Connections can directly impact lives by bringing people closer to civilization and providing them better access to healthcare, education and other opportunities.

Sweta Nemani, our next pathbreaker, Tunnel Engineer at Lombardi Engineering India, is responsible for the civil design of structures (like tunnels) of construction projects, from their conception into comprehensive drawings to their delivery to the client.

Sweta talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her current project on a prestigious rail tunnel through the lower Himalayas where the geography is harsh, and the geology is challenging, but incredibly satisfying for its significance in connecting the remote parts of India.

For students, tunneling and underground structures have a huge scope in India and are shaping its future. Metro rails – elevated or underground have proven revolutionary for Indian public transport systems.

Sweta, tell us about your background?

I come from a humble background and with open minded parents. They valued good education, emphasized on understanding basic concepts and encouraged every extra-curricular activity that I showed interest in. 

I studied in a Kendriya Vidyalaya in Hyderabad, one of the best KVs until 10th standard. I was always good in science and mathematics and took interest in social studies in the later years, during higher secondary school. I was also into scouting and guiding and became a president’s guide. Having participated in cultural activities like dancing, drama and school march band, I turned into quite an extrovert who could express well and could make friends easily.

My family was not very outdoorsy, but I didn’t leave any opportunity to visit places, perform or participate in competitions/ sports that the school offered. 

This exposure allowed me to experience the physical world as much as I could, observe things and process them in my own way. This is probably where I started appreciating skills that allow one to ‘make’ or ‘build’ things.

I give the credit of all my interpersonal skills to my time at school.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I achieved a decent state rank in the entrance exam for engineering, and my main interest was to opt for core engineering (mechanical, civil or electrical) in the top universities. 

I did my bachelor’s in Civil Engineering from Osmania university (2005-09) which had the best faculty and facilities, and was ranked the top university in the state. I developed an interest in ground engineering and underground structures, which reflected in my overall credits. I passed out as one of the best 5 students after five years. I chose to play throwball, was part of the executive team in the technical fest in the university for all the years and won some technical competitions as well. 

I also did an MTech (Geotechnical Engineering) from IIT Roorkee and later did a 2nd Level Advanced Master’s in Tunneling and TBMs from Politecnico di TorinoPolitecnico di Torino, Italy.

What were some of the events that influenced your career in Tunnel Engineering?

I would attribute it to being lucky to have a very good bunch of friends and batchmates who contributed to molding my personality, as well as my being open to interesting choices for a career. I chose to intern in a remote village in Meghalaya in a hydroelectric dam project, where we had to walk a while to get a signal. This made me realize the change that civil engineers could bring to this world.

I got into IIT Roorkee in 2009 with a very good GATE rank and chose Geotechnical engineering. Uttarakhand was far from home but gave me a lot of opportunities to travel along the Himalayan belt, appreciate the mountains and stay close to nature. I was doing very well in my studies as well as doing some real time projects with professors. One of the projects – The design of excavation and support for an underground parking under live traffic in Alibag, Lucknow – gave me the best young geotechnical engineer award for 2011 by the IGC. I realized my potential and interest in computational skills and decided to pick a specialist field.

Later, my interests in underground structures would ‘deepen’, which led me to do a specialized masters in tunneling and underground structures in Italy. I used to follow some leaders/ engineers in the tunneling industry and some of my direct seniors from IIT on Linkedin, from whom I found the advanced master’s degree. I lived the dream of traveling to Europe and studying in one of the best schools for civil engineering. I was selected for the batch of 2018 and was also given a scholarship by the ITACET foundation. I interned in Denmark for an international company to complete my advanced master’s.

My thesis was on Structural Competence of TBM Ring/ Segment while construction, for which I modelled the tunnel ring segment in STAAD 3D which I specially learnt for the thesis work. STAAD is purely a structural engineer’s tool, which is a distinct skill added to my resume now, apart from the soft skills I learnt from the international team I worked with, especially since I was working in a developed Scandinavian country in a team comprised of very competent yet warm people from different parts of Europe. This degree gave me the formal title, ‘Tunnel design engineer’ and a vibrant experience.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

As described above, I always had good academic credentials and my tendency was always to go for core branches of engineering. I was always really excited to get involved in making/ building things.

Most of the choices in my life were weighed out by myself and then decisions taken with the help of family. 

I perceived my first manager as the most ideal engineer I first met who was very detailed, meticulous and had a great approach to problem solving. To date I go by these aspects of being detailed and see engineering as a problem-solving path.

I was lucky and most of the time earned my way to be an excellent performer in my career. I have had opportunities to go on foreign deputation assignments (Singapore and the UK) from the early years in my career. 

My involvement in the Doha metro design project won us an award internally. I led the delivery of all the geotechnical reports for two of the metro lines, from the Indian office. These are a series of reports and drawings, of the whole line of metro divided into sections, for which we study the boreholes done a priori and present ground models for each section defining all the geo-mechanical properties and hazards relevant to the tunnels’ and stations’ excavation. It was my first underground tunnel project that made me think about a specialized master’s in tunneling in Europe.

Later, I had the opportunity to work in Mumbai Lucknow and Chennai metro projects. This strengthened my choice to become a tunnel design engineer and get a specialized degree.

