Following the dream of a career underground 5 June 2014

TunnelTalk reporting
In the last decade, Elisa Comis has gone from graduating university with a mechanical engineering degree, to working in tunnels in Africa, Hong Kong and India, to overseeing project engineering for underground construction in the USA, Turkey, Australia, and much more. Her wide-ranging career, punctuated by becoming a mother in 2012, is both a testament to changing perceptions in our industry and an example of what is possible for women in tunnelling.

Italian-born Elisa Comis obtained a Master’s Degree from the University of Roma Tre in July 2005, and soon after began working for underground construction company Seli as a Plant Manager in their Rome offices.

Comis at a jobsite in Central Turkey, working for Robbins
Comis at a jobsite in Central Turkey, working for Robbins

As with so many in the industry, her entry into the underground construction sector was by chance. “I was working in a metallography laboratory characterising steels and structural materials. I was not looking for a job in tunnelling, but Seli offered me a position and I was fascinated by the business, so I accepted.”

Comis worked in the office for 18 months, but yearned to learn more about the global projects she was managing from afar. She recalled: “Being in head office, I looked at a lot of drawings and pictures, but I felt I was not able to truly understand how the equipment worked without seeing it.

“I had a lot of questions. My supervisor said I could move to assembly of TBMs in the local workshop. When you are putting a TBM together you can learn a lot; but I still needed to observe how it worked, so I asked to go on a jobsite.”

After asking several times, Seli finally agreed to send Comis to the company’s remote and difficult Gilgel Gibe II hydro scheme jobsite in Ethiopia for a two-week trial period during the month of August. She was the first woman to be sent overseas by Seli in a field service role. At the jobsite, the double shield machine had encountered a massive fault zone and become stuck following a huge inrush of mud. “When I arrived, the workers had tales of women bringing bad luck to the tunnel. But while I was there we were able to recover the cutterhead support from the fault area so the TBM rebuild could start. After that they were convinced I brought good luck!”

Comis at the Grosvenor Decline Tunnel in Australia
Comis at the Grosvenor Decline Tunnel in Australia

Comis worked hard to increase the team’s confidence in her abilities, working long hours in the tunnel and making the 7am train with the maintenance crew every morning. “I never missed a train,” she said. “I was there for training, but at the end of my two weeks the jobsite made a request to head office to keep me there for longer.” Once the team had freed the TBM, Comis was then asked to remain onsite for the duration of the project as a TBM engineer – which she readily agreed to.

During her time in Ethiopia, Comis met her husband, Martino Scialpi, also working in field service for Seli. Following breakthrough at Gilgel Gibe in August 2009 the couple were married and were then sent to their next job in Hong Kong.

Attitudes here, recalled Comis, were significantly different from what she had encountered in Ethiopia. “They were very curious about me being a woman and wanted to see how I would do in the tunnel.” She and Scialpi were able to bring much of the crew from Ethiopia with them to Hong Kong, which she described as “like a family”, so the process of winning over the site personnel went quite smoothly.

In 2010, Scialpi and Comis were hired by The Robbins Company and sent to another remote jobsite – the AMR Project in Andhra Pradesh, India. The 43.5km long water tunnel project was experiencing challenges using two 10m double shield TBMs in excessively hard and abrasive rock. Scialpi and Comis were tasked with increasing production on the jobsite and teaching the crew about proper maintenance procedures.

At the Gilgel Gibe II tunnel in Ethiopia
At the Gilgel Gibe II tunnel in Ethiopia

Both experienced some negative attitudes on site – Scialpi because he was young (then under 30), and Comis because she was both young and a woman. They were again able to turn attitudes around with hard work. “Once we started achieving results that the crew could see, that was when things really changed. The TBM was excavating better and boring more metres per day. There was a great feeling of accomplishment when we achieved a daily advance goal.” Scialpi and Comis established a daily maintenance routine that left the machinery in good working order and achieving advance rates that continued to climb.

By October 2011, Scialpi and Comis had agreed to work at the Robbins’ headquarters in Solon, Ohio, USA, as a Project Manager and Project Engineer, respectively. Comis worked on several projects including the Kargi Hydroelectric Project in Turkey, and the highly successful Grosvenor Decline Tunnels in Australia, which utilised a Crossover (XRE) TBM with both EPB and hard rock features. In 2014, the couple became parents with the birth of a daughter, Beatrice. At the time, Comis was managing the Kaneohe Kailua Wastewater Conveyance Tunnel for Robbins in Hawaii. But for Comis, becoming a mother has not changed her capabilities, only her “organisational point of view”.

“At first, it was tough to come back to work and to have Beatrice in daycare,” said Comis, “but at one-year old, she is a happy and social baby.” Beatrice also travelled with her parents back to Italy at a few months old, where her parents oversaw two double shield machine assemblies there for the GKI hydro project in Austria. “Beatrice went to a local daycare centre while we were in Italy. Her routine was more or less the same, just in a different place. It was a good experience for her, a new place and new people. I think she is going to be a traveller like I am.”

On duty at AMR jobsite in Andhra Pradesh
On duty at AMR jobsite in Andhra Pradesh

Now back in Ohio, Comis has a good routine going. “I work full time and with full immersion while at the office, but when I come home, that is time for the baby and the family. There is nothing I was doing before that I cannot do now, but Beatrice has introduced a new way of thinking to me. Even if I am having a bad day, she puts that into perspective.”

As for her next plans, Comis says she loves engineering but could take on any number of roles. She sees attitudes changing towards women in the tunnelling industry, faster in some countries and slower in others. “It sounds silly, but I can see attitudes changing even in the orders we get for TBMs. Our customers are ordering two washrooms on the TBMs, one for men and one for women. It is a small thing, but it shows some degree of care and forethought.” At her latest project for Austria’s GKI hydro project from a base in Italy, the change is even more profound. The Robbins team in the office was split 50/50 men and women, an occurrence that Comis thought might never happen. The mix, she says, changes the entire working atmosphere in a good way. “In my mind, this is a huge achievement.”

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