Ms Roma Agrawal on the joy in designing structures to withstand the test of time

November 28, 2017

Ms Roma Agrawal is an award-winning, chartered structural engineer, currently an Associated Director at AECOM, a renowned multinational engineering firm. She has worked on several high-profile structures, the most famous of which is 'The Shard'- an iconic part of London's skyline and the tallest building in western Europe. Roma grew up in Bombay, India and studied Physics at the University of Oxford. The practical and tangible nature of engineering prompted her to pursue a master's degree in Structural Engineering at Imperial College London and her career as an engineer began soon after. In addition to her professional responsibilities, Roma has passionately initiated as well as supported projects and campaigns to encourage more girls to study and practise STEM subjects as a career. She has also authored a book, "BUILT: The Hidden Stories Behind our Structures" due to be released in February, 2018. In this interview, she tells us how she got into science, moved into engineering and provides a cultural explanation for low enrolment of girls in STEM subjects in the west.

 

“In developed countries people often take scientific development for granted, since they already have modern sanitation, power and transport systems. This is not the case in developing countries where people can see a clear, tangible improvement in their lives because of science, they appreciate it more.”

 

 

You are probably the most publicly engaged Human of Science we interviewed thus far. How did this come about? When did you decide to start promoting STEM subjects, especially encouraging girls to enter engineering disciplines?

 

My foray into outreach wasn’t pre-planned. I had been working as an engineer for about five to six years, designing structures and attending design meetings. Four of those years were spent working in the team designing The Shard. Since it was such an iconic project, and attracted a lot of press attention, my colleagues and I were often invited to deliver presentations at schools, engineering institutions and other public forums. It was at such events, where I realised I enjoyed presenting, and that people responded well to my talks. My outreach activities grew out of the technical presentations about The Shard into something more general.

 

A lot of girls’ schools and leadership groups also began to invite me to deliver presentations, since they felt I was quite different from most of the engineers they were used to seeing. Initially, I accepted all the speaking invitations I received, but they slowly began to multiply. I also realised that getting involved with the institutions expanded my network and enabled me to partner with them to promote engineering through more organised outreach activities. I began approaching professional institutions and applied for a few awards they sponsored. Interviews are a part of the award process, and they are a great way to meet other interesting people, and the other finalists. Ultimately, winning the award is actually secondary. As an example, I was a finalist for the IET’s Young Woman Engineer award in 2012. Though I didn’t win, I did get a lot of press coverage! My outreach work really took off from there, and, at its peak, I was doing about 40 presentations a year while I had a full-time job.

 

In a more general way: why should people study sciences? How can we encourage the new generation to choose to study and practise science?

 

Science touches every aspect of our lives. It’s simply amazing to see how integral science and engineering is to modern living. From the times humans began developing simple tools, clothes and shelters, engineering has been essential to our development as a civilisation. It has transformed us from being cave men to the industrialised society we are today.

When looking at the problem of fewer students appreciating science and studying it further, there is a cultural undertone. The problem is exacerbated the further west one goes, geographically. In developed countries people often take scientific development for granted, since they already have modern sanitation, power and transport systems. This is not the case in developing countries. When people can see a clear, tangible improvement in their lives because of science, they appreciate scientific progress more. In Bombay, I remember seeing the Bandra-Worli Sea Link being built and what a huge difference it made in addressing the city’s traffic problem. When people can see a clear, tangible improvement in their lives because of science, they appreciate it more.

 

To address the challenge of reducing STEM enrolment, we need to understand the kind of media the younger generation consumes. Is it Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube? There are lots of engineering documentaries and television shows on science, but kids don’t watch television anymore! Their parents do. We really need to adapt our means of communicating the wonders of science to target the younger audience.

 

Britain is the worst country in Europe for recruiting female engineers. Women only make up no more than nine percent of all engineers. What do you think is going wrong? Do we not have enough successful female role models who can communicate with the younger generation? Do you have a social media presence?

 

I am on Twitter and Instagram and use them to reach a wider, younger audience. I use Facebook only to keep in touch with my family.

The challenge to get girls into science is a very real, global one.

In the UK, the challenge to get girls into science is because of stereotypes. Somehow the message given out is that girls don’t do science. It is a subject for men to study. There are people I have met recently who still believe that men are much better at maths than women are! It is really difficult to have a conversation with them on this topic because it is just so frustrating! Upon analysing the results of examinations in South Asia and East Asia, there is evidence that boys and girls perform equally. If anything, girls are doing better than boys at school, because they work harder.

