Women In Tunneling features an exemplary female representative of the tunneling industry each month in order to amplify their experiences in the underground field. This month we introduce you to Ritika Kundu, Tunnel Designer & Geotechnical Engineer, COWIA.
What is your actual involvement in the tunneling business?
I am a Tunnel Designer/ Geotechnical Engineer at COWI. I have been a part of projects with focuses that varied from tunnel decommissioning to tunnel rehabilitation, new tunnel construction. I have designed deep shafts, deep foundations, support of excavation, and retaining structures. My focus varied from analyzing the geotechnical field data to the advanced modeling in underground construction, deep foundations, hydraulic analysis, and ground improvement.
How were you introduced to the tunnel industry, and why did you decide to pursue it as a career?
During my Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin, I worked on an industrial tunnel project in Edmonton, CA. That project introduced me to the underground construction industry. I presented a paper on the same project at the World Tunnel Congress (WTC) in San Francisco. Attending WTC was an eye-opening experience for me, and I felt I belong to this tunnel industry.
People outside of the industry don't tend to understand exactly what the job entails. What is it like to work as an engineer on underground projects?
It's true; people outside this industry don't understand. I tell them that I create the underground space to support livable, resilient, and sustainable cities; this makes them more excited to know more about my job.
Physics, Math, and Engineering gives me goosebumps. I love them, and underground projects make it even more exciting, where every job is unique and challenging. Every day presents a new challenge that keeps me motivated.
What professional achievement are you most proud of?
My most recent achievement is when I added one more accreditation to my signature, "P.E.." Seeing the P.E. certificate flashed back the journey I took to achieve this. Growing up in a patriarchal society, where girls were not allowed to leave their homes before marriage, I left my home for my studies at the age of 17 with lots of societal pressure. I was scared to death but motivated and hopeful to achieve my dreams of being independent. I am proud of where I am today and motivated to achieve more.
Even though the number of women has been increasing over the years, the tunneling industry is still considered a male oriented environment. What do you think are some of the factors or obstacles—either societal or sometimes even self-imposed— that deter women from entering the underground career force? And what can we do as an industry or as a society to encourage more women to join?
As I mentioned earlier, I came from a patriarchal society and what I learned from my experience is that we, women, are creators. We can do anything. Once women acknowledge that, then we become future leaders of the tunneling industry.
Marian Wright Edelman, an American children's rights activist, once said: "You cannot be what you cannot see." My suggestion is that we need to encourage Young girl engineers who are still in school. We need to make sure that they learn about female role models in the tunneling industry. WIT is doing a great job by being vocal and encouraging women to be part of this industry. But as an industry, we need to invest more in the young generation.
How do you tap into your inner leader? What advice would you give on having the courage to honor your voice and to speak out and contribute your influence?
My Mantra is self-aware, focus on personal development and developing others, and willing to accept criticism. My advice is that even if you lack confidence, speak up and demand for what you deserve. You will always gain something by speaking up, either appreciation or criticism, but both help you to grow. But you will not get anything from silence.
Looking back, what two pieces of advice do you have for your younger self?
1) Be comfortable in your own skin. Be the best you can be. Own it and rock it, whatever 'it’' is. Respect yourself.
2) Don't try too hard with people. You can't make everyone happy.
What do you hope the future holds for yourself, for the industry, and/or for other women who will be a part of tunneling & underground construction?
I think the future is OURS. The world is changing faster than ever before. The tunneling and underground construction industry is crucial to society, the economy, and the environment. It is time to build space underground for sustainable life. The industry has vast potential, however, for improving productivity and efficiency, I hope we invest more in digitalization, innovative technologies, and new construction techniques.