air pollution and climate change have always been a hot topic in news and science classes. We are increasingly interested in learning about the concentration of a chemical present in the air we breathe. Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work as an air quality scientist?
Hi! I’m Leticia, a mechanical engineer from Brazil currently living and working in the UK. I’ve been living in the UK for the past 5 years and last year, after finishing my postgraduate degree, I joined RWDI as an Air Quality Engineer. RWDI is a wind engineering and environmental engineering consulting firm. It has offered services for the world’s tallest skyscrapers and landmark structures, such as Petronas Towers in Malaysia, Shanghai Tower, London Millennium Bridge and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. RWDI is well known for its expertise in engineering modelling and analysis and it also has in-house model shops, where scaled down models of the most exciting buildings are built, at each wind tunnel facilities.
Tell us about yourself and what you do
I grew up in Brazil and I moved to the UK in 2015 to complete my bachelor’s degree. I had always wanted to study medicine, but my passion for maths and physics made me change my mind when I was 15 years old and I chose to study engineering. My academic journey started in 2012 in my hometown. In 2015 I decided to study at an English university, for 1 year, to improve my language and technical skills. The University of Sheffield offered me an unconditional offer and informed me I was also eligible for a Latin America Merit Scholarship. This scholarship was offered to only 3 students from all Latin America. I had little hope I would get it, but I applied anyway. A few months later, I got the news the scholarship was mine! At that moment, I had to decide whether to stick to my initial plan or to move to Sheffield for the next three years. In the end, I decided to start this new chapter in the UK.
An air quality engineer ensures buildings and industries meet air quality goals.
I had some great experiences during my undergraduate degree. In summer 2017, I undertook a research internship in which I was able to be part of a team while conducting academic research and learning new modelling techniques. I also joined many students’ societies like the Event Management Society, Women in Engineering Society and Sheffield Market Society. The latter was founded by some friends and I, and our aim was to promote and support Sheffield’s local food economy by bringing local farmers to the Student’s Union. After one year of successfully running many student markets, we won the New Society of the Year and Most Enterprising Society of the Year awards. It was an amazing experience!
After completing my bachelor’s degree, I decided to continue my education; I wanted to expand my knowledge on biomechanics as well as improve my computational modelling skills. For my post-graduate degree, I decided to stay in Sheffield and by then I had got the hang of university life and had one of the best years of my life. However, things started not to look so promising for me when looking for jobs. Although I had outstanding grades as well as an amazing research topic for my dissertation, I had chosen a very specialised area that unfortunately didn’t open too many doors for me, especially for an international student requiring work visa. However, I did not let this put an end to my plans.
I had always been connected to mechanical engineering, so I decided to look for opportunities in this field. After a busy year of exams, dissertation, lots of coffee and job applications, I was offered a full-time job at RWDI! This job role got my attention immediately because I was going to apply engineering concepts and use modelling skills to predict chemical concentrations in the air; how exciting is this?
Since day one I have been fascinated with air quality and I could not have ended up in a better role. I work in a dynamic environment constantly facing new and exciting challenges where I can put my problem-solving skills into practice.
Tell us about RWDI, who they are and what do they do.
RWDI is a specialty consulting company, mainly in the civil engineering industry, focused on wind and environmental engineering offering services in a variety of areas, such as:
- Microclimate & pedestrian wind comfort – it is really important to consider the environmental impact of new building on the surrounding area of busy cities. One important factor is pedestrian comfort and safety as a result of the change in wind microclimate. It is vital to ensure people will not feel any discomfort while sitting, standing, strolling, or walking;
- Air quality – Ensure building and industries meet air quality goals. Air quality is linked to the wellbeing of humans and ecosystems. Air quality issues can cause issues from mild public annoyance to serious health concerns;
- Acoustics – Design spaces inside buildings that provide a comfortable environment for listening and free from distraction;
- Noise and vibrations – to help design and maintain buildings free of unwanted sound and oscillations. Unwanted noise in workplaces or meeting venues can be very disruptive leading to reduced productive. Vibrations play an important role in large structures like bridges – if not investigated it can lead to dangerous motion in the structure.
- Building performance – use of engineering modelling and analysis to create buildings that are more efficient, sustainable, comfortable to inhabit and resilient to natural disasters.
Offices are situated all over the world (i.e. Canada, USA, India, China, Australia, etc) with the headquarters located in Guelph, Ontario. RWDI combines professional expertise, advanced computer modelling capabilities (Computational Fluid Dynamics and Air Dispersion Modelling) and boundary layer wind tunnels to investigate a variety of environmental factors related to buildings/infrastructure and industry.
^ RWDI models for 22 Bishopsgate located in the City of London and the Etihad Stadium in Manchester.
What does an average day look like for you?
My day usually starts at 9am. Most of the air quality team is in Canada and the time difference, 5 to 8 hours behind, means that the Canadian part of the team are just going to bed when my day is starting, so my morning tends to be calmer. I start with catching up with emails and continuing any tasks from the day before.
