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Eleni Gkeli

Eleni Gkeli is a Senior Engineering Geologist and Team Leader at Opus International Consultants.

Eleni measures rock defects to mitigate risk of earthquake damage

What do you do on an average work day?
There is no average working day for an engineering geologist, especially in the early days of your career path. An engineering geologist travels often and usually does work in beautiful but challenging environments – sometimes remotely from civilised world. 

If I am not visiting a site for a geological inspection or for monitoring geotechnical investigation or construction, I spend the day in the office doing my geological studies or geotechnical assessments, in other words interpreting what is under the ground surface, with the aim to build safer structures.

My work also includes predicting and quantifying possible risks to human lives and construction from earthquake events and design of mitigation measures to reduce the risks. This is extremely important work and makes me feel that I contribute to the community, by building more resilient environments for us and our children.

I also spend time communicating and working with other engineering disciplines, such as traffic, structural and environmental engineers, which I enjoy a lot as I learn new things from them every day. I also manage a small team of younger geologists, reviewing their work and providing guidance and mentoring, hopefully contributing to their professional development and knowledge.

What did you study at school? And after high school?
I went to school in Greece. I did a variety of subjects at school, including maths, chemistry, physics, history, geology, biology, geography, philosophy, Greek literature and language. I also studied music and other languages such as English and French. In the last two years of school I focused on maths, chemistry and physics.

After high school I did my Bachelor in Geology in Athens University, specialising in Engineering Geology and Geophysics. When I finished my bachelor's degree, I went to England, to the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne to study for my first Master of Science in Rock Mechanics, which is a sector of Geotechnical Engineering.

A few years after that, I studied for one more Master’s Degree in Tunnel Design and Construction in The National Technical University of Athens. I did my second Masters at the early stages of my career, while I was working and was lucky enough to directly apply what I was learning in the University to a tunnel project I was working on at the time. This proved very beneficial.

Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes, it has been directly related from the beginning of my career to date. All of my professional roles and positions involved Engineering Geology and Geotechnical Engineering. I also had the opportunity to work on a range of subjects that I studied in University. In my current position I am considered a Rock Mechanics and Tunnel specialist and people in my team are keen to work and learn from me on these subjects.

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
I believe they should follow the subjects they mostly enjoy studying and working on, regardless of perceptions of what the professional opportunities, status and rewards might be. Being happy and passionate about your work can create the opportunities and make successful careers.

What are some of your career highlights so far?
My previous position in Greece was a highlight that lasted for 11 years. I used to work as an Engineering Geologist in the managing authority of the largest infrastructure project constructed in Europe in the past 20 years, Egnatia Motorway in Greece. This is a 670 km modern motorway, stretching along the entire length of northern Greece, on mountainous terrain, comprising a big number of bridges, tunnels and large scale earthworks. This role was a fantastic opportunity for me to gain experience on large scale infrastructure design and construction, with state of the art methodologies and technologies in Europe.

My next highlight was my move to New Zealand to work as a Senior Engineering Geologist for Opus International Consultants in 2012. This role was a great opportunity in a great company with a fantastic working environment and lots of interesting projects across the country. My highlight projects during my years with Opus include the design of the high rock cuts of Transmission Gully Motorway and Petone to Grenada link, the seismic upgrade of Wellington East Girls College, and my involvement in maintenance and upgrade of water infrastructure around Wellington.

Recently I have been elected by my colleagues to be a member of the Management Committee of the New Zealand Geotechnical Society, the association of geotechnical professionals in New Zealand. This is a tremendous honour to be recognised by my colleagues nationwide, and also an opportunity to contribute to the evolution of the profession that I love.

Why do you believe engaging in STEM – whether it’s working in the field, studying it or just educating one’s self around the issues – is important to New Zealand?
Every country needs scientists and engineers to build and maintain a sustainable environment and economy. New Zealand in particular has two unique challenges which are also part of its mystery and beauty: it is remote from everywhere else in the world and it is prone to natural disasters such as large earthquake events, tsunamis, flooding, cyclones and storms. As a result, New Zealand needs sufficient numbers of people in science and engineering to create resilient environments and services to the public and provide immediate support in case of emergency. It also needs educated citizens who can understand the risks and how they can ensure resilience to themselves and their families.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Although traditionally considered male dominated sectors, women can bring a lot of new qualities to STEM professions. Although not directly, many of the STEM professions are related to human nature, either by supporting or protecting it. Women can have different empathy, sensitivity and concern about supporting human lives, as a result they can help in the decision making being more balanced between risk and cost. Further, they are often practical, organised and good at making things happen, skills definitely beneficial in STEM professions.

Eleni Gkeli is a Senior Engineering Geologist and Team Leader at Opus International Consultants in Wellington, and a member of the Management Committee of the New Zealand Geotechnical Society.

This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM. 
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