Roma Agrawal is a structural engineer with a degree in Physics from the University of Oxford, and a Master in Engineering. She helped to design The Shard.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your company
I have worked on an exciting series of projects throughout my career, alongside signature architects, designing bridges, skyscrapers and sculptures. One of my highlights was spending six years working on The Shard, the tallest building in Western Europe, where I was responsible for designing the foundations and the ‘Spire.’
Outside of work, I spend a lot of time working to promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) careers to young people, focusing specifically on under-represented groups such as women.
I am currently a role model for EDF Energy’s Pretty Curious programme, which encourages young girls to continue studying STEM subjects at GCSE level and beyond, thereby keeping the door open to a range of exciting future careers.
Only one in five people currently working in STEM is a woman. As such, I feel as one of those women, that I have a responsibility to show young girls the amazing careers they could have, but in a way they can relate to. That’s why I’ve worked with EDF Energy to create a virtual reality video that immerses girls into the lives of women working in STEM industries, me being one of them, and inspiring them to stay curious about a STEM career in the future.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
I liked science when I was younger so I chose to study it, but my reading around it also suggested that pursing science in my education would leave a huge range of careers open to me. So yes, I’d say there was an element of planning my career. I know physicists that have gone on to work in finance, engineering, civil service, research, music, medicine, marketing – you name it! For me, it led me to structural engineering. I love the feeling of creating these amazing structures that people use and enjoy every day, and which will be around for my lifetime and beyond. Engineering to me is all about people – you work with people, to create things for people.
Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?
Growing up in India, STEM subjects were considered the best to study to get a good, stable job as a doctor or engineer. But when I moved to the UK, I found that the attitudes towards STEM were different to what I was used to in India. Moving to a new country, new school with a different academic system was a little challenging but with the support of fantastic teachers, I was able to study what I loved.
And that’s something I’m thankful for every day. Almost every career involves some element of STEM, and as our world is becoming more and more tech driven, this will only become more prevalent. Whether you want to go into marketing, start your own business, solve the world’s energy or food or housing crises, or, make people’s lives better, STEM will lead you there.
On a typical workday, how do you start your day and how does it end?
I work in an office most days and typically start the day by checking my emails. I usually have messages from architects, the client, or the site I’m working on. I then spend my time at meetings with architects and other engineers to work together on designing a structure and then sometimes visit construction sites to watch it being built.
I use hand-calculations and computer programmes to work out how much load affects the design of buildings – its own weight, weight of the people inside and the pushing force of the wind. I then use more maths and physics to calculate how strong the beams and columns in my structure should be. I check how much a structure sways in the wind to make sure it’s safe. These things are just as important as the aesthetics of the building – if not more so.
How have you benefited from coaching or mentoring?
I have a great admiration for Indian mathematician Shakuntala Devi, who was known as a human calculator. I’ve always enjoyed maths and thought her ability to do really complex sums in her head was inspiring.
In terms of coaching, I took on board what Sheryl Sandberg wrote in her book Lean In. Sheryl’s advice is to make sure that you are not creating artificial barriers for yourself – based on fear, for example – which will hold you back.
I have also been mentored and supported by my brilliant managers who have encouraged me to get chartered and apply for promotions when I didn’t always have the self-confidence to do so.
What would be your top five tips for girls looking to pursue a career in structural engineering?
- Ignore any stereotypes you may have about the profession; it’s an exciting and rewarding career.
- When you walk around any city or town, look at the buildings and bridges around you and be curious about how they were built.
- Technical skills are important but don’t forget it’s ultimately all about people, so communication and building relationships is just as important.
- Do some research to figure out what course and type of engineering is the one for you.
- Push yourself beyond your comfort zone and enjoy the journey.
What does the future hold for you?
Right now, I’m writing a book called BUILT which is full of fascinating stories about how we created our world which will be released in February 2018 by Bloomsbury Publishing, so it’s really exciting to see that come together. My aim is to make people from all walks of life more aware of what engineering is about and inspire people to follow their dream, whether that’s in engineering or otherwise, along the way.