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New Executive Secretary appointed - Interview: 'Visible difference'

The Geological Society has appointed Sarah Fray as Executive Secretary, writes Society reporter Dawne Riddle.  Interview by Ted Nield.

Currently Director of Engineering and Technical Services at the Institution of Structural Engineers, Ms Fray will take up her post in early October.  A Chartered Engineer and Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers with experience in geotechnical engineering, especially foundation design and tunnelling, Ms Fray takes up her appointment as the Society approaches a record membership of 12,000 geoscience professionals. 

‘I am delighted to be appointed the Executive Secretary of the Geological Society and am looking forward to taking up my role’ Ms Fray told Geoscientist.  ‘The Society has a renowned history – it is the world’s founding geological society, and has constantly been at the centre of the development and dissemination of scientific knowledge. 

Critically important

‘The geosciences are critically important to global society and will be into the foreseeable future.  I believe that the Geological Society has an essential and highly valuable role to play both as a learned society and professional body now and into the future, and I am looking forward with a great deal of anticipation to working with the President, Officers, Council, staff and the Fellowship to further and deliver the Society’s aims.’

Society President, Professor David Manning, said: ‘We are very pleased to announce Sarah Fray’s appointment.  She has a wide understanding and considerable experience of the challenges and opportunities faced by organisations such as the Geological Society, and we are very much looking forward to welcoming her in her new role.’

Ms Fray’s appointment follows the retirement of current Executive Secretary, Edmund Nickless, who has held the post for 18 years. 

Edmund Nickless

‘I want to take the opportunity to sincerely thank Edmund Nickless for his long and loyal service to the Society’ said Professor Manning.  ‘I am sure that many Fellows will want to send Edmund their best wishes.   Please write them on a piece of plain paper and email them to [email protected], or post it to her at Burlington House.  These will then be included in a bound book.  If you wish to contribute towards a gift, please send a cheque, payable to the Geological Society to Stephanie Jones before the end of September.


Visible difference

Ted Nield meets the incoming Executive Secretary, Sarah Fray.

ljkg“The general public is becoming increasingly detached from technologies and science, and it is necessary for organisations to engage with the public on a much stronger footing.  Over the last 20 years we have seen people responding negatively to change.  So it behoves scientific organisations and institutions to articulate the authoritative message of scientists, and the value of what they do.”

We had barely sat down to our lunch, close to the Institution of Structural Engineers’ recently purchased new premises in Clerkenwell, London, when Sarah Fray (who is due to join the Society staff as Executive Secretary next month) made this observation.

Sarah has been the Institution’s Director of Engineering and Technical Services for the last six years; but her path has been long and, one senses, hard.  She speaks of periods of intense personal ambition as a practising civil engineer (she belongs to the Institutions of both Civil and Structural Engineers), spurred on, perhaps, by a life-changing accident.  Finding her way after that setback, which interrupted the course of her education, has clearly left its mark.


Born in Chorley, Lancashire, her father worked as a pattern-maker in a foundry while her mother worked at a mill and ran the household.  Her father moved into a lecturing position in the Coventry automotive industry, where the family relocated when she was eight.  It was in the early stages of comprehensive education that the accident took place (“Wrong place, wrong time”).  She was shot in the eye by an arrow.

“Having done the ‘King Harold’ thing, I spent most of my third school year in hospital with a detached retina; came out in the bottom stream, and had to claw my way back up.  So I focused on what I was good at and interested in, and ‘might get me a job’.  (My father as very keen that my future should be more than just marriage!).  So I did O levels in things like geography, maths and physics, and geology (the best one I got!). 

“Aged 18, I began work for the local authority as a trainee technician in mains drainage, working on deep interceptor sewers.  At 19 I set out my first site investigation, for a relatively long deep tunnel sewer.  I was taken under the wing of an Indian engineer, my mentor, who allowed me to set out eight boreholes, supervise it all, and work with the engineers plotting the route the tunnel would take. 

“At about 21, I was doing more responsible things than the graduate engineers, but I didn’t have the same kudos!  So I decided to go into Higher Education and spent three years in Plymouth, getting an honours degree in Civil Engineering. I wanted to be a Chartered Engineer, but at the time I had no experience of structural engineering so when I left I wanted to work for one.  I was lucky to work on an oil pipeline for the Ministry of Defence, which involved crossing the River Tamar, which brought me my first contact with geophysical site investigation. 


“I was attending design meetings with the Captain of the Port and looking at the geophysics, which suggested a flat rock bottom to the Tamar, which didn’t seem right.  I had to force through my belief that the geophysics had been misinterpreted, and commissioned a sampling programme including shell boring.  The first shell disappeared into 30 metres of - mud! 

“I got married in 1986, and moved to Hampshire.  In tune with the age, personal ambition then rather took over.  I was working in Reading - which seemed exciting after Devon - and made a resolution to be Associate Director by 35.  I was asked by one of the Partners in that firm to take over a very deep – five storey – excavation because the senior engineer was out-faced by it.  We had a major dual carriageway on two sides, a multi-storey and another building on the others, and the proposed retention system had only been used in Britain once before.  This had been designed in Germany; and all the equipment for doing the work happened to be in Moscow, including one of the biggest flight-augered piling rig in the world. 

