The following is an excerpt.
To step up the hunt for half of the world’s talent, SFI CASA invited four prominent, female speakers to a dedicated session. Their message? Have fun! Invest in yourself! Go for a PhD!
CASA’s challenge is this: female representation is low in the potential student groups to start with. In addition, many choose other subjects when they reach master’s level. To counter this tendency, CASA invited NTNU students in their third and fourth year. The aim: to motivate them to go for a master’s or even a PhD degree in advanced structural analysis. The method: inspired lectures from successful speakers who have followed the same path. The lectures were followed by mingling and dinner with the speakers and with present staff and students at CASA. Feedback was clear: this should become an annual event!
The first three speakers all graduated from the Department of Structural Engineering at NTNU that SFI CASA belongs to.
Birgit Søvik Opheim from Statoil turned Equinor opened. Her story is far from unique:
“I was firmly decided on not going for a PhD. I thought it would be boring and lonely and take too much time and that I needed to be a nerd. Then Magnus Langseth invited me to his office. “Birgit, we have to talk,” he said. That conversation changed my life.”
Today Birgit Søvik Opheim is a chief engineer and Vice President for Early phase project development in Equinor.
“I am proud of my PhD. It has helped me reach my present position. For those of you who consider taking one, remember that a PhD is useful to more people than yourself. In addition, it helps you maximize your potential. My advice is to take the challenge. Invest in yourself! Have fun!”
Kjersti Kvalheim Dunham heads the 120 billion NOK ferry-free E39 project on Norway’s west coast. Among the arguments for this massive undertaking, is the reduced transport time from 21 to 11 hours between Trondheim and Kristiansand. Or, as Kvalheim Dunham put it: “Nothing is in such a hurry as a dead fish,” stressing the importance to Norwegian salmon exports.
Kvalheim Dunham summed up the value of her background like this: a potato; the common Norwegian term for someone who can be used for almost anything. At present, she needs students with CASA type qualifications herself:
“We have more than 50 PhD candidates and post docs working on the project. We are going to need many more and this really is engineer porn: we need to build bridges that are able to move in all directions, we plan electric roads that will pull trucks up the hills and we may build submerged tunnels, which has never been done before. You cannot say no to having this much fun at work,” she concluded.
The most fantastic ego trip
In 2014, crisis hit the oil and gas industry as Anne Serine Ognedal returned home to Norwegian oil capital Stavanger. She had just landed a job with engineering consultants Aker Solutions. Before she even started, Aker Solutions announced that 150 Stavanger employees would have to go. Ognedal got worried but was reassured that her job was safe. Few weeks later, another 150 had to go. Ognedal was among them. Back home, but without work. Then her PhD came in handy:
“I contacted my former employer at Laerdal Medical. I had experience working with their computerized medical manikins that can play sick or dead in 150 ways. At first, they offered me a temporary position. I said: “Look, I have a PhD.” Then they accepted to employ me permanently.”
Ognedal defended her PhD on polymers at SIMLab in 2012, followed by two years as a post doc. Her message on the life of a PhD student was this:
“It is the most fantastic ego trip you could imagine. You can focus on exactly the matters that interest you most, you learn incredibly much, if you need to go to Paris to perform a test, you may do so, and you organize your own time. People seriously don’t know how great it is to do a PhD.”
The last speaker was Siri Øyslebø Sørensen. Far from being an engineer, she is an Associate Professor at NTNU’s Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture. As a sociologist, she specializes in gender studies and social studies of science and technology.
She currently works as a researcher on the project “Gender equality from below – towards a gender balanced NTNU 2025.” No wonder, then, that she characterized the invitation to CASA’s meeting as “A caramel.”
Øyslebø Sørensen used Anne Serine Ognedal’s manikin to illustrate the importance of including both genders in research. For decades, male manikins were standard. The first pregnant manikin came as late as 1996. In general, diversity in a research group influences on results. This includes gender diversity.
She praised CASA for organizing the session and argued strongly in favour of purposeful measures to improve gender balance. She also underlined the message from the three previous speakers:
“Research shows that far from being a lonely and demanding life, taking a PhD gives you a lot of freedom and great flexibility.”
Learned a lot
The students were impressed by the speakers and confirmed that the session helped kill some of the prejudices against taking a PhD. They also appreciated the mingling and dinner, which gave them ample opportunity to ask further questions. Many knew little about CASA beforehand and were eager to learn more. They therefore appreciated the invitation to a follow-up lunch meeting shortly after.