Tell us about yourself

Roma Agrawal’s work has been recognised around the world  — and yet, most people have no idea what she means when she says that she’s a structural engineer.

“They will ask me, ‘Is that like an architect? What’s the difference between engineering and architecture?’,” Roma remarks. “We don’t see that engineers are designing spacecraft, like the Mars robot that just landed or that they are designing medical equipment. I think the stereotype of the engineer is so pervasive and we just don’t understand what it means in our everyday life.”

Roma’s work may be technical, but understanding what a structural engineer does is quite simple: she designs the structure of buildings. She takes the sketches created by architects and figures out the technical specifications that will make the structure actually stand up. Roma spent six years working on the Shard, the tallest building in western Europe — she designed the building’s foundations and signature spire. Roma currently works as an associate director at AECOM, an international engineering company

This softly spoken 30-year-old in a yellow dress is the woman who made sure the biggest erection in Western Europe didn’t fall down. In her role as a structural engineer for WSP Group she spent six years working on it, designing the foundations and making the distinctive top. “The spire is my baby. Buildings usually get covered with plaster but that spire is so honest. It stands up with every nut and bolt on show. You can tell the engineers at the viewing platform because they’re the ones looking up at the structure rather than down at London.”

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She did all this despite being “not good with heights”. “I kept telling myself I couldn’t cry on site. It would be far too embarrassing. Now I can stand at the edge near the window, which I wouldn’t have been able to do six years ago. When you push yourself you sometimes enjoy it.”

From the window Agrawal points out her next project, the transformation of London Bridge. It’s the biggest station rebuild that National Rail has ever done. “There will be some disruption but ultimately it will make travel easier and improve lives,” she tells me. In her work, Agrawal makes sure Londoners have places to live, work and get around. But as a female engineer she is in a minority. “Sadly, only eight per cent of engineers in the UK are women”. It is Agrawal’s mission to increase this to at least 30 per cent.

What got you interested in physics?

I always loved maths and physics at school, and I had really good teachers in India, where I studied until I was 16. Also, my dad’s an electrical engineer and my mum studied maths and science at university, so I was always kind of surrounded by science. But I particularly liked physics, I think, because it helped me understand the steps and the logic that makes the world work. When I moved to the UK to do my A-levels, I decided to carry on with physics (I also did maths, further maths and design and technology), and that was a really interesting transition because at that point physics wasn’t necessarily so logical anymore. We started learning things about quantum mechanics and relativity and so on, which actually made me love physics even more.

Did you enjoy studying it at university?

Yes, I did. We did quite a lot of practical work at the University of Oxford, and we had a really nice group of people there too – we tended to study together and solve problems together, which was great fun. I think my favourite course was mechanics, which sort of ties into me becoming a structural engineer, I suppose, but I liked the quantum stuff as well, and I also remember really liking atmospheric physics, which is something I didn’t even know existed as a topic before I went to university.

How did you get into an offbeat, unconventional and unique career such as structural  engineering?

I did a couple of summer placements during my degree, and one of them was with some mechanical engineers in the physics department at Oxford who were basically designing equipment for physicists (including particle detectors for CERN). That’s when it really hit me: I’d always loved making stuff, I knew I wanted to use maths and physics in my job, and so engineering seemed like a fantastic opportunity.

After I graduated, I did a one-year MSc in structural engineering at Imperial College London, which was fairly unusual because almost every other person on my course had an engineering undergraduate degree. I’d spoken to the course director before I applied, and they said, basically, a physics degree is very robust in terms of problem solving and analytical skills and maths – you’ll be fine. And I was fine in the end, but I had to learn to apply the theory I’d studied in physics to a totally different world. For example, I knew how to work out how a rocket goes up, or how the Earth’s atmosphere varies in pressure, but now I needed to use the same theory to design steel beams and concrete columns or work out how much a tall building sways in the wind.

How did you get started in the field?

I joined the engineering consultancy firm WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff in 2005 and I’ve been here ever since. My first project was a footbridge up in Newcastle. I was in a very small team, just me and my boss, and the thing I was most excited about was working out the harmonics. I had to work out how the footbridge would vibrate as people walked across it, and whether it would go into resonance and cause problems to the structure. I really loved that because I could see my physics training being applied in a very obvious way. Later, I worked on the Shard, which was so much fun; I was part of that project for about six years and I learned a huge amount.

What was the most interesting challenge in building the Shard?

Trying to build western Europe’s tallest tower in the middle of central London with a train station, a bus station, a Tube station, a hospital and busy roads all around was probably the biggest challenge for the project generally. For me personally, I think the biggest challenge was just how much I had to learn and the huge variety of things I did. I designed in steel, I designed in concrete, I worked with structures from the 1800s that surround the site, and I had to learn all of that in quite a short space of time.

You’re working to promote engineering to women and other under-represented groups. What inspired you to do that?

At WSP, the staff is about 25% women, and that’s a lot higher than the industry average, which is somewhere between 8 and 10% in the UK. When I started work, none of this really bothered me; I probably felt it most on site, when I would often be the only woman there, but it still took me a while to ask “Why is this?” Then, once I started going out and presenting our work on the Shard in schools, I saw that there was no lack of enthusiasm from the women in the audience, and I thought, well, something needs to be done about this, because girls are missing out on some fantastic career opportunities.

Why is the fraction of women working in engineering lower in the UK than it is in some other countries?

I grew up in India and I never felt I was strange because I was a girl who liked physics. But in the UK, I think we’ve kind of spun ourselves into this web of believing that girls do arts and boys do science, which is simply untrue. And it’s a stereotype that is now self-perpetuating, because when you don’t get a lot of women going into science and engineering, you don’t have enough role models, and then young girls are not inspired and parents don’t even realize they should be inspiring their girls to consider doing science and engineering.

Any advice for current physics students?

Don’t be put off by any stereotypes or people telling you what you can and can’t do, because anything is possible.