Sarah Springman CBE

Honorary Doctor of Science

Citation delivered by Professor Valerie Linton, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences University of Wollongong on the occasion of the admission of Sarah Marcella Springman as a Doctor of Science (honoris causa) on 14 December 2018.


Deputy Chancellor, I present Sarah Marcella Springman.

Over the course of her exceptional international career, taking her from her home country, England, to as far abroad as Nigeria, Fiji, Australia and Switzerland, Professor Sarah Springman has, in a manner, moved mountains. Today, she is one of the world’s most accomplished geotechnical engineers and a pioneer in the study of soft soil mechanics and ground improvement.

Professor Springman’s research into soil composition and its complex behaviours under stress has directly informed the design and construction of mega-scale projects across several continents, from shallow pile bridges, to hydro-electric dams, to oil-drilling operations. Many of these projects she has personally overseen. Professor Springman’s work has also had a profound impact on natural disaster planning, where the freeze-thaw dynamics of alpine permafrosts on soils, combined with gravity, can result in catastrophic landslides, mass flooding and the loss of lives and property.

Professor Springman is a distinguished alumna of Cambridge University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts (Engineering Sciences) from Girton College in 1978; a Master of Philosophy from St Catherine’s College in 1984 and a Doctor of Philosophy (Soil Mechanics) from Magdalene College in 1989. Geotechnical engineers had long struggled to simulate, via a miniature model, the stresses that exist in real-world environments. Professor Springman’s research, combining physical modelling in a geotechnical centrifuge with numerical modelling, has driven discoveries of new engineering design methods with extremely accurate, scalable applications.

A researcher and lecturer at Cambridge from 1985 to 1996, Sarah took what she describes as a ‘leap of faith’, accepting a short-term contract at ETH Zurich, a Swiss STEM specialist university in 1997. There, she set up the largest active geotechnical drum centrifuge in the world. From 2009 to 2011, Sarah served as the Head of Institute at ETH’s Institute for Geotechnical Engineering and, as of 2015, she serves as the university’s Rector, overseeing its curriculum and guiding its academic mission. Professor Springman is the second woman to have served as Rector at the university since its founding in 1855. She has garnered numerous awards across the world for her research and teaching, culminating in the honour of induction as a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. As a reflection of her academic standing, in 2012 she served on the Search Committee for the Queen Elizabeth II Prize – the Nobel Prize for Engineering.

The University of Wollongong is honoured to have shared common ground with Sarah since the 1990s, through her work with our Centre for Geomechanics and Railway Engineering, and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Geotechnical Science & Engineering, of which UOW is a core member.

For Sarah, overcoming challenging terrain is more than a professional proposition. Although she does not advertise such, she is also a champion international elite athlete – not least competing for England in the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland in triathlon. She holds three European and five Team gold medals in triathlon, and twenty-one national open titles across five sports and four countries. Sarah also holds fond memories of winning the Australian Bicentennial Triathlon Championships at Frankston in 1988, and being named as Australian Champion!

Personal accolades aside, Sarah has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to foster positive change in sport. She served as Vice President of the International Triathlon Union in 2000, 2002 and 2016, and is a current member of the International Olympic Committee’s Sustainability and Legacy Commission. Sarah cites one of her major achievements as seeing her work during her tenure with the International Triathlon Union come to fruition in enabling triathletes to compete in the Olympic, Commonwealth and Paralympic Games. In recognition of her outstanding service to sport, in 2012 she was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to national and international sport.

Sarah advises that “if you’ve got an obstacle in front of you, you have lots of choices: you can bash through it, you can go over the top, you can go round the side and you can tunnel underneath it”. What better lesson in tactical persistence for our graduands here today than that from a world-leading geotechnical expert and triathlon gold medallist.

Deputy Chancellor, for her innovative contributions to the field of geotechnical engineering, for the material impact that these have had on a global scale, and for her ongoing international academic leadership, it is a privilege and pleasure to present Professor Sarah Springman for a Doctor of Science, honoris causa.