Roma is an Associate Structural Engineer at WSP where she spent six years working on The Shard. Roma has a BA in Physics from the University of Oxford and an MSc in Structural Engineering from Imperial College.
She was awarded the ‘Diamond Award for Engineering Excellence’ and is an M&S Leading Lady. Roma was the only woman featured on Channel 4’s documentary, ‘The Tallest Tower’.
Outside work, she promotes engineering careers to young people. She is a founding member of the Your Life campaign and has spoken to more than 3000 people at over 50 organisations in the last three years. She enjoys Indian classical, ballroom and Latin dancing, yoga, reading and baking. You can follow her on twitter @RomaTheEngineer and find out more at www.RomaTheEngineer.com.
When a young Roma Agrawal moved from her hometown of Mumbai in India to London, she could never have imagined that years later her ideas would be helping shape the future skyline of the capital. A maths and science whizz at school, with a childhood passion for design, technology and all things LEGO, she was encouraged by her teachers to go on to study physics at the University of Oxford.
At Oxford, Agrawal found her interests for design and science were a perfect fit to pursue a career in structural engineering. “I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was fortunate that the teachers at my school were very encouraging of girls wanting to go on to study maths and science,” says Agrawal.
It was this encouragement throughout her education that sticks with her today and remains a source of inspiration for many of her projects. As one of a small team of structural engineers at WSP, who worked on the city’s most iconic building, The Shard, Agrawal’s profile quickly rocketed into the media spotlight. Yet it was with this attention that opportunity rose. Promoting engineering, scientific and technical careers to young people and under-represented groups, particularly women, became a priority and Agrawal was the perfect role model to do this.
“We spent six years working on Western Europe’s tallest building designing the ‘Spire’ and the foundations. It still seems pretty surreal today, to think we built it from scratch on a scale never done before in London,” proudly asserts Agrawal. Earlier this year, the 306-metre building was named the best skyscraper in the world in an international competition recognising the “complicated construction” and “innovative planning” needed to build The Shard on such a tight site.
“There is a severe lack of awareness and understanding in what engineers do. I hear the word engineering used most when a train is running late, due to overrunning engineering works, but never in awe or wonder at a building and the engineering behind that,” exclaims Agrawal. “Engineering needs a brand overhaul. Currently only eight per cent of women are engineers. We have this problem of what an engineer should look like or does look like, that was maybe accurate in the past, but isn’t today. There is a long way to go, but for me, it is important to show the diverse faces of engineering.”
Agrawal often engages about these issues with institutions and policy makers and has visited more than 50 schools, universities and organisations across the globe over the last three years. She is a founding advocate on the Your Life campaign which launched earlier this year at the Science Museum. The campaign aims to show how science and maths can lead to exciting and successful careers, as well as grow the number of women in science, technology and engineering.
“I think there are a huge number of people out there trying to promote their stories, professions and careers that are finding traction. The Your Life campaign aims to tie this together and push that one step further,” exclaims a buoyant Agrawal. She believes the campaign, backed by the Department for Education and BIS, will make clear the connections between studying these subjects and the careers they could potentially lead onto.
“Our future way of life is dependent on good engineering. People don’t understand or often won’t make the connection between designing a space shuttle, the Shard or even a mobile phone – all built on solid engineering skills. We have to make sure stereotypes don’t get in the way of future choices.”
Shaking up statistics
The statistics make for sorry reading and emphasise the importance of campaigns such as Your Life. In the UK, fewer than 20 per cent of 16-19 year-olds take A-level Maths and half of mixed state schools had no girls study A-Level Physics in 2011. The UK needs 50 per cent more graduates in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects, which is a target the campaign hopes to achieve over the next three years.
In the eight years working as an associate structural engineer at WSP, Agrawal has achieved many things. She has designed bridges, skyscrapers and sculptures with signature architects and won many accolades including the Women in Construction Awards 2014 and the Best in Science and Engineering Award 2013 in the Asian Women of Achievement Awards. Through working with the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE) and Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), she has attended major conferences and sat on a panel at the House of Lords to discuss diversity in STEM.
Agrawal believes it is an exciting time to be in engineering with lots of new challenges helping shape and design the world’s future smart cities. At the Cheltenham Science Festival, in June, she spoke about creating greener, more energy efficient cities of the future with smart appliances and data-controlled traffic systems, alongside ex-minister for transport, Stephen Ladyman.
“I think it really is exciting. We’re being forced to look at new materials and how we can build in a modular way,” notes Agrawal. “We as scientists and engineers have to come up with new techniques of construction. It is challenging to build in densely populated cities and it comes down to efficiency. Often something as simple as having efficient lifts in buildings can dictate the height we’re willing to live at.”
Across the world there has been much made of the future of our major cities, with estimations showing 70% of the global population will live in urban settings by 2050. This will, in turn, put pressure on the transport network, the emergency services and the utilities that may already be stretched in these cities. Agrawal has recently worked on a number of projects in the Middle East looking at the future design of eco cities and effective transport systems.
“Smaller denser cities will most certainly restrict the ecological impact on the countryside. The challenge is how we build these going forward,” says Agrawal. She expects to see high rise buildings becoming the norm and believes a layered system will work with transport on one level, walking and cycling on another and shops and homes above that with very few cars running on petrol or diesel. “In the Middle East WSP looked at a zero carbon city, and as part of that, electric driverless pods that you programme and they tell you where to go. We definitely have to adapt different technologies such as this in the future.”
Agrawal’s idea of a stacked city may one day become a reality, and in her country of birth already seems to be in motion with a 100 smart cities set to be built as part of the Indian government’s grand schemes to create a “digital India”. By 2025, India will have 30 cities with 10 million or more residents, with Delhi set to become the most populous city in the world.
“It will be very different across the world. Where we’ve got historic cities such as London or Paris, we will see gradual change as we adopt more technology. Whereas in countries such as India and China we’ll see completely new cities built from scratch that will look dramatically different,” asserts Agrawal.
“There are two ways we can proceed in the future: either we as humans shrink our living space, reduce the amount of travel, the things we use and throw away, or we continue to live the way we do today or in a more extravagant way, but force science, engineering and technology to make our impact smaller. They are two extreme possibilities, with reality no doubt somewhere in the middle.”
Educating a new generation
However it is her closing remarks that really hit home, as Agrawal sums up the future of engineering and the possibilities waiting a new generation of structural engineers. She sees it as vital that professional engineers work with young students to show them why science and maths are “creative, fun and rewarding”, as well as speaking to teachers and parents. Through work placements, mentoring and engagement, only then she believes will there be “a sea change.”
“Getting industry and education to work together can be extremely powerful. We need to see visible role models in engineering, to whose careers our children can aspire. We need to redefine the term ‘engineer’,” concludes Agrawal.