Deborah Waller chats with WSP structural engineer Roma Agrawal about her love of materials, what is was like to help design The Shard and her Family Fun Day talk.
Deborah Waller meets WSP structural engineer and science communicator Roma Agrawal ahead of our material science themed Family Fun Day Great Stuff on Saturday 17 May.
Tell us a bit about your career so far
More recently I have also been working to promote science and engineering careers with children. There are so many rewarding professions within these areas and I want students to know that. I regularly visit schools and universities, speak to the press and am now a founding board member for the ‘Your life, it counts’ campaign to get more children studying maths and science.
How would you describe a typical day?
In layman’s terms, my job is to make sure buildings and bridges stand up. When I work on a project, we go through a number of stages. We start with conceptual design, meeting architects to turn ideas and sketches into something that will stand up once built. Then we do calculations, running computer models to test our design. And finally, during construction, I visit the site regularly to solve problems that occur as a building takes its physical form.
My job is always challenging and creative, requiring quick thinking, communication and problem solving, and I find it extremely rewarding. There is also a lot of team work involved, which I really enjoy.
You seem to love a lot about your job, but what’s the best bit?
The most exciting part is seeing your ideas turn into real usable objects, things that people point to and admire every day.
How did you know that engineering was the career for you?
When we were growing up, my parents encouraged us to play with Lego and Meccano, which must have played a part. I have also always been interested in architecture and did an A-level in Design and Technology. I briefly considered a career as a physicist but found engineering a little more practical, allowing me to create something physical and permanent. I spent an interesting and inspirational summer working with mechanical engineers at Oxford University and it was then that I decided I wanted to be an engineer.
You mentioned Lego and Meccano – was playing with materials and constructing things an important part of your childhood?
My mother is very creative and was always helping me and my sister to make things. We used random materials in the house to create objects, painted and knitted, and loved playing with construction blocks. I particularly remember loving Playdough because I could make anything I wanted. It was just upsetting when I had to destroy a masterpiece in order to create my next one!
Well at least that’s not something you do now as a structural engineer! But great creations often involve reforming things; have you found this in your career with materials?
I remember when I was studying for my Design and Technology A-level, we used to make things out of all sorts of materials. Once when I was trying to make the base of a lamp I had designed, I used some beads of plastic, heated them up and then vacuum formed them around a wooden template I made, and lo and behold, a plastic base appeared!
Plastics have really transformed our world, what makes them so versatile?
Plastic is such a common material but it is so interesting because of its properties, how it heats up, melts and can be formed. I want to see more eco-friendly plastics, which can degrade and have a minimal impact on our environment; this is where material scientists and engineers come in.
We’re so excited to have you at our next Family Fun Day Great Stuff on 17 May, what made you want to come along?
Our current way of life cannot exist without fantastic scientists and engineers, and we need lots more in the UK! I want to engage with families and children to show them how much fun can be had in a technical career so that someday they can solve the big challenges that we face in lots of areas such as energy, food, housing and more.
How can parents get their kids exploring materials?
We don’t need to look far to interact with amazing materials. A very simple way we can engage children in materials is to ask them of everyday objects – ‘What is this made from? Where did it come from? What would it be like if it was made of something else?’
What is it about 'stuff' or 'materials' that is so interesting? And when do you remember first being fascinated by it?
Materials vary so much, I am always amazed at the different things that can be done with materials. They can heat or cool, be strong or brittle, create safe homes and schools, save lives; we can’t live life today without these amazing materials.
Which one material would you not want to live without?
That is a really difficult question because modern life can’t survive without a whole range of materials. I’d love to see more buildings and bridges made from timber, there are new products coming out which can allow us to build taller buildings and longer bridges with timber, and it’s a sustainable material if farmed in the right way.
What will you be speaking about at the Family Fun Day on 17 May?
I’ll be speaking about the importance of science and engineering in our daily lives. I also have a fun demonstration which involves jelly babies and kebab skewers! And I'm looking forward to meeting Prof Mark Miodownik who will also be giving talks that day.
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