A Day in the Life of Dr Joanna White of Highways England

In this series, we aim to feature a particular individual ITS (UK) Member who will talk through what they do for their company and detail their daily work schedule, whilst also offering some advice and reflection on their career thus far. Read on to learn more about Dr Joanna White of Highways England. Discover how she got started within Highways England, how she tackles key challenges and what advice she offers to those looking to start a career in the industry.

Tell us about yourself, your background and how you got started in the industry? What brought you to Highways England and led you to make this career choice?

It was whilst I was at Somerville College studying for my masters degree in mathematical modelling and numerical analysis that I took a course that looked at how congestion forms on roads – and I was hooked. Some of my friends at uni were biochemists and talked about how their work could be used to better understand cancer and develop ways of overcoming it. I wanted to make sure my learning at uni had a focus on solving a real world problem – road traffic congestion! My PhD came about through a happy discovery. I’d been offered a job with the Defence Research Agency in Rosyth and had gone up there to meet the team I’d be working with. In the airport on the way back I picked up a copy of the New Scientist to read – and in the back was an advert for a PhD looking at traffic flow. Nothing ventured, nothing gained I thought, so applied and was offered the PhD. Fast forward through a PhD, a career in data analysis, mathematical models and intelligent transport systems, all culminating in me achieving chartered engineer status with the Institute for Engineering and Transportation. All that has led to my new temporary role as Highways England’s Roads Development Divisional Director.

Take us through a typical day and what that involves. 

The day begins with the school run and a bit of cajoling to get my two boys up and ready. Once I’m at my desk my day begins with a review of my email inbox and calls to senior members of the team at Highways England to get updates from anything that might have happened overnight or that we’re expecting soon. It’s vital that I’m prepared for anything that could happen so I have to set aside time to make sure I’m ready for the meetings ahead, including one I lead with about 80 members of our team. The key focus for the day is reviewing how our various projects are going, moving road design projects to sign-off, securing resources for them and recruiting the right people to get the job done.

What projects are you working on  and what are your current priorities? 

One of the toughest and most interesting challenges we face in my division is linking together our environmental commitments with our road design projects. The environment, quite rightly, has a growing profile not just at Highways England but across the whole of the sector, and one of my tasks is ensuring we’re doing what we should do, and what we have said we will do.

We need to look ahead to the next 15 years at least, and to make sure the right things are put in place now to support our digital roads vision going forward. Decarbonisation is a big part of it – everything we do has a carbon impact and reducing our impact on the environment is an important aspect of Highways England’s corporate social responsibility.

The Government’s Environment Bill will have a huge impact on the way we work. If we take biodiversity for example, our current approach is that when we develop a project there will be no net loss of biodiversity. Under the Bill, every project we undertake will have to be accompanied by a 10% increase in biodiversity, not necessarily at that site or on a scheme by scheme basis but working with land owners across England. That will be a huge undertaking. We’ve already restoring road verges to improve biodiversity but we will be doing much more in the future.

What do you most enjoy about your role and what do you find the most challenging? 

I really enjoy the variety of things I get to do and the subjects I get to be involved with on a day to day basis. My background in statistics and modelling helps me to able to more easily understand very technical reports and the evidence we have to prove why we have chosen specific solutions. Every day brings a new challenge and new ideas to consider.

What advice would you give someone who is considering seeking a career in this role and within this industry? 

The first thing I would say is go and find your calling. My degree could have led me in a whole range of directions but by following my interests I have been lucky enough to carve out a career in a subject that I love. For me it was about finding a problem to solve, something that I was passionate about. As I said earlier, mine was congestion so I’ve still got a target to aim for!

I’d also encourage people to take every opportunity they can get, even if it makes them feel like they are out of their comfort zone. Some of my best experiences at work have come from throwing myself into challenges that I didn’t know if I could manage. New activities bring new skills, and I’m always looking to learn more.