Milly Hennayake grew up in Sri Lanka and the UK. She studied Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Cambridge, where she was part of the Engineers Without Borders UK Chapter – eventually becoming president. After working with charities to improve temporary housing and public spaces in Brazil and Kenya, she now works as a Civil Engineer, helping to develop effective drainage systems to prevent flooding. She recently joined the This is Engineering campaign, encouraging more people to consider a career in engineering.

What led you to engineering?

I was good at maths and science at school and, as there were a lot of doctors in my family, I initially planned on going into medicine. But then I went on a school trip to CERN and something clicked. I was lucky enough to have teachers who recognised my potential and provided opportunities to explore this new career path. This included linking me up with the Engineering Development Trust who helped me secure a year in industry before university.

What inspired you to get involved with Engineers Without Borders UK?

I went to the University of Cambridge that placed a great deal of emphasis on the technical side of engineering. When I came across the Engineers Without Borders Chapter, it showed me a more global perspective and the human side of engineering and inspired me to consider a whole new career path.

What was your experience with your university Chapter like? 

I was involved from my first year at university, starting with outreach workshops in local primary schools. Younger children have fewer preconceptions about engineering so it was incredibly fulfilling to open their eyes to the potential of engineering and the part they could play. I went on to be treasurer, secretary and finally president of the Chapter. I worked on a number of different projects including a Water and Sanitation in the Democratic Republic of Congo and temporary housing in favelas in Sao Paulo, Brazil – this was before Engineers Without Borders UK launched the Engineering for People Design Challenge, which is a great opportunity to meet and hear from people in the real world and understand how engineering can be used to make a difference in people’s lives. I also made a lot of great friends with similar interests both within the university and across the country, who I still keep up with today.

What kind of engineers do we need?

A variety – you need the really focused, technical people as well as those who think about the bigger picture. This is what makes collaboration on engineering projects so great – you have to accept that you can’t know everything and know who to go to. Being prepared to say ‘I don’t know the answer’ is a huge part of the job as it’s the jumping-off point for finding a better way.

What advice would you give to engineers just starting out and hoping to take a more globally responsible approach to their work/career?

Don’t stay in your silo. It’s easy to become completely focused on your role or a specific task but there are people working alongside you that you could learn from. Don’t assume that the people senior to you know everything – if they’re good engineers they will be seeking the most effective solutions and you may be the person who cracks a problem. It’s also important to set ambitious sustainable goals at the start. Even if they can’t all be implemented in the end, they set a benchmark and forces you to consider everything that could be potentially done to make a project sustainable.

What is your current job title?

I’m a Civil Engineer. My role is very much dependent on the project. I enjoy working in multi-disciplinary teams and split my time between design work and coordinating and managing design teams.

Can you tell us a bit about your work preventing flooding through sustainable urban drainage systems? 

My first major project was supervising the construction of Phase 1 of the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme. We were driving innovative technology to reconstruct the weirs – replacing the concrete ones with movable weirs. At the moment, I’m designing sustainable urban drainage systems for a large scheme in Yorkshire to better manage the run-off from rainfall. This minimises the use of hard infrastructure and instead uses rain gardens, swales, filter drains and other green and blue infrastructure to reduce the flood risk within the development and downstream. This, in turn, helps to increase biodiversity in urban areas and provides better spaces for people.

Your work requires you to integrate designs very closely with nature. This may not be the day-to-day experience of many engineers. How can they take the wider impact of their work in consideration? 

Environmental aspects are pretty much a requirement in most projects now e.g. ecology and environmental teams are likely to be involved. But this doesn’t mean that engineers can’t get stuck in their stream and miss opportunities for creating sustainable solutions. It shouldn’t just be a case of finishing your task and then handing it along the line – start conversations from the beginning on the project and integrate with your colleagues. Doing so means you might spot potential problems or solutions earlier rather than later, saving time and effort.

You’ve worked on a myriad of projects in multiple cultures/settings, how has this impacted your work today? Has it influenced your view/approach to engineering?

It has definitely helped with softer skills. I’ve needed to learn how to communicate with people across projects and identify how things can be effectively framed to engage different stakeholders. For example, when dealing with governments or funding bodies, you need to know what bits of the project to highlight and how in order to highlight the important points.

From my experience, I’d say that sometimes development charities do a better job of involving communities in the design process than we are in the UK. Working with Kounkuey Design Initiative was a great experience to see how communities can be involved in the process and decision making from the start. When it comes to public consultations here it feels like there’s still a hesitance to approach communities from the word go- perhaps waiting until proposals have been considered by the design team and options have been drawn up instead of engaging affected communities right from the beginning.

Engineers Without Borders UK are always driving students to think globally and consider that it’s not just the immediate, physical infrastructure that needs to be factored in – but the ongoing life of a project to the people and places it serves. I try to bring this attitude to my work.

Milly Hennayake: Civil Engineer

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