Girls are bought dolls, make-up, kitchen sets and feminine toys to play with. Boys are bought construction toys and LEGO. Society imposes stereotypes on children right from the time they are toddlers. It is not always intentional, but we must try to break these stereotypes and encourage girls to play with whatever they feel comfortable with.

If girls do actually want to study maths and science, their teachers and parents often discourage them from doing so. It is unfortunate that girls need to have to be particularly stubborn, resilient and tenacious at that age to go ahead and study science. There is also a misconception that if one studies maths and physics, the only career they can have is being a teacher.

Most female engineers I know have an engineer in their family. They have been exposed to science and the wonders of engineering from an early age, and have been inspired to study the sciences. Such cases do help overcome social and cultural stereotypes.

 

You studied physics as an undergraduate at the University of Oxford, and in 2005 completed your MSc in Structural Engineering from Imperial College London. Where has your enthusiasm for engineering come from?

 

I grew up in Bombay, India, and lived there until I was 16. The environment was quite science driven, because, in India, students who do well in school are encouraged to study science.  

I attended a very good girl’s school in London, where my teachers were amazing and supportive. They always used to say that if we study maths and physics at university, we could get any job we wanted. When I was applying to university, I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to study and thought I would do physics, since it included a lot of mathematics too. I really enjoyed it. However, when I attended careers fairs towards the end of my degree, I saw that all my friends who did maths and physics were going into management consulting, accounting, actuarial sciences, or finance. I wasn’t interested in these jobs at all. All my other friends were continuing as PhD students and doing research, which didn’t appeal to me either.

At that time, I was working at the Physics Department at Oxford in the summer, to make some extra money. My project to document all the fire safety features was quite dull, but I was on a team with engineers. I found the way they combined maths with technical skills to solve real world problems quite fascinating. That’s when I decided I wanted to get a corporate job as a practising engineer.

I decided to apply to Imperial College for a Masters in Structural Engineering, but only after speaking to the course director. I was concerned about not being able to cope with the rigours of the course, since I was the only person in the class with a physics degree. It is a big problem that we are made to choose our specialisations so early in the UK Higher Education Framework, but it is slowly getting more flexible now.

 

Studying these male-dominated subjects, did you ever face any prejudice/had the feeling of being treated differently based on your gender?

 

I was a minority in the classroom. At university, I often used to feel that some people were much cleverer than I was. This was quite intimidating, but I was never treated differently at university. However, unfortunately, I do know people who have had problems.

There are companies who understand and support all the varying needs of their employees. I have always worked for companies like that. Some other companies are old fashioned and just do not understand the needs of different employees. I know women, people from ethnic minorities and from the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community who have struggled whilst working for such companies. It’s not a healthy environment.

My message to the readers is that there are so many good companies out there. It is essential to find the right fit for you. If a company is unable to provide you with the right environment to support you and help you grow, then you should consider moving to an employer who caters to your needs.

The only time I felt uncomfortable was when I was working on site at the start of my career. 15 years ago, there were still pictures of naked women on the walls! 25 years ago, they used to have that in the design offices! Now it’s unimaginable. Onsite, this sort of behaviour is getting exceedingly rare. Now, at my position, if I saw something like that I would definitely say something.

 

Why did you not stay in academia? What attracted you to go into industry? Do you give guest lectures at universities?

 

I never really saw myself in academia and didn’t pursue it further. The goal for me was to go to London and get a job. Yes, I do give guest lectures at universities. They are generally on my projects, and give a practical viewpoint to the theory of the engineering course the students study.

 

Your career has been covered extensively in both online and print media. You are seen as UK's rising engineering star, have received several engineering prizes and are well known for your contributions on constructing The Shard. What do you consider as the biggest achievement in your career thus far?

 

There is a junior school in Birmingham, which is quite deprived in terms of funding. They recently built a new wing, and the headmistress nominated the names of five to six personalities from which the students had to pick one to name the building after. They voted for me, and now there is an Agrawal building at a school in Birmingham! I cannot tell you how emotional I left (and tears I shed) when I went there to unveil the building.

