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Podcast: 5 minutes with Martin Preene

9 May 2023

In this episode of 5 Minutes With, Marissa Lo (Assistant Editor) chats to Dr Martin Preene, Technical Director at Richter.

Martin Preene, Technical Director at Richter.


Episode Transcript

[00:10] Marissa Lo: Hello and welcome to 5 Minutes With, a podcast by Geoscientist magazine. My name is Marissa Lo, and today I’m joined by Martin Preene from Richter. Thanks so much for joining, Martin. Can you tell us about your work with groundwater engineering?

[00:23] Martin Preene: Sure. I work for a civil engineering design company called Richter. We basically support the companies that are building new infrastructure, railway lines, sewage treatment works, and so on. And most of these either sit on or go below the ground. And so, for these works to be built efficiently and safely, we need to understand what the ground conditions are and, in my case, what the groundwater conditions are. Because, for example, everyone’s dug a hole on the beach and, if you go below the water table in the sand, it collapses and can get quite messy and very unstable. The same thing can happen on a construction site, just on a much bigger scale. And we really try and predict whether that will happen, and if it is going to happen, we try and come up with engineering measures to stop it and let people build things.

[01:03] Marissa Lo: What project are you currently working on?

[01:05] Martin Preene: At the moment, we’re working on some sewage treatment works where, as you know, the water companies under a lot of pressure to improve, effectively, the environmental conditions where they discharge the water. And these involve lots of civil engineering, lots of pipelines, lots of what are called tanks to store stormwater. And these are nearly all below the ground, so we’re working on some schemes in the northwest of England, near Manchester, where we are looking at the ground conditions, assessing what construction problems will come because of the presence of groundwater. And then we come up with a solution, and then we work with the companies to help them move forward, and then get contractors on board to construct these deep structures (in some cases) in safe and stable conditions.

[01:43] Marissa Lo: So, what does a typical day look like for you?

[01:45] Martin Preene: I don’t think there’s such a thing as a typical day in my line of work. Essentially, I have an office job. And obviously, nowadays, an office job means I work partly in the office and partly at home. But I go to site for inspections or meetings maybe once a month. Obviously, the more junior people in my team go to site more frequently because there they have to go and actually see the soil or the rock in the real world. But beyond that, today I’ve basically been reviewing lots of reports and drawings produced by my team because, of course, it’s really important that any designs that are issued by a company like Richter are approved by a suitably qualified and experienced person, which in this case is me. And also, I try and use the review process to try and help develop the skills of the people in my team so that in future years they can carry out the role I carry out now.

[02:29] Marissa Lo: When you are on site or for the more junior members, what kind of things are they doing on the ground?

[02:34] Martin Preene: Well, most of the people in my team have been had some training to, say, visually assess or visually describe soils and rocks. So, a very simple thing we do is we do trial pits, where you get a small excavator, what people might think of as a JCB, and they dig a hole in the ground under very carefully controlled health and safety conditions to reduce the hazards. And then essentially, we recover samples of the soil or rock from the ground. And then there’s a very strict way of describing it. The idea is that a geologist in London could describe the soil, and a geologist in Manchester can look at that description and, because the description is very standardized and the words have very precise meanings in the way they’re used, the geologist can quickly get a view in their mind of what soil was being described by this person they’ve never met. And then, once you have that picture in your mind, an experienced geologist can then start to think about the way that soil or rock would behave under construction. Sometimes we might drill boreholes, go deeper, and, in the same way, the boreholes recover small samples, the samples are described, and they’re written up in something called a borehole log, which is essentially a pictorial record, for want of a better term, of the strata of the different rock layers through which we drilled. And if you’re going to build something, you need to have the borehole logs to understand what the geology is beneath your site.

[03:47] Marissa Lo: So, what’s your favourite thing about your job?

[03:49] Martin Preene: I had to think about that because I like lots of things about it, but I guess it must be the variety. I’ve been doing essentially the same technical role from a junior person to senior person for the last 37 years, and I’m not bored. I genuinely learn new things nearly every day. And also, I get a chance to share my experience with others. And I can imagine other careers where, when you’re 30 plus years into it, you are basically repeating things. But, it’s a bit of a cliché, but because we travel around the country and around the world, look at different sites, every site is genuinely unique and every challenge is unique. And you’ve obviously got to think about what you’ve done in the past to build on that, but there are some real challenges that we get all the time, and that just keeps you fresh and keeps you moving forward.

[04:33] Marissa Lo: That’s really great to hear. So, what advice would you give to someone hoping to get involved with, say, geological engineering or groundwater engineering?

[04:41] Martin Preene: I think it’s: do a little bit of research. Compared to when I was starting out, the internet now is a great resource. And so, for example, if you wanted to find out about digging trial pits or drilling geological boreholes, you can very quickly find some quite useful videos on YouTube that at least let you get a feel for what the technology is like. Start accessing some of the language because obviously, like any technical specialism, we have our own language and jargon, which can be a barrier to people coming into it. And then also try and understand what the academic requirements are, because in my team we’ve got quite a wide variety of people. Most of them have got degrees, though some are coming in through the apprenticeship route, but people have degrees and certifications in both geology, geography, in engineering, hydrogeology. And then as well as the academic side of things, I’m a Chartered geologist, for example, with the Geological Society. That is one of the ways I’ve progressed my career. And so it’s important to try and understand what you might do if you had a long career in our field; what are the sort of various qualification pathways for you?

[05:37] Marissa Lo: Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and expertise with us, Martin.

[05:40] Martin Preene: No problem.

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