From a love of LEGO® to attending a STEPS talk while in fifth year, Marguerite Sayers has known from an early age that she wanted to be an engineer. In an interview with the Engineers Journal, she offers insights on climate change, provides tips and career advice to the next generation, and enthuses about electric vehicles, Chamonix cable cars, Hollywood icon and inventor Hedy Lamarr and Wonder Woman.

Marguerite Sayers, president of Engineers Ireland 2019/2020, is a fellow of the Institution of Engineers of Ireland and has been a member of the organisation’s Council and Executive Committees for the past seven years. A graduate of University College Cork (1991), she holds a BE in Electrical/Electronic Engineering. 

Sayers has worked in various managerial positions and locations throughout Ireland with ESB since graduating  including senior roles in HR, customer services and asset management – and she also managed ESB’s Generation portfolio for a period of time.

Marguerite Sayers: Engineers Ireland president, 2019-2020

In her current customer solutions role, she leads the energy retail company Electric Ireland, and is also responsible for ESB’s Telecoms, eCars, and Smart Energy Services businesses, which deliver low-carbon products and services to customers in Ireland and the UK.  

1) Climate change and the switch to renewables is, arguably, the most important issue of our time – what urgent actions would you like to see being implemented over the next 10 years?

I know I possibly would be expected to answer this question firstly from a hard engineering point of view, but one aspect of the whole climate debate that probably does not get enough attention is the importance of planting, maintaining and preserving trees and forests.  

During the Amazonian fires in Brazil last year, President Emmanuel Macron of France used the expression that the rainforests were the ‘lungs of the world’ – and they are. They sink about a fifth of the carbon we produce using fossil fuels. 

Amazon rainforest: 'lungs of the world'

Some countries have now recognised this and Ethiopia, for example, set out to plant more than four billion trees in three months last year. Canada and the UK now have targets to plant two billion trees. These trees will take a long time to mature, but will be terrific carbon sinks as we reduce our emissions.

Other actions that are very important are our personal choices: the choice to recycle; the choice to reuse; the choice of transport we use; the choice of heating we have in our houses; the choice to avoid wasting water – all of these need to be underpinned and incentivised by government policy, but decisions made by all of us on an individual basis (leading to collective action) – will be required to make a real difference. 

Changes made by big industry are important, but will be nowhere near enough if we do not change our behaviour also by making different choices.

2) With regard to renewable transport, you stated recently that we have only reached 7.4% of the 2020 binding target of 10% – are you confident we will reach our target and, if so, how?

That figure is actually from a couple of years back, so we are a little closer now but probably will, unfortunately, miss the 2020 binding target. However, my experience in talking to people is that we are much closer to the target than is generally known. 

Almost a quarter of the cars bought earlier this year were a hybrid of some type, which I think shows that there is a significant move towards transport energy consciousness and, up to the COVID-19 lockdown, there was also a 25% increase in the number of full Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs), albeit off a modest base. 

Electric vehicles: 'The price of batteries is reducing all of the time, and the range is now 400km plus'

There is also increased interest in electric buses, and in biofuels for buses and heavy goods vehicles. The new draft policy for government document restating the 2030 objective now for a ban on the sale or import of petrol or diesel cars, I believe, will also focus people’s attention on more sustainable transport and on their choice of car type as the economy opens up again. 

Another really positive signal is that the price of batteries is reducing all of the time, so that in about three to four years the premium currently being paid for BEVs should no longer exist, and with the range of most new cars now being 400km plus – and the fuel cost for running an EV by charging at home at night being only a quarter of what an equivalent petrol or diesel would be – then the change is definitely coming. 

3) Our infrastructure is being badly affected by severe weather events – what measures do we need to adopt to help mitigate the damage? 

It certainly feels as though we are seeing more and more extreme weather throughout the world. In Ireland, Met Éireann does not expect that we will have more incidents of severe weather in future decades, but it does expect that those that we do have will be more extreme.  

There are some engineering solutions that we can use in future construction to help with those incidents, but we will still have to deal with our legacy infrastructure as well. 

