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“My advice is to network”

Gemma Sherwood, Geotechnical Manager at EDF Energy, Vice-President of the Regional Groups and Geological Society Council member

1 March 2023

Gemma Sherwood on site at Hinkley Point C in Somerset

What are you currently working on?

I have just returned from a two-year secondment in the south of France, where I was working on the enabling works designs for the Sizewell C (SZC) nuclear power station in Suffolk. I’m now back in the UK and reporting on the geological and geotechnical ground conditions at the Hinkley Point C (HPC) nuclear power station.

HPC site works started in 2016. It is due to be operational from 2027 and will produce low-carbon electricity for six million homes, for at least 60 years. SZC is currently getting final approval and funding and, hopefully, site works will start in earnest in 2024.

There are significant consequences if anything goes wrong when building a nuclear power station, so we need to know the geological and geotechnical conditions of the ground that we are building in. A ground investigation is completed prior to construction, then the geological characteristics of the rock (strength, faulting) are tested during excavation. The testing and records need to be of the highest detail and quality. For example, for SZC, over 1,100 boreholes have been sampled.

What’s a typical day for you?

If I am on site, I could be mapping and logging geological exposures or undertaking surveillance on the backfill activities. At HPC and SZC, we are excavating millions of cubic metres of material, which is logged, classified, and processed, then re-used as engineered backfill material. Tunnelling is also interesting; I could be logging spoil from the tunnel boring machine or mapping tunnel advances.

Due to my imminent maternity leave, I’m currently a bit more desk-bound, so I’ve been writing design specifications or risk assessment method statements and writing reports on HPC.

Tell us about your role with the Regional Groups

I took over the role of manager of the Regional Groups in June 2022. My main responsibility is to understand the needs of each group (especially post-COVID) and facilitate communication with the Society. The Regional Groups are like little hubs of the Society; it is where we get most interaction from our Fellows and it creates a local Society community that welcomes everyone. The Regional Groups host free monthly meetings for academics and those in industry. Many also host field trips and events, so they are a great place to meet other Fellows and contribute to your continuing professional development.

What advice would you give to someone hoping to work in your field?

There are so many different projects in the UK and abroad that need geologists and geotechnical engineers, so there is plenty of scope to find a job that suits you perfectly. My advice is to network, for example, at your Society Regional Group. When looking for a job, don’t be afraid to apply to companies even if they are not advertising the exact role you want – they may be looking but not advertising! Try to take as many training opportunities and site-based roles offered to you by your company as you can. Don’t be afraid to go abroad, it will be a great foundation for your career and expose you to even more roles and projects. 

What’s your favourite thing about your work?

I love the variation. I have the flexibility to go out on site frequently (I’m not one to sit in the office for too long) and there are many different aspects to get involved in, including ground investigation, lab testing, report writing, and site supervision. Every day is a school day; there is always something new to learn and many opportunities for training.

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