Naturejobs is celebrating Women in Science. Every day this week we’re interviewing an inspirational woman in science. Yesterday, we spoke to Professor Frances Ashcroft.
Today, Naturejobs talks to Roma Agrawal, a physicist turned engineer, now working as a structural engineer at WSP Group. I went to visit her at the WSP Group offices, London, to find out more about her adventures in engineering and supporting young people in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) studies.
Roma decided to study physics because she loved maths and physics, there was nothing else to it. With some encouragement from teachers at school, she went off to university to study for a degree in physics. “It was really clear to me at the time that you could do a huge range of careers with physics, so it didn’t feel like I was limiting myself.”
But what to do after graduation took some thought. Roma didn’t find much inspiration at the university careers fairs, “you only had accountant, investment banks, and all these financial institutions coming in to these careers days. And I really wasn’t very interested by any of that.” After studying physics for such a long time, Roma wanted to use her degree skills in a practical way, rather than just head for the financial district. So she tried her hand in engineering by doing some work experience. “My role was very boring… however, I was surrounded by very, very inspirational engineers, and they gave me little bits and pieces to do, and I saw how it was all about problem solving. And that’s when the light bulb went off.”
As STEM subjects, physics and engineering are known to be male-dominated fields (although a lot is being done to improve the gender imbalance), but this never stopped Roma from having a successful career. “I felt outnumbered, but there were no barriers,” she says. And feeling outnumbered was never an issue, “I get on great with guys, and so what if there’s lots of guys on the course?”
This confidence and comfort of working in a male-dominated field carried on through to her career in engineering at WSP. But just because she felt comfortable, didn’t mean that there weren’t some confidence issues and insecurities that she wants to work on. “Just being conscious of that is almost half the battle.” But these sorts of issues like not being sure whether to say something in a meeting or not, is not female specific. Both men and women can have this barrier, and it could be due to any number of things: working in a fast-paced environment, being young, uncomfortable situations.
One of Roma’s proudest achievements is laying claim to the design of the top of The Shard. She started working on the project when her boss and his team were assigned the project only a year after she stared at WSP. “I was a graduate engineering, I didn’t know very much, it was all quite scary to me… right from the very beginning I said “I want to design the top of the building please!” because I thought it would be really cool to say I designed the top of The Shard.” Roma spent nearly six years of her career working on the top of The Shard, and other sections too, “it’s a huge part of my life.”
And it is also a huge part of the lives of anyone else in London. Roma often walks along the north bank of the River Thames, and enjoys watching Londoners stop and admire the skylines of London (particularly the top of The Shard). But she thinks that not enough of them stop to consider who designed it. “I think we need to work more, as engineers, to shout out about what we do. So I think engineers are naturally quite quiet and modest about our work, and we need to shout out really loudly about these amazing things that we’re doing.”
Roma is doing her fair share of the shouting, going to schools and universities and telling students about life as an engineer, and about how much goes on behind the scenes of structural engineering. WSP has a schools engagement programme, where 16 year old students come and work in the offices for a week during the summer holidays. “You can see a big difference in the aspirations and their awareness from when they join, and the preconceptions they have about what an engineering firm does, to the end of it when suddenly they’re really inspired.”
As well as going into schools, Roma is also involved with Edwina Dunn on the Your Life campaign, a 3 year project which launched last week at the Science Museum. “We’re a board of 10 people that have all done a huge diverse range of careers and things with maths and physics A-level. And the aim is that we inspire more children to study maths and physics at A-level.” With the number of students studying maths and physics at A-level being extremely low at the moment, this campaign comes at just the right time. The goal: to increase the number of students studying these subjects by 50% in the three years – a very ambitious, but worthy goal.
Roma thinks that at the moment there are only 30000 students studying physics, and only 7000 of them are girls. The campaign leaders have held focus groups and have found that many students who might want to study these subjects think it is much more difficult to get the higher grades that they, and ultimately the schools, are after. “I think it’s also a perception thing – they don’t know what careers they can do with it. Which astounds me because there is such a huge range of careers you can do with a maths or physics A-level.”
This problem, of students not knowing what career paths they can have with a STEM degree, is something that Roma is passionate to change. “If they [the students] can understand what the link is between say science and maths to the world around us, then that’s enough. Because, hopefully, if they can make the connection that studying maths and studying physics can lead them, at some day, to design skyscrapers that they’re passionate about, or to code the games that they are playing. As long as that connection is there, then when they’re a bit older, and it’s time to make those decisions, then they’ll make them.”
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