Digital roadways: Smart Highway by Studio Roosegaarde – CC BY-SA 3.0

For instance, higher capacity culverts and drainage systems, as well as dual function recreational/storage ponds and permeable paths, could help cope with intense rainfall. 

Paths in ice and freeze-prone locations may be built with phase-change materials in future, which can store and release energy to increase the safety performance of the path.  

However, as a result of sea-level rises roads may need to be relocated, which is extremely expensive. New buildings may require deployable flood barriers, with energy equipment designed to be water-resilient or installed at height. 

New houses could be designed with V-shaped roofs or green roofs to efficiently absorb rainwater, which reduces run-off and can be stored in tanks for future use.  

To deal with extreme heat (probably not an Irish issue!), the use of more concrete or asphalt with an altered composition would help roads retain their function – this is particularly important with the increasing incidence of mass evacuations as a result of climate events.   

Also, the use of digital roadway markings so that capacity and directionality can be easily changed – as well as having dedicated access for emergency vehicles – could also make a big difference. 

4) In terms of future flooding events in Ireland what solutions catch your eye? 

We need to consider flexibility in design and learn from our international colleagues. There are a number of multi-use, soft-engineering solutions, such as the use of land close to the water in New York for parks and public amenities. 

Prior to Hurricane Sandy there were homes and offices on this land, but finding alternative (and valuable) use for it now means that the level of destruction and financial loss if there was a repeat of the Sandy disaster would be far less.  

In the Netherlands, farmers are allowed to farm some flood-prone land on the basis that they will be compensated for crop loss, which is far more economic than putting in any flood mitigation measures. 

Novel directions: SMART tunnel entrance along Jalan Sungai Besi, Kuala Lumpur – David Boey

Another really novel (though expensive) example is Kuala Lumpur’s SMART Tunnel, which transitions from carrying traffic to stormwater when there are high levels of precipitation. 

The tunnel was built in 2007, is 9.7km long and cost €450 million. It has three levels, but the upper two are converted from traffic tunnels to stormwater tunnels using water-tight gates as soon as there is heavy rain, diverting water away from the city centre. 

The tunnel has solved traffic congestion, but also saved millions of dollars of flood damage since its opening.

5) Are there any other engineering solutions that we should be considering? 

We probably will not be able to engineer ourselves out of all the impacts of severe weather – the costs are just too great for what are likely to be severe but infrequent events. 

At present, there is probably a 20% probability in the US of having a severe storm in any year. In terms of utilities, similar to where I work myself, some electrical companies have hardened their grids by ‘supersizing’ their poles and structures on a select number of critical circuits in the hope that they can withstand more severe storms. 

Hurricane Sandy: A Category 3 storm at its peak that inflicted almost $70 billion worth of damage in 2012

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, New York’s ConEd spent $1 billion in making its substations and control panels flood-proof. Similarly, Florida Power and Light spent more than $3 billion on the same programmes and undergrounding some circuits in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma. 

However, it still suffered more than $1 billion of damage during Hurricane Irma in 2017, so it is unclear if the expensive efforts made to mitigate the impacts were justified or had an impact.

6) When did you first become interested in engineering? 

I was probably interested in engineering from when I was a small child (if LEGO® is any indication) – but I didn’t know what it was. 

Maths and science were always my favourite subjects – I enjoyed studying them, and they had the additional benefit of not requiring significant effort to learn reams of facts!  

The first time that I connected the dots with engineering was when I attended a talk organised by Engineers Ireland promoting engineering as a career for female students when I was in fifth year in school – so I have sort of come full circle. 

LEGO® lover: It sowed the seeds for a career in engineering

Everything that I heard that evening resonated with me – that if you liked maths and engineering and if you wanted to know how things worked, if you were the person at home who ‘figured things out’, then you should consider engineering.  

So, I then considered the various engineering options and opted for Electrical and Electronic Engineering in UCC, graduating in 1991. 

7) Who were the mentors who helped you on your way?

We were assigned a formal mentor when we joined ESB, which was very useful, but there were lots of informal mentors that I came across throughout my career.  

I found managers and colleagues to be extremely generous with their time and their knowledge and it meant a huge amount – particularly when you are starting out on any new role or in any new location. 

