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News > Science, Technology & Medicine > Tonbridge's Scientists: Deryck Chan

Tonbridge's Scientists: Deryck Chan

OTs answer: What can I do with my science degree?
2019 has been an extraordinary year for Science at Tonbridge. To mark the opening of the new Barton Science Centre, we asked Old Tonbridgians with a science background to write to us with their story. In the next pages, we hear from 9 OTs, whose experience demonstrate the wide range of job options available to science graduates, and many of whom have exploited the positive characteristics of their science-trained brains in some unexpected sectors. 

PHD Student, Geotechnical Engineering, University of Cambridge

Igrew up in a housing estate in Hong Kong which sits directly on top of a railway station box and in close proximity to a former landfill, which has been rehabilitated into a park. From a young age, I have been fascinated by how things work, especially the road and railway infrastructure that took me to school and back every day. As I grew up, I learnt that engineering is the university subject where science is applied quantitatively to understand how things work and to make things work. When I joined Tonbridge for sixth form, the joys and frustrations of British railway travel confirmed my desire to study engineering so I could contribute to the infrastructure industry. I applied to study engineering and was fortunate enough to be offered a place at Cambridge.

My time as an undergraduate engineer in Cambridge were the most enjoyable years of my life to date. I liked the broad-based first and second year engineering course, which taught me just enough maths and science to understand how everything works in daily life, be it computers, concrete bridges, or culverts. 

Cambridge does not offer an engineering specialism on transportation, so I chose civil engineering in my third and fourth year, which was the most relevant to infrastructure design. When I completed my MA in Engineering, I decided to take a post-university gap year out of 'mainstream' engineering practice and worked cross-culturally as a civil engineer and language teacher for two Christian missionary organisations. My projects took me to Uganda and Manchuria, where I understood the full force of civil engineering. The provision of infrastructure can connect people and build communities, but they are also inherently political as the repurposing of land will also uproot and divide other communities. I realised that moral values and scientific integrity are the most important virtues in all good engineering, and in that order. So when I came to the end of my gap year, I decided to return to the UK for a research position, so I could hone my technical skills and contribute in a greater capacity in the future.

I am currently working towards a doctorate in civil engineering and my current research project looks at what people might call a 'first-world problem.' When a new basement structure, such as a railway station box, is built in London Clay, the construction process is typically complete within two years, but the contact forces between the structure and the soil keeps changing slowly for over a decade afterwards, sometimes displacing a centimeter a year for several years. Engineers must use past data to predict these delayed movements before building the structure, but the dearth of data – because buildings are typically left alone once they’re finished rather than monitored continuously for decades – led to much conservatism in the industry. My work involves using a 10-metre-diameter centrifuge to replicate this phenomenon in the laboratory, so we can make predictions using a 1-in-100 scale model and simulate a decade’s worth of movement in a day.

My work only provides incremental technical improvements to the wider issue of infrastructure provision. Ultimately, one needs to have clear moral values if one’s scientific contribution has political consequences. To this end, I look no further than to the Holy Bible for inspiration. Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Infrastructure ought to build people’s lives and empower disadvantaged communities by connecting them to economic and social wealth. And it is with these values in mind that I strive to contribute to society as a Christian and a civil engineer, because “unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.”

Deryck's experimental device to simulate basement construction

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