Grad Series: Hydrologist

28th January 2016

‘There’s a phone on my desk. It randomly goes off and I just pass it to the person next to me and say, ‘that’s definitely for you.’’

Jenny, my newlywed friend and marmite-lover, spent the last few weeks reading books on my sofa; so I took this opportunity between chapters to ask her all the grizzly details about her modern working life in an office full of men. We spoke about everything from toilet seats and work outfits, to biscuits and what happens when you speak about dangerous subjects on the train… 

Photo of Jenny with an ice cream.

Name: Jenny McCall

Studied: BSc Environmental Geoscience at The University of Edinburgh

Occupation: Hydraulic Modeller

Location: Edinburgh

What made you want to study Environmental Geoscience?

I’ve always loved natural hazards and the way people are affected by them. It looked like a really varied subject, and because I didn’t know what I wanted to do it seemed perfect.

What were you into when you were still at school?

Maths and science, I was that loner in the nerdy little crowd!

What was the turning point for you that made you decide to pursue hydrology?

Well, I’ve always enjoyed water, I love that field. The turning point was probably my final year of university when I studied hydrogeology. It was great, especially because the water cycle has always interested me. I think that’s where my interest in ground water modelling piqued; I did a lot of modelling – flows of groundwater, pollution transport and how that eventually makes its way into the water cycle.

What would you say you need to be good at to do this kind of thing?

Computer skills definitely, but also attention to detail is quite important. And yeah, it can be quite mathsy!

What’s the job like?

It’s office based, so I’m mainly sat in front of a computer. A lot of the problems that come up need group discussion though, so we do talk out solutions. It’s not always modelling – we can be quite sociable! But a typical day is quite flexible. I can arrive when I want and leave when I want, as long as the job gets done. I was having to fit in planning a wedding at the same time as working the job which was challenging! And yes, I’m the only girl in the office…

Why do you think there are so few women?

I guess it stems back to maths and science being a male dominated subject traditionally. The change is going to take a while to come through to the actual workplace. I hate the toilet situation, literally everyone knows when I’ve been because the seat is always down…

How does somebody get into this line of work?

Even before a degree, it’s got to be work experience! Go and work for a water company or any other kind of environmental company to get a feel for how the sector works. It’s not essential to have a degree, but it is pretty helpful to have an understanding of the background processes. Plus, through a degree, you learn about other important things like policy.

What’s challenging about the job?

For me it’s people. It’s challenging to communicate the technical stuff to clients. But they’re asking you to do a job because they don’t know how to do it I guess. I love the technical stuff!

Oh and there’s this weird thing too where I get into trouble on public transport. The Flood Modeller Suite I use is world-leading, but it has a really, really unfortunate name. So, I’ve often said on the phone to people ‘I’m really enjoying ISIS at the moment’, or ‘I’ve got the ISIS conference this year’ which I get some seriously funny looks for – but it’s just the name of the program. It doesn’t even stand for anything; it probably originated from the Egyptian Goddess.

Anyway, it was rather conveniently renamed to Flood Modeller Pro, but we still have the other awful acronym which is IED, meaning ISIS event data – the rainfall you put into the model – but to everybody else it is an improvised explosive device. So meanwhile, everyone’s talking about the weather, while I’m talking about misconstrued hydrology programs! Which, by the way, is also essentially talking about the weather…We just get so desensitised to it!

Photo of Jenny running.

What’s fun about your job?

For me it’s really satisfying to say a site used to flood, but be able to offer a solution that will minimise the risk.

Who inspires you?

People from my previous job, especially the technical ones! They had such in depth knowledge and understood how to apply it. There’s a lot to know! They were also great at teaching that to the next generation.

Where does this kind of job lead?

It can go one of two ways; you could get into project management which is more client based, or you can stay in the technical field to develop your skills and become a senior modeller then eventually develop programs yourself! That’s the path I would take.

Why did you end up working with computers and not, say lab work after your degree?

I found that during the degree there was a lot of shying away from maths. A lot of people felt that if you went into the maths you might be ignoring other aspects, but I found the maths the most interesting.

What has been the most unexpected thing for you since graduating?

When I was applying for jobs and doing interviews, I didn’t expect there to be such a big difference between the ways big and small companies operate. Small companies tend to be a lot more technical, which is probably why I ended up in one.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to do this kind of thing?

Definitely get work experience! You can get it through your school, as early as possible. I found mine through my running club back home. I got chatting to people and met someone who had an interesting job working with water. I asked if I could go there for a week; he worked in the groundwater team at Yorkshire Water.

Also, don’t be put off by the fact that it’s one of those jobs in an industry where because it’s so technical, it’s quite hard to get to know what the actual job is. Even just being able to go into someone’s office and look over their shoulder as they work is really useful. They can explain it to you visually. It’s a very relevant industry, especially in Scotland at the moment.

What’s your dream job?

Being incredibly lazy and not doing anything? Haha no, probably being a professional runner or owning a running shop. Running and extra-curricular stuff like that is actually so useful when looking for jobs! I got chatting to an interviewer who also loved running; I think that really helped to keep them interested!

What’s on your desk?

It’s pretty sparse, and all computer based. I do have one digestive biscuit notebook for crazy maths scribblings. There’s always a cup of tea, a pile of paper, and the phone which randomly goes off and I just pass it to the person next to me and say that’s definitely for you.

What do you wear to work?

Definitely not heels – I’d look so out of place in heels. Most people in the office are really casual. I like to wear a nice little shirt and jeans.

Photo of Jenny in her wedding dress.

Leave a comment if you’ve got any tips for working in the environmental sector!

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