8) Your engineer hero, or the nearest you have to one?  

Not so much an engineering hero but a lady I found out about who I think is fascinating. Her name is Hedy Lamarr and she was born in Austria but moved to the US and became a Hollywood icon. She was named as the ‘world’s most beautiful woman’, produced or acted in more than 30 films with the likes of James Stewart and Clark Gable and she has a star on Hollywood Boulevard. That was her day job. 

A star in many respects: Actor and inventor Hedy Lamarr. Image: National Women's History Museum

On the side, she was an inventor, and worked on the frequency-hopping spread spectrum to help the Allies during the Second World War, and which is the basis for most of our mobile and Bluetooth technology today. It proves that you can be multiskilled and don’t have to conform to the 'one type'.

9) An engineer you wish was better known? 

Nikola Tesla comes to mind – probably because of the field I work in myself. Most people are now very familiar with the name ‘Tesla’ because of Elon Musk, but do not know much about the origins of the name. 

Nikola Tesla was at the root of an awful lot of our modern technology, but is not credited with all of his inventions as he sold patents to some other inventors and more successful industrialists throughout his career. 

But he is acknowledged to be the brains behind AC power and therefore the modern power distribution system, the induction motor, the first hydroelectric plant, the Tesla coil and wireless radio technology,  X-rays and dynamos. 

Nikola Tesla: The brains behind AC power and, therefore, the modern power distribution system

He might have achieved more notoriety by now as a major film, The Current War, was made in the last couple of years – it got shelved for a period of time and was underpromoted because it was produced by the Weinstein Company and was impacted as a result of the scandal relating to Harvey Weinstein. 

10) What are your favourite feats of engineering?

Every time I am on a plane, I get a thrill from the power of the engines as it takes off – it's like an ode to engineering progress. So, in the midst of a few nervous passengers saying novenas in neighbouring seats, I sit there grinning like a Cheshire cat as the plane starts taxiing down the runway!  

So I guess the answer to the question is getting a 747 up into the air – which most people take for granted now – but it took huge bravery on behalf of our predecessors. Modern air travel with its speed, safety and comfort standards is the culmination of collective advancement in three or four branches of engineering. 

High flyer: Aiguille du Midi cable car in Chamonix, France – still the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world. Image: Marguerite Sayers

There are also many amazing bridges, buildings and inventions and structures throughout the world. One that comes to mind that I have had the opportunity to experience is the Aiguille du Midi cable car in Chamonix, France, which brings visitors to more than 3,800m in 20 minutes with spectacular views of Mont Blanc – and has done so for the past 60 years.

It is still the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world, and has the world’s second longest span (2.8km) without any intermediate support structures. 

11) What is/are the most important trend/s in engineering right now?

There are lots of changes as you would expect in a field which is generally at the forefront of most world advances. Some trends that I think are making a big difference are:

  • The acceptance and understanding in engineering education that the ability to communicate is as important as technical knowledge, and despite the stereotype, I think most engineers are very good at communication, especially with a little training.
  • The increasing trend towards including, or at least being very cognisant of, the Sustainable Development Goals in all branches of engineering.
  • The use of virtual design tools to maximise the chances of success of any endeavour, to enhance safety and to reduce waste.
  • The convergence of various disciplines to deliver significant innovations, and the recognition of lifelong learning and growing your knowledge base outside of your core discipline.

12) If you could, is there any one measure you would introduce to help improve the gender balance within the profession?

I would suggest having engineering automatically included by parents, teachers and career guidance professionals as an option for female students – not treating it like a curiosity or exception.  

Budding engineers: 'The STEPS team do terrific work'

It is generally still up to female students to find out about engineering themselves – unless they are exposed to it by external programmes such as those run by the STEPS team (who do terrific work). 

It is really important that we have more female students opting for engineering, both because there is a shortage of engineers in the world and we need as much feedstock as possible.

But, more importantly, the world needs to have solutions that work for a diverse population and, therefore, diversity in the realms of engineers and innovators automatically optimises those solutions rather than trying to ‘design in’ diversity. 

13) What book is on your bedside table?