Although I got two opportunities in core companies from on-campus selections at IIT, I chose to divert. I wanted to join a firm which specializes in underground work and also gives me an opportunity to be onsite. Hence, I chose to join Keller Ground Engineering, a German company which is a leading geotechnical specialist contractor. I met the MD on campus in one of their conferences, liked their work through their presentations and made contact. I wrote to them about my interest and scored an interview. Thus started my journey as a geotechnical consulting engineer. I am really happy today that I made this decision and took a step to not go by the standard options I had in hand. 

In one of my first few assignments, I had to be onsite for a deep excavation project in Delhi for about two months. It was a great experience as I could observe many elements like deep piles, underground rafts, retaining walls, diaphragm wall and retrievable anchors etc. It was interesting to note that I was the only female on the whole site with at least 500 personnel working.

My advanced master’s in Italy was a game changer. I enjoyed studying although in a fully packed module system in Italy. The master’s program also involved many site and factory visits. This period also allowed me to travel alone a lot, exploring places and myself. 

How did you get your first break?

After completing my 2nd masters and after my internship at Denmark, I wanted to work for a core tunneling specialty consulting firm. I had scored some interviews for Spain and Australia, while in India. I had an opportunity to discuss with the head in Lombardi Engineering; I liked the scope of the work and the projects in pipeline. It is a small branch of a famous and trusted brand in Switzerland. I liked the fact that there was a great collaboration from the European colleagues and good knowledge transfer to the growing Indian team. I saw it as good opportunity to hone my skills as well as make a difference by contributing to a major project in my country. I haven’t regretted my decision ever since. I also am close to my family now and had a beautiful child post that.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

It is not very common to see women civil engineers in design or on site. I have taken every opportunity to travel to sites. This was one of the best experiences because it proved that I could do what I really liked to do, irrespective of gender, age or the situation. I could make some important observations which would change some parameters in our design to optimize the work.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I work with a Swiss MNC’s (Lombardi Engineering India Private Limited ) Indian office in Delhi. We are engineering consultants who specialize in engineering design and supervision of underground structures, dams and special foundations etc. 

In my everyday work, I have an overarching responsibility to handle projects holistically for the civil works part. This means I am responsible for the civil design of the structures (like tunnel portals, slopes, niches etc.) in the project, from their conception into comprehensive drawings to their delivery to the client. In this process I have to deal with many stakeholders and teammates. 

So, I get to work with my team on fancy colorful software for the design, guide my juniors for the same, develop drawings with drafting team, check for interactions of the structures with other departments like electrical, plumbing, mechanical, ventilation etc., deliver it to the contractors and meet the clients to convey our work. In addition, I also have to go to the site sometimes to understand the strata, surroundings, construction progress and difficulties, training etc. which is the most interesting part for me, because I can see what I make on my screen being actually built – it’s tangible and satisfying.

As much as it is rare to find women in engineering, it is rarer to spot them in civil engineering; especially in developing countries like India with a different cultural set up. I went on to specialize in geotechnical engineering, and after a few years as design engineer in various projects, did my advanced Master’s in Tunneling. The journey has been wonderful so far, I carved my own path and nurtured my skills in design and analyses to be a part of some of the interesting projects in India and abroad. Though this journey took me to places, threw me in exciting construction sites, it was never boring or burdening.

How does your work benefit society? 

The most satisfying part of being a tunnel engineer is that it makes connections (the tunnel) that directly impact lives. Many fail to understand that one can be in the tunneling business as a site engineer, a geologist, a foreman, a tunnel designer in civil, an architect or an electrical engineer or a ventilation specialist or an arbitrator. It takes a whole village to conceive a tunnel as a project and build one. 

The current project I am working on is of national importance and is a prestigious rail tunnel through the lower Himalayas in the north of India. The geography is harsh, the geology challenging, the timeline tough but my spirits are high. The best aspect is that this will be connecting thousands of people in that region, and other visitors/ pilgrims from across India who now have only one road to access which is prone to landslides and blockages. People there and nearby will have more access to healthcare, education and business opportunities.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I have several favorites. My current project is my most favorite, it is my baby. I have been involved in it from the inception. I saw the mountains untouched and now to be drilled into to make a path to connect two distant points. I can see people getting directly benefited from the beginning.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice would be to pick a career in which you feel like giving your full. Where you wake up and feel happy about it everyday and enthusiastic to take the next step. 

Experience is certainly the best teacher, but good education (master’s or specialization) forms a great base – so never leave an opportunity to study higher. 

Most importantly, have an open mind when in pre-university level. Talk to different people, study different options and choose the path. And always remember you can become anything you want. 

In India, most students have to decide on the career path at around 15 years of age, which is too early as there isn’t a lot of exposure to the actual realities of life and career. But I realize that there are many opportunities to change or specialize one’s path practically at any point of time. However, good guidance and awareness are key to the students’ decision making years. 

Future Plans? 

Tunneling and underground structures have a huge scope in India and are shaping its future. Metro rails – elevated or underground have proven revolutionary for Indian public transport systems. My long-standing dream has been to take all the utilities in India underground. For sure it will be a huge undertaking for the size of the country, but can result in much more efficient, safe and uninterrupted services and better utilization of on-ground surface. This can be achieved by well-planned initiatives employing tunneling/ micro-tunnelling techniques. It will be a huge shift for the country, and I dream to be a part of it. Dreamers like me will be the players of the future for sure. 

I like what I am doing and want to become a known specialist in the field. I am working towards getting international professional accreditations as well.