I do all these outreach activities to try and inspire children to consider possibilities they may not have even thought about and I really felt I succeeded that day. The children attending this school were all from minority backgrounds. Their parents were probably unlikely to be able to give their children the opportunities many of their peers elsewhere would have had. Hopefully some of these children will go on to study science and engineering.

 

In simple words, what do you work on and how does it benefit the world? What are your day-to-day responsibilities?

 

Simply put, I have to make sure that structures stand up. Buildings and bridges stay stable for years because structural engineers have done some analysis to make sure they stay upright for years. One part of my job is doing technical design, where I put beams, columns, steel and concrete into computer models to verify that the loads on them are within safe limits.

The other, much larger part is working with other professionals to deliver an end product. I work with architects, electrical engineers, public health engineers, mechanical engineers and many others to bring a drawing into reality. The structure is merely a skeleton, and there are so many different layers which need to come together.

Over the past couple of years, I have taken more of an advisory role, where I check and review documents and calculations. I still go to a lot of design meetings, where key decisions are made. Since the projects I have worked on have been quite large scale, I used to work on only two to three at the same time. It is quite common for structural engineers to work on ten to twelve projects simultaneously.

I began a new role in a new company just about six months ago. My responsibilities are now centred around developing business for the company and trying to win contracts. It’s completely different from what I am used to, and I am really enjoying it.

 

Are there structural engineering or civil engineering projects you didn’t get to work on but would have loved to be a part of?

 

The old historical buildings, like the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Cathedral are engineering wonders. Westminster Cathedral is almost a thousand years old and it still captivates my imagination when I see the intricate, elegant and delicate nature of the work, especially since it was done at a time when computers weren’t even invented. It is truly remarkable that such old methods were good enough to build such a marvellous structure at the time.

 

What could be the drawbacks of a science-driven education?

 

The system in India is a good example to illustrate the drawbacks. Though the environment I was in encouraged me to take up the sciences, I didn’t learn creative writing techniques. A good balance needs to be struck between science and the arts subjects. I never believe it has to be one or the other, we should be studying a mix of subjects that enhances all our skills.

 

Who inspires you? Are there people that shaped the way you think and do/did you have a mentor?

 

I have had several mentors through my career, depending on where I was working, what position, and how much support I needed. My bosses and other engineers I worked with have influenced and shaped the way I think, engineer and design solutions. My parents always encouraged me to work hard, which is what shaped my work ethic.

There have also been a few female role models. In all the places I worked, there was at least one female director. It was always quite inspiring and encouraging for me to see them at the position.

 

Have you ever questioned your career path or had doubts about it? Have you had failures? If so, how did you overcome them?

 

When I was studying for my Master’s degree in Structural Engineering I used to keep asking myself why on earth I was actually doing the course. I was really struggling and found it quite difficult. It was academically very challenging and I got through it by just telling myself that all I needed to do was pass the exams. And it was worth it.

I didn’t do exceedingly well on the course, but it all changed once I started working. The certainty of my future, as well as the training I received helped me get through it and eventually succeed at the workplace.

I cannot think of any specific failures, but there have been many projects I have bid for and not won. I kept pitching my film to the BBC for four years and got rejected each time until I finally succeeded.

There have been times when things haven’t quite gone as planned on site, during construction. However, since there is so much integrity added onto the calculations, nothing has been a major problem. I have been very lucky that none of the mistakes I made were serious. You learn from all your mistakes and then hopefully never make them again.

 

What do you think is the next big breakthrough/idea in science? What is your vision for the future? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

 

There is going to be a revolution led by robotics, artificial intelligence and automation, especially in the area of construction. Cars are made by robots, with automation involved in the manufacture of most everyday products.

The construction industry is one of the last ones where there is so much manual labour involved. Automation is likely to change this significantly. A lot of the repetitive design work I used to do as a fresh graduate can be done by software powered by artificial intelligence. As engineers, what will see us through these times of change is our ability to solve problems creatively, communicate ideas and designs and translate ideas into reality. Algorithms aren’t yet at that level of sophistication.

At the moment, I really enjoy my work with television, my book “Built: The Hidden Stories Behind our Structures” and my career. I have many options for my future career but don’t know which one will pan out at this moment!

 

 

 

More information about Ms Roma Agrawal and her work can be found here. You can follow her on twitter and instagram

 

 

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