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Case Study: Dr Mihaela Anca Ciupala

Dr Mihaela Anca Ciupala joined UEL in 2003 as a senior lecturer in the School of Architecture, Computing and Engineering at UEL.

The following is a case study to understand some of the challenges as a women working within STEM and how Anca has overcome these and what she would like to share with others.

Areas of interest – this may include academic and research interests – and what made you interested in these?
My early interest for STEM subjects came from the family, as my mother was a school teacher in biology and chemistry. However, my passion for physics and mathematics developed during secondary school, where I had fantastic and truly inspiring teachers. They encouraged me to follow up my passion for these subjects by studying an engineering degree, which I did. A decision I never regretted since. I completed an MEng degree in Civil Engineering at the “Gh. Asachi” Technical University Iasi, Romania, followed by a PhD in Earthquake Engineering and Safety of Structures at the same university. This allowed me to focus my subsequent 26 years of teaching and research in academia on topics related to structural engineering/seismic strengthening of concrete buildings using novel techniques as well as sustainability in the built environment.

How did you get to the position you are now in and what are your future career aspirations?
While a lecturer in Romania, I had the privilege of being awarded a two year EU Marie Curie Research Fellowship at the University of Sheffield. This was an important step in my professional career as this allowed me to develop my research at international level and become an established researcher. I subsequently obtained a position of senior lecturer in Civil Engineering at UEL in the School of ACE. Thus, I have spent 12 years with UEL, teaching at all levels and leading research. Looking to the future, I would like very much to continue building upon my work with UEL and advance in leading academic and management positions. As an engineer, I would certainly like to take more of a leadership role in my profession and to actively promote the crucial contribution that civil engineers make to society worldwide.

Who have been your professional role models? Why?
I’ve had the privilege of having role models both from academia and industry. For example, I have had exceptional and inspiring professors at my home university in Romania or colleagues at UEL. They display qualities that I value and have wanted to emulate, such as rigour, integrity, determination as well as enthusiasm, kindness or generosity. I have always pro-actively looked for people I can resonate with, people who can inspire and motivate me in my profession. Without any doubt, all these special people have shaped the person I am today.

What are some of the challenges you have faced? How have you handled these?
I believe the most important challenge I faced upon joining UEL was to continue the research I started in Sheffield, at the same calibre of quality and intensity. At the time I joined UEL, the focus of the university was mainly on teaching. In my department I had only one research active colleague with whom I had relatively few research areas of common interest. Therefore, I had to work very hard to find ways to pursue research, either in my own area or to explore new research avenues. For a while I continued my collaboration with the colleagues in Sheffield but I soon realised that I needed to broaden my research interest and eventually to start developing my own research area at UEL. This opportunity arrived with the set up of the Sustainability Research Institute at UEL in 2007. This provided me with an excellent opportunity to be at the forefront of research in Sustainability at UEL, an area which complemented very well my engineering background. I started initially co-supervising PhD students and subsequently I have taken the leading role as a Director of Studies. At the same time I pro-actively looked for opportunities to liaise with the construction industry and my profession. I was seconded to Canary Wharf Contractors ltd in London where I started to build up my knowledge on environmental practices in structural design and construction as well as to identify case studies for my MBA dissertation on the business case of sustainability in the construction industry. All this knowledge and skills acquired over the years in Sustainability in the built environment were very useful to me in developing, as a Programme Leader, a novel MSc programme in Environmental Adaptation and Sustainable Engineering.

In the end, what proved to be a challenge, I turned it into an opportunity to advance my research. To do so, I had to be open to new opportunities along the way, to be willing to go outside my comfort zone, to work extremely hard to learn new things, and to have the confidence in myself that I can make it happen. The good news is that I wasn’t alone in this journey. I had the privilege to work with colleagues, both within and outside the university, who supported and encouraged me all the way.

What support, if any, has most benefited you in your career?
Having exceptional role models and mentors who were there for me whenever I needed their help. I am confident that the Athena SWAN mentorship scheme will benefit many colleagues across the university.

How do you balance an (academic) career with life outside the workplace? In particular, how to balance research with both your life outside the workplace and with other responsibilities as an academic?
My career is very important to me and, luckily, I love very much what I do. I’ve got both research and teaching responsibilities, and balancing them it is not currently much of a problem. However, I have to admit that balancing my work and life outside the workplace is a little bit of a challenge, an area I definitely need to “work” on in the future.

What do you feel is the most enjoyable/rewarding aspect of your job?
I simply love teaching in an engaging, motivating and challenging way at all levels. In the end it is very rewarding to see that your efforts contributed to the development of a well rounded person, ready to take up the challenges of the profession.

What achievements are you most proud of? Why? What have you learnt that you would like to share with others?
I am proud of developing my career, through my PhD, MBA and my research. These achievements proved that hard work, determination, desire to continuously push the boundaries of my comfort zone, knowledge and skills, are paying off in the end. It is important to have confidence in your abilities and to carefully choose role models and mentors who can gently guide you through this journey. Equally important, don’t be shy to share with the world the achievements you have worked very hard for.