Being very literal, I have a Kindle and not a book. I know lots of people prefer the ‘physicality’ of an actual book, but I’m not one of them. I absolutely love the convenience and flexibility of the Kindle, especially when going on holidays – but I’ve always loved gadgets.  

I am almost finished Cilka’s Journey by Heather Morris, which is a follow-on from The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which I read last year. I had intended trying to visit Krakow and Auschwitz this year, but that will probably have to wait until 2021 now. 

14) What is the one tip you would give to somebody starting out in the profession?

Get involved in lots of things, enjoy the experience, get to know people and the opportunities will follow. I have met people at the beginning of their careers who are in an awful hurry with a career plan which is a vertical trajectory, and they can be left a bit disillusioned when things don’t move fast enough. 

Maybe it's just wisdom that comes with age, but there is no need to be in a huge hurry – you can miss out on a lot by being too focused on progression. 

One way of significantly increasing your network is obviously being involved with Engineers Ireland at a local or national level, and it’s a great way of getting broader perspectives from people working in other companies and disciplines, but also of finding informal mentors. 

15) What is your favourite film?

This is not the most original answer, but I really loved the The Shawshank Redemption. It was just well written, well acted and was a real triumph of good over evil at the end. I’m not a woman for sad or depressing endings, so that probably appealed to me. 

In the last few weeks, I have also watched The Accountant; Bohemian Rhapsody; Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit; Wonder Woman; Ocean's 8; The Greatest Showman; The Book Thief; and Green Book – a bit of an eclectic mix, and I enjoyed all of them!

16) If you weren’t an engineer, what might you have become? 

I had a number of notions at different times. For a very long time, I intended being a primary school teacher as there were a lot of teachers in my family – but it was almost a default rather than a decision. 

When I learnt a bit about engineering, I moved away from the idea of teaching pretty quickly – nobody expected you to sing at an interview to get into engineering, which was an additional bonus for all involved!  

I also considered accountancy, and seriously considered becoming a pilot after I had finished my degree, but I decided to complete the graduate programme with ESB first to see how it went – and never looked back. 

17) What is a typical day for you?

I suppose, like lots of engineers, there is no such thing. And, in the past three months, ‘typical’ has been redefined anyway and has turned into a series of webinars and phone calls to keep in touch with the team working remotely. 

My job involves managing Electric Ireland, ESB Telecoms, Smart Energy Solutions and eCars. So, a day could involve a weekly check-in and briefing for 130 team leads and managers; making a decision on new tariffs; meeting with the Commission for Energy Regulation or other external stakeholders; assessing investment opportunities; responding to customer queries; approving bids; attending operational and strategic meetings with the chief executive’s team; or meetings and business updates with my own team. 

Prior to the lockdown, to beat traffic, I typically got to the office for 7.30am and stayed until 6.30pm or 7pm and, following that, some evenings would also involve meetings in Clyde Road. 

18) What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

Decision making – that is, to just get on with it, to take note of the timescale you have, to weigh up all of the facts, and then just to make the best decision you can at the time. There is no benefit in delaying a decision for no reason and you will generally know whether it is right as soon as you have made it. No point in having regrets then, either.

There were two other pieces of advice that resonated with me when I read them rather than had them given to me – they could both be seen as being a little bit preachy or cynical, but I’ll risk it!

  • ‘Be nice to people on the way up, you will meet them again on the way down': Just a nice reminder that you should not get carried away with any success because it could all disappear in the morning. And, also, that people’s 'value' should not be determined by that conventional notion of ‘success’;
  • ‘Somebody else’s success is not your failure’: Remembering that makes it much easier to be genuinely happy for people’s good luck and fortune and not to feel it as any sort of personal inadequacy or negative sentiment as a consequence.  

19) What do you do to relax?

I’m very good at relaxing – in very normal ways. I try to walk between 5km and 10km a day (though I failed most of the past year on that front until we got to the lockdown!), watching television, meeting friends, decorating the house and doing a bit in the garden.  

I also try to go on a break, usually to somewhere in Europe, two or three times a year – skiing for a week in the spring and to the sun in the summer and autumn. I’m generally as pale coming home as going, but it’s not for the want of trying!