She Presides over Boundless Engineers

2020-02-18

“I think the impact of engineering on social development and society’s way of organising itself is very stimulating,” says Caroline Bastholm, Secretary General of Engineers without Borders Sweden.

Foto/bild: Mats Kamsten

It is said that many career doors open after an engineering degree. For alumnus Caroline Bastholm, that’s just what happened. A Degree of Master of Science in Engineering Physics laid the foundation for her dream job at Engineers without Borders Sweden. 

Following the usual path has never been Caroline Bastholm’s thing. Nor has she set her sights on any particular professional career. Despite this crooked pathway, she is now in a job that she loves: as the Secretary General of the volunteer organisation Engineers without Borders Sweden.

She has worked there since 2018, managing the organisation’s activities which aim to inspire young people to choose an engineering career path, and to assist newly arrived engineers with all qualification levels to find their way in the Swedish labour market. Another objective is to provide platforms and forums that invite reflection on the ethical and environmental aspects of the engineer’s role.

Caroline Bastholm installs measuring
equipment on a solar power system in
Tanzania. Photo: Private

Internationally, the organisation is involved in projects that are developing electricity and water systems, cooking technologies and construction design processes, for example. The systems are being constructed in cooperation with local organisations in Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Ghana. It’s work that is well in line with her great interest in engineering and society.

“I think the impact of engineering on social development and society’s way of organising itself is very stimulating,” says Caroline Bastholm. “And vice versa: how does technology change to suit society’s engineering needs? I find this particularly interesting in a part of the world where I want to be involved in improving the conditions for infrastructures.”

These ideas were already brewing during the time that Caroline was studying at Uppsala University. When it came time for her degree project in her Master of Science in Engineering Physics degree, she applied to the Mavuno Project organisation in Tanzania. There she helped to develop technology to dry fruit such as pineapples with the aid of solar thermal energy. Energy issues had caught her interest already during her studies when she took more energy courses as electives. 

“Energy is a concrete industry but also very much a social function. In Engineering Physics, there are of course many specialisations, but I ended up choosing a number of courses from the Energy Systems programme and focusing on energy issues. But I could probably just as well have chosen water engineering or something similar.”

After graduating in 2009, Caroline Bastholm worked as a consultant on energy matters. Eighteen months later, she caught sight of a doctoral position going at Dalarna University. The position was funded by SIDA and was about investigating the technical and social issues surrounding small-scale electricity systems. In these projects, diesel generators are combined with solar power and batteries to ensure a continuous power supply to institutions such as schools, hospitals and organisations that do not have access to the national grid. In addition, it meant field studies in Tanzania.

The position was practically tailor-made for Caroline Bastholm and she got it. But to be able to do this research, she needed to supplement her degree with university courses in social anthropology.

“I have always been guided by my interests and taken extra courses in a variety of subjects. Like towards the end of my Master programme, when I actually took more courses than I needed to simply because they were courses I wanted to study such as languages and economics,” says Caroline Bastholm.

At the same time they tied it all together – everything I’d studied in the Master of Science programme, especially the theoretical courses. Once you’ve got an understanding of the connections between engineering and physics and can apply them, that’s when it gets interesting and fun. This broader perspective also meant that I wanted to learn more.”

However it was three years after completing high school before Caroline Bastholm applied to study at university. Instead, she first travelled to Switzerland and a job as a ski instructor. After work, she would sit flipping through course catalogues from Swedish universities trying to work out what sounded like the most fun.

“I was fairly sure that I wanted to study something in engineering and science, but apart from that I was rather lost. But my grandfather, who was a technical college graduate, had told me that if you study engineering, you can do a bit of just about anything. So I thought that since I hadn’t made up my mind yet that sounded like a good idea.”

She circled the engineer degrees that seemed to be the broadest. After striking off one after the other, engineering physics was the one left. The choice fell to Uppsala because it was one of the major universities and had a very distinctive student life. She has many good memories from her time studying at Uppsala, especially meeting so many people who shared the same experience at a unique point in life.

“Then of course the studies themselves were hard work and sometimes anxiety-provoking, mainly because it was difficult stuff. But after the first year, I decided during my second year that I would fail a written exam. I felt that I had to take it all in my stride a bit more! Then I flunked my first exam so my goal was achieved straight off, ha ha! And entirely according to plan, I developed a humbler attitude to myself and to whether I needed to perform in order to be good enough as I was.”

That the world doesn’t fall apart even if you can’t do everything successfully she thinks is an important message. An exam can be done later. There will be more opportunities.

She finds it more difficult to known what to say when she is out visiting upper secondary schools and gets asked what an engineer actually does after this or that degree.

“It’s impossible to say because engineers can have such a broad range of tasks. I myself have not had any kind of static vision but felt that it has developed over the course of my life. So my advice would be to aim high and broad and sooner or later you will end up with the job of your dreams.”

Anneli Björkman