Karen Sagar Career Profile picture

Role: Technical Director

Career Area: Engineering Design

Location: Birmingham

My role at SYSTRA

I am a Technical Director working in the leadership team for the Engineering department.

As such, on a day-to-day basis I support the Practice Directors and discipline teams on projects. and with strategic initiatives.

I also support them the Directors and teams with our strategic initiatives.

My career journey

Following on from my degree in Geology with Geography, and my Masters in Geotechnical Engineering, I worked as a Geotechnical Engineer in the UK and internationally for 18 years. I was then offered the opportunity to move overseas as a Senior Project Manager working in the mining sector, became registered as a Professional Engineer (P.Eng.) in Canada, and moved into management roles for both people and projects.

I later moved back to the UK and was excited to join SYSTRA as an Engineering Manager, where I initially worked on the HS2 project and was then promoted to my Technical Director role.

We asked Karen…
When did you realise this was the career path for you?

I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career and I didn’t really excel in school – I ‘only’ passed one A Level! As I enjoyed Geology and Geography at school, and I had a summer job working in a petrophysical lab, I was offered a place on a Geology degree at my local college. Three years later I received a scholarship to do my Masters in Geotechnical Engineering before starting work. After many twists and turns, the reality of my career path certainly hasn’t been the nice straight line we are led to believe it might be in school, and that’s okay!

Have you got any words of wisdom for someone starting out in a similar role?

Keep an open mind and be open to new opportunities, even if they don’t seem to be what you think you might be after.

How does SYSTRA stand out from the rest as a Great Place to Work?

The global aspect of the company – I’ve really enjoyed working closing with my global team on HS2, including those in India, France, South Korea, Poland, Dubai and the UK!

With such power in diversity, what unique perspective do you bring to the table?

My perspective as an Engineering Manager is built on a strong technical base from multi-disciplinary projects in a variety of sectors and across 3 continents. This includes working with multi-disciplinary teams on transportation (highways, conventional and high-speed rail, metro and airport), commercial, industrial and residential land development, mining (new build and reclamation) and renewable energy projects (including the Nemesis ride at Alton Towers theme park and the world’s first offshore wind farm!). I have also been lucky enough to work in the UK, Ireland, Hong Kong, the Middle East and Canada.

I started out in the UK as a Geotechnical Engineer with strong engineering geology skills, designing and supervising ground investigations, carrying out desk top studies, undertaking contaminated land and slope stability assessments, as well as designing foundations and managing projects. After developing my technical background, I moved into managing projects and frameworks, as well as managing discipline teams, regional offices and the Canada-wide geotechnical and materials testing design team for a global consultancy. I worked as the Senior Project Manager on mine sites in northern Alberta in Canada, doing regular fly in-fly out, before returning to the UK where I’ve been involved in Heathrow Expansion and, more recently, HS2 Main Works Civils Contract. My experience spans far and wide!

As a female engineer working in male-dominated environments for over 30 years, my diverse background across multiple countries and industries, together with my technical knowledge, brings unique perspective and diversity of thought to my role.

Where is the place that has inspired you the most?

Working in Canada was inspiring and challenging in many way – learning to work in extreme weather (working on site at ‑50°C) and working with wildlife that can kill you (mountain lions and bears) was very different to anything I had experienced before. The vast scale of projects, and the environment we lived and worked in, continue to inspire me to this day.

What does true sustainability really mean to you?

I like the definition provided by Santander:

Sustainability consists of fulfilling the needs of current generations without compromising the needs of future generations, while ensuring a balance between economic growth, environmental care and social wellbeing.

I am also a strong supporter of equality, diversity and inclusion for all minority groups and particularly gender equality.

What would a green future look like?

A green future is one where we work more locally, in harmony with the environment and each other.

How do you look after your wellbeing outside of work?

Outside of work I am the primary parent-carer for my teenager, so much of my time is spent with, and advocating for, them. I love travelling and enjoy baking, gardening, hiking (especially around my happy place in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta) and socialising with friends.

If you could spend your lunchbreak with someone you really admire, who would you choose?

I’d love to spend my lunch break with Hedy Lamarr. Hedy was a well-known Austrian-American film actress in the 1930s-1950s, famed for her grace and beauty. Although not recognised until she was in her 80s, Hedy was also an inventor and her work on frequency hopping technology led to the development of Bluetooth, GPS and Wi-Fi. She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for the development of her frequency hopping technology in 2014, 14 years after her death.

If you had to pick, which mode of transport would you use for the rest of your life?

Probably the train – that way I can switch off and not have to concentrate!

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