A typical project starts with gathering the information collected at the site and creating the computer model based on this. The design might need to be reviewed and additional information collected. This part can be time consuming, but I really enjoy it because it’s like an investigative job where you have to go through drawings and documents, recording all the information you have or that you need. Once this is done, you can proceed with the modelling and simulation. Analysis of results will follow.
This part is probably where your problem-solving skills as an engineer come in most, because you need to analyse your outcomes and see if they make sense. My activities are spread through the day. In the office, most of us have lunch breaks around 1:30 pm as we like to say the afternoon feels shorter! When I’m done with my lunch my colleagues in Canada are starting their day, so my afternoons are usually filled with calls and chats about on-going projects and new findings or issues I have encountered. My day usually ends around 5:30 pm, if there isn’t anything that came up last minute!
What sort of personality or passions do you need to have to pursue your career and are there particular subjects you need to study or essential skills to have?
I think to be an air quality scientist you need to have a passion for problem-solving. This will happen in any field in engineering, obviously, but what I find most interesting about being an air quality scientist and in consulting is that you are working closely with project managers, seniors, and clients to reach a common goal. You will need to be friendly, organised, and responsible. From day one you are given the huge role of being a project coordinator where you may have one project manager and/or one senior engineer helping you.
I would say having had experience in computational modelling helped me a lot. It doesn’t matter if you never used a specific software because you can always learn with practice, but it is being used to teach yourself how to absorb that kind of knowledge that helps.
How does your work impact on the world around us?
Air quality has gained a lot of attention lately due to the need for cleaner air. Countries are working together to reduce carbon emissions and slow down the rapid pollution of the environment caused by industries, traffic, and residential buildings. So much work is being done to invest in more renewable energy sources with the intent to reduce pollution and preserve our natural resources.
I believe air quality scientists are doing an incredible job by making sure new and old developments and industries can operate without causing too much harm to the environment. In the UK, for example, for any new development you will have to investigate if it needs a simple or detailed air quality assessment. Depending on the size of the development, local councils may require companies to prove this new development does not adversely affect local air quality.
What inspired you to work at RWDI?
I had always been interested in working in consultancy because of the known fast-paced area it is, but RWDI got my attention when I saw the variety of work the company is involved with. The company is well-acknowledged for pushing boundaries of what can be built focusing on sustainable innovation. The projects the companies take on are complex problems which require rigorous analysis and critical thinking. The company has been part of exceptional projects such as 432 Park Avenue in Manhattan, the third tallest building in the US, Grand Canyon Skywalk, Etihad Stadium in Manchester, and 22 Bishopsgate located in the City of London set to stand 278m tall.
Specifically, in terms of air quality, the amount of technical work and training opportunities RWDI provides to its employee was what resonated with me. The kind of work RWDI has delivered state-of-art approaches to clients’ projects whilst working for a sustainable world and therefore a sustainable future for all of us.
Air quality measuring sensor.
What really cool and exciting projects are you involved with?
As I explained before, my work involves air quality. I have been involved in projects in Ontario (Canada) and here in the UK. In Canada, I have worked in a broader range of projects such as facilities with welding stations, laboratory fume hoods, paint booths including university campuses and even a theatre! In the UK, my projects are a bit more different; here I worked with projects that are yet to be built, so they need planning permission. To obtain this planning permission, clients need to prove their development does not cause adverse effects on local air quality. It has been great to work with so many different facilities and I never thought I would enjoy working with cooling towers and generators this much!
What’s next for you and RWDI?
My team in the UK has been looking for more opportunities involving not only environmental air quality but also building air quality. We are excited to take on new challenges working on projects that have never been worked on before. I plan to improve my dispersion modelling skills as well as communication and problem-solving skills.
What has been the biggest challenge of your career to date?
I think the biggest challenge to date has been coordinating a project from the start in an area that I was not particularly used to. What I like about RWDI is that there is a level of confidence put on us, project engineers, when it comes to delivering work. Some might say it can be stressful when people expect you to complete the work on budget and on time, but I think it is exhilarating. I love the fact that you have the freedom to do the work on your own whilst asking for help whenever you need it.
What advice, hints and tips would you offer someone looking to have a STEM related career?
I’d say that before everything else you have to be willing to learn. In any company or job role, you will be constantly learning new things and facing different challenges on a daily basis. Frustration can be more common than you think but never let it discourage you. Teamwork is an essential skill in any job too. You might be working on a project alone but there will be other people indirectly/directly involved in it such as project managers, clients, and even your senior. Knowing how to work with others is vital hence being friendly, professional, and respectful is very important.
Air quality might not be the most popular area of engineering, but it is meaningful and important! As for RWDI, if you are goal-driven, willing to tackle complex challenges and are a truly collaborative person, it might be the place to start your career!
Take a look at what we do and see what you think: https://rwdi.com/en_ca/people/careers
More projects are available on the RWDI website
The 432 Park Avenue project
Burj Khalifa project
Grand Canyon Skywalk
RWDI video for 22 bishopsgate
Etihad stadium picture
We have created learning notes to assist students and educators to further investigate the topics covered in this article. You can download the learning resource here »