Roma Agrawal is a structural engineer and author of Built - The Hidden Stories behind our Structures. She is currently an associate director at AECOM, where she manages projects and a public sector framework for London.
Roma is known for her work on the Shard, the tallest building in Western Europe. She recieved an MBE in 2018 for services to engineering.
In 2017, Roma also won one of the Academy's most prestigious awards in recognition of her efforts to promote careers in the profession.
“I love the variety in my day, and also in the types of projects I work on. I've designed skyscrapers, apartment buildings, train stations and sculptures. ”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
I'm a structural engineer, and it's my job to make sure that buildings and bridges stand up. I solve problems using creativity and maths and physics skills and also spend a lot of time working with other designers such as architects, other engineers, clients, surveyors and so on. It's a very varied job - I might start the day modelling a structure in 3D on a computer, get calls from construction sites about issues they're encountering and end with a meeting to discuss challenges that need solving.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
My undergraduate degree is in physics and I was exploring options for what career I could pursue once I finished that. I happened to do a summer job (which was actually quite boring - I logged sprinklers and fire extinguishers in a health and safety file) where I was surrounded by engineers. That's when it hit me, I could use my physics skills to make real objects. I chose structural engineering because I wanted to be an architect when I was younger so it seemed like a good fit. I went on to do a one-year masters in structural engineering (which was tough because the course assumed an undergraduate degree in engineering!).
What do you like most about being an engineer?
I love the variety in my day, and also in the types of projects I work on. I've designed skyscrapers, apartment buildings, train stations and sculptures. But something unexpected is what I enjoy most - my interaction with people. Engineering is a team sport! I love sitting round a table with others throwing ideas around and solving problems. The most satisfying moment is when a project finishes and you can point at something and say, 'I helped build that'.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
I was hugely touched and honoