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How I Got Here - CERN

Written by: Charlotte Rogers
Published on: 11 Apr 2019

Saida CERN

CERN is a European organisation that carries out nuclear engineering research and they operate the largest particle physics laboratory in the world. The organisation is based in the northwest of Geneva and is one of the most well-known engineering establishments in the world. At CERN, our work helps to uncover what the universe is made of and how it works. Their work allows engineers to advance today’s technologies and be able to understand the world’s biggest questions. CERN is home to some of the world’s largest scientific instruments and the processes they support allow them to understand how particles interact with each other and gives all of us insights into the laws of nature.

Some of the most well-known advances in science and engineering were discovered and created at CERN. These include The Higgs Boson, The Large Hadron Collider (The 27-kilometre LHC is the world's largest particle accelerator) and The World Wide Web. Ultimately, their goal is to uncover what the universe is made of and how it works. Until then, they will continue to perform world-class research and learn everything they can.

We spoke to Saida Thamya Khan about her engineering career so far, why she chose the engineering industry and how her current employer fuels her ambition for engineering. She is currently a Senior Fellow for the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment and also for the Electromagnetic Calorimeter. Saida has worked her way through a vast range of engineering sectors and is currently continuing her work at CERN. Saida is a member of the IET and used E&T Jobs to find the position at CERN. “The IET website was really easy to use, and I wouldn’t have known about the role with CERN had it not been on the website.”

Why did you choose to work at CERN?

During my interview at CERN we were taken underground to see the CMS detector and it just blew my mind, it was so amazing to see and to take in all of the challenges they must have faced creating it. It was in that moment that I knew I really wanted to be here and work with this technology.  However, when I received my offer from CERN it took me a month or so to actually make the decision to move to Geneva - it was such a big move and I would be leaving my family, friends and a really good stable job. I made the decision to take the job because it was the opportunity of a lifetime. It would have been the biggest regret of my life if I hadn’t taken the job with CERN. They are one of the most diverse and amazing organisations. The opportunity to work in an international environment on one of the largest science collaborations in the world was too good to turn down and I don’t regret anything.

How did you set yourself goals to get where you are now?

The first goal I had after graduating was to develop my technical engineering skills, I knew I wanted to be a designer and to work for a consultancy. I graduated during the economic recession so engineering jobs at the time were difficult to get and extremely competitive, luckily, I was offered a position with Buro Happold as a graduate Electrical Engineer. I worked for them for nearly 2 years on some brilliant projects and really strengthened my technical skills, but I wanted a new challenge. The railway was receiving a lot of investment, so I applied for a job with Atkins in their Electrification and Plant team, I worked for them for nearly 3 years designing electrical systems for signalling power projects and new stations. It was when I moved to London that I decided that I wanted another change and challenge. I enjoyed the technical element of Engineering, but I liked the idea of delivering projects as well. I applied for a position with Crossrail as the Assistant Engineering Manager for Farringdon Station, and it was the perfect balance for me. I spent years working in railway the railway sector and again felt myself wanting a new challenge and that’s when I found the job for CERN posted on E&T Jobs. The goal I set myself was to keep learning and upskilling myself, if I felt I wasn’t learning something new then I moved project or company, hence the reason I have so many companies on my CV.

When did your passion for engineering start and why?

I was introduced to Engineering at a really young age by a group called Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). I was 13 when we were taken to the local college where we designed and built a battery tester and also got to visit a local engineering company. I just loved the hands-on element of building the tester and figuring out what all the different components did. From that experience I knew it was what I wanted to do, and I started perusing engineering as a career. At the time it was an unusual career choice for girls and I didn’t have a lot of support initially, until the head teacher at Bradford Grammar School found a local Engineering company called NG Bailey, who were interested in sponsoring students. They met with me and my parents and offered to partly sponsor me through school but also offered me work experience from the age of 16 to 21. I ended up working for them every summer rotating through different departments to gain as much exposure as possible. The experience led me to decide to study Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering at University.  

I’ve only been working at CERN for 7 months but the thing that amazes me about CERN is the passion the people have for their work. It really doesn’t seem like a job to them and working in an environment like that also motivates you to do your very best. It also reminds me of why I became an engineer in the first place as over the years you tend to lose that enthusiasm.

How has CERN helped you hold onto your passion and put it into your work?

I have learnt so much over the past 7 months. This job is a step out of my comfort zone so I’m having to ask a lot of questions and be willing to listen and learn but that’s what engineering is all about. There’s a lot more freedom on your projects than I experienced in the UK, the direction your projects take are up to you. Also, working in a multi-cultural environment with people from all backgrounds has already started to change the way I interact and work with people. So even though I’ve only been here a short time I can already see the benefits.

I think as an engineer to be able to come and work for an organisation like CERN where you are exposed to people from so many different parts of the world collaborating together without any financial or political agenda is an amazing opportunity.  It allows for creative freedom and innovation.  Thinking outside the box is encouraged here. And there are so many people to learn from, as a budding engineer that’s what you need, the opportunity to learn new skills at all stages of your career. CERN offers so much training and the opportunity to work on a lot of different projects to figure out what route you want to take.

CERN has helped Saida with her goals as an engineer. Where will she be in the next 10 years? She’s not sure but she hopes to “still be learning and working on new challenging projects.” It’s important to keep an open mind when applying for jobs and we can learn a thing or two from Saida’s experience in the industry. Don’t settle for anything just because it’s a secure job. Make sure you are making the most of your opportunities and never stick to a job that you have grown out of. It’s important to keep the passion alive in your job and you will enjoy it a lot more. More importantly “It is extremely important to support young engineers and to encourage them to continue with engineering after graduating as many people tend to change fields after university.”