“This we used to create a secant piled wall, cutting 750mm diameter piles, alternate piles being of soft concrete.  Once these are set, other shafts are augured between them, slicing into the original piles, with the new ones receiving rebar. The result is a continuous wall of reinforced concrete that retains the earth. We had to put temporary ground anchors all around, and then a capping beam.  It was a massive retention system, in relatively unconsolidated materials. 

“It was a tall order for a 28 year-old, and great experience.  After it was finished I went to the Partner I worked for and asked to be made Senior Engineer – and he said no: I ‘wasn’t old enough’.  My response was that I would accept ‘not good enough’ or ‘not experienced enough’, but not ‘not old enough’!  I left and found a Senior Engineer job elsewhere within a week.

Single minded

“I then decided I wanted to be a Principal Engineer.  I was very single-minded.  I have a determination to succeed.  I had my son in 1993  having been made an Associate Director (within a week of deadline!), working very hard – sometimes 70 hours a week.  I didn’t like only seeing my son at weekends; engineering was very unreceptive to women at all, let alone accommodating their particular needs.  So I resigned and took five months out to re-engage with my son, as well as doing a bit of that travelling I’d missed out on earlier - including climbing to 21,000 feet in the Himalayas.

“When I came back I had no real plan but eventually joined NTL - now Arqiva - an international broadcast company, who were looking for someone who knew about buildings and how they are built.  They had people who knew about masts, but nothing about the buildings in their huge property portfolio. 

“I was now an ‘expert’ which gave me a degree of autonomy, and stayed for 13 years, one of three of the most senior technical women in the company.  I had now hit the ‘glass ceiling’ – the one above ‘technical’ grades – and saw my current role advertised. 


“I have been a member of the Institution of Structural Engineers since 1990.   I think learned societies are more relevant now than at any time since their formation, but many are missing this.  I decided that since I had always wanted to change the world, here was once place to do it in my profession.  Since then I have worked to make engineering more outward-facing, but also to increase the value of what the organisation does for its members, and influence thinkers and decision-makers about the real importance of engineering. 

“I led a project to create world-leading guidance on various engineering projects – including things around safety, of high-risk or public buildings and the resilience of the built environment. Resilience is an essential aspect of building and is so often overlooked.  I created an initiative to produce and publish very short guidance notes for new-graduate engineers.  Because – and I suspect that this applies across the board – people find themselves in an office in a job they have no idea how to do, and feel abandoned.  We’ve produced 55, and they’ve been described as ‘the best thing the Institution has ever done’ - both complimentary and a little daunting.  But it’s all about delivering nuts-and-bolts help, across the spectrum of membership.

“There are many reasons why people  take time out and need help to keep up and in touch with their network.  As IT develops, there are huge opportunities for societies to be the key focus for every individual’s career, and to communicate the value of their work more broadly.  Geological science is fundamental to every moment we exist, and actually even to the point we die! An essential discourse is needed, particularly with groups which scientists and engineers would not normally talk to.”

Sarah has also been active in STELLAR, an initiative launched this year by a group of leading women professionals to encourage more women to consider careers in science, engineering, mathematics and IT.

“We have to recognise now that many more women are coming through the sciences than ever, and if we don’t engage with that they are going to be lost.  I understand that part of my new role will be to make progress on that, and part of that will be, simply, ‘being visible’.  Young women coming through now have to see a career path. You need reasons to go back to work after children, and that can’t be to take two steps down.  It must be to take on all the opportunities that are available.  Women need exemplars.  But the diversity issue is much broader than just gender.

Visible difference

 “One of the great challenges all these initiatives face is to turn discourse into effective action, and part of that is measuring effectiveness. There is a real danger of measuring everything within an inch of its life and forgetting why we started the process in the first place.   But the business case has often been shown that balanced leadership teams are more effective.

“The philosophy must be to move away from the need to ‘engineer’ a balance of gender.  At first this may be necessary; but by making a more visible balance within Council we are reflecting to industry and academe (or even areas in decision-making where geosciences have input) that a more balanced approach is appropriate.  It’s not going to be a quick win, but I hope I will have been able to move it along.  I am immensely impressed by the enthusiasm that exists within scientific societies, and mobilising and organising that is the key because ultimately, science becomes more robust.

“All aspects of the Society’s outward face are very good. The impression one gets, from this magazine, the website, the blog, Twitter, Facebook etc., is flourishing and dynamic.  Against the confusing and de-professionalising background that the Internet creates, and this is hugely strong.  The shop window is very attractive.  We have to make sure that the shop doesn’t disappoint. 

“Anyone can make changes for their own sake but that just creates confusion and distraction.  I see myself as a steward.  I am wholly unconvinced that individuals should join organisations simply to ‘make their mark’.  It’s the Society that makes the mark, not individuals.  “I have been lucky enough to have been selected to do one of the best jobs there is.  I feel privileged.”