Liz Brown marks 35 years in geotechnics!

13 October 2023

Name: Liz Brown

Job Title: Geotechnical Engineer

Someone told me you are marking a significant milestone in your career – how many years have you worked in the geotechnical profession?

Well, I started at CampbellReith in 1999 but actually I began my career in geotechnics 35 years ago this month! I graduated with an MSc in geotechnical engineering from Heriot-Watt and started with the Laing Technology Group in October 1988. That sounds like such a long time ago!

What inspired you into the profession?

A conversation in a pub! When I graduated with a degree in geology in 1986, the career advice was either to work off shore or to go into teaching. As I didn’t fancy either, I joined BT.

I also took a job in a pub to pay off my overdraft. A chance conversation there introduced me to John Masters who, at the time, ran the soils labs at Laings. John took the time to meet me, tell me more about the profession, and it sounded great – a chance to use my geology and combine it with engineering with a mix of site/office based work. He also told me I’d need an MSc. So, a year and an MSc later, I got in touch again and was lucky enough to be offered a job as a geotechnical engineer at Laing’s HQ in Mill Hill.

A lot must have changed in that time! What are the most significant changes you’ve seen?

I can see sometimes when I talk to younger colleagues that they’re incredulous when I describe some of the ways we used to work! I think there are probably three areas that have changed most – computing obviously, health and safety and diversity.

With computing, there’s been so much advancement – from borehole records that used to have the legend drawn in by hand to the huge power of current modelling software. Undoubtedly we need the more efficient design that modelling permits and. Alongside that, we must make sure engineers understand the heterogeneity of the ground and have a feeling for the validity of their solutions.

When I think back to health and safety, the profession has improved immeasurably from the days when hard hats were “optional”!

And of course, I now have the pleasure of working with many brilliant female geotechnical engineers and other construction professionals. That’s a big change! 

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Where do I start? I’ve been so lucky that the job has changed, developed and offered variety all through my career.

I had a great start at Laings, working on site investigations all over the country, giving me a first hand knowledge of a range of soils and how data is collected. I learnt so much and worked with great people, many of whom I’m still in touch with.

I was lucky then that at Ground Explorations Ltd I was introduced to CampbellReith, where I’ve been for over 20 years.

Being the first geotechnical engineer at CampbellReith, the first female associate and then the first female partner have obviously been highlights. The variety of projects I’ve worked on has also been fantastic, but I have to say that seeing my younger colleagues develop and grow has to be what I enjoy most.

And, if you could pick one highlight?

Impossible! But this year’s GEawards win would definitely be one of them, especially when the judges particularly noted our respect for each other.

And finally, do you have a favourite famous geotechnical engineer or project?

You do ask some tough questions!

A favourite geotechnical engineer would be Professor John Burland. He’s made a massive contribution to our knowledge of soil mechanics and he’s also safeguarded two of the most famous buildings in the world – the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Houses of Parliament.