Please tell us about yourself
Ranjani Mosale Vijayakumar is a civil engineer originally from Mysuru, Karnataka in India. After completing her undergraduate studies in her home country, she moved to the U.S. to pursue a Master of Science degree at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Currently working as an engineer for Tourney Consulting Group, Vijayakumar has significant experience as a student, engineering professional and mentor.
How did you first become interested in engineering?
I got my bachelor’s degree in technology from the National Institute of Technology Karnataka, Surathkal in India, and I have my Master of Science degree in civil engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As a kid growing up in India, I pretty much saw only two career options: either being a doctor or being an engineer. The more creative options tend to make a lot less money, so these two are considered the broad areas where financial stability is reached pretty quickly. In middle-class families that’s very important and forced on the kids. Architecture, for example, would have been an okay choice too, because it’s considered a mainstream occupation, but I don’t think I would have been allowed to go into a career that is more creative, like being an actress or being in the music industry.
What was the educational path you followed to become an engineer?
Since I was good at science and math, I figured I would be an engineer. If I had to go back, I would have probably chosen psychology. I don’t see myself sticking to engineering. I think I’ll go back to either education or psychology. I don’t get as much fulfillment being in engineering as I would get by being in a field where I’d be able to help people. I got into undergrad when I was 17. I didn’t know where I wanted my career to go back then, I just wanted to get into a good school.
The way it works in India is that you have to choose what you want to do at 14 years of age, because there are so many exams you have to take to get you into university. Close to 1.4 million people take the competitive exams. In order to get into the top-tier public universities, you have to take two exams. You go to a lot of coaching centers and after-school study groups. To do that, you have to decide what field you’re going into at a very young age. Most of my classmates went into engineering because they didn’t see any other option and I believe at least a few of them would have considered more creative fields if they had an option.
What does it take to get more girls or women interested in engineering?
I volunteered at a lot of STEM after-school activities. For example, the Adler Planetarium has a program for high school students called “Girls Do Hack.” There are many activities for girls, either teaching them how to code or giving them an introduction to opportunities they may have after they graduate. That’s giving them a broad idea of what to expect in engineering. That’s one way to en-courage girls. Telling them what to expect in a particular career path and educating them about possible career options is helpful. You can be a civil engineer, electrical engineer, electronics engineer, computer science engineer, mechanical engineer—there are a lot of options. I knew I didn’t want to sit in front of a computer and code all the time. I wanted hands-on fields, being on site and observing construction activities.
What’s a typical project for you?
TCG works on a lot of different kinds of projects and as an engineer, I am involved in mainly three broad types of projects: service life modeling for structures, corrosion studies and field investigations. Service life modeling involves narrowing the exposure conditions based on the soil/groundwater chemistry and the weather conditions, and then running simulations to estimate the time taken for the movement of deleterious ions to the level of reinforcement. In big projects like the replacement bridge for Goethals in New York, we also specify the quality assurance and quality control plan that should be followed in order to ensure that a quality product is delivered. Corrosion studies are performed on a day-to-day basis in the lab in order to assess the efficacy of sealers and corrosion inhibitors. Field investigations are performed to assess if there are any material degradation issues in the concrete or if there is any corrosion activity in the reinforcement. Corrosion activity in a structure is assessed by mapping half cell potential and measures are taken to mitigate corrosion—for example, cathodic protection systems.
You’re Indian and you’ve also studied in the U.S., do you see any cultural differences in studying STEM?
One professor was really inspiring. He knew a lot about the materials used in concrete. The lab work I did for those three months piqued my interest to study more about it. I then decided to do my master’s in construction materials. Until then, I wasn’t really sure about coming to the U.S. for my master’s. It’s really common for students of my university to just finish their B.A. and then come abroad for higher education. I knew of a few people who had done that. I spoke to them and figured out which universities were good. I looked at the rankings too. And I looked at the research that was happening at each of the universities. Obviously funding was a major factor. Some universities have a lot more funding for grad students than others. Talking to different students at different universities helped a lot.
I was part of something called “Women in Math, Science and Engineering” in grad school, a living and learning community for the undergrad students. It’s like a separate hostel for girls. We had a dinner series with women in the working world. We tried to get women in various fields to come and talk to the girls and tell them what they’ve been through in their careers, what girls should expect, and whether they felt any sort of discrimination being in STEM fields. One of the discussions we had was how different women are treated in STEM fields throughout the world. Most students who came were from the U.S. A professor from Greece said it was very hard for women to get into STEM there, that there’s open discrimination against women in that field in Greece. I wouldn’t have expected that to happen in the U.S., but in the high schools that the other girls came from, teachers apparently were okay with them being bad at math: “You’re a girl, that’s fine, we don’t expect you to be really good at math.” One girl was really good at math and the teacher wouldn’t give her any opportunities in class, because she was a girl.
In that way, I was really fortunate. I didn’t have to prove myself and tell anyone that it doesn’t matter that I’m a girl. I did have to fight about moving away from home. “What’s society going to think sending our daughter abroad alone?” my parents asked. Apart from that, there wasn’t any stigma attached to women in STEM in India. But I did see that in the U.S., and, according to that professor, in Greece too. I’ve heard about it a lot, but I really don’t know where it stems from. I haven’t had too much exposure to basic education in the U.S. to pinpoint where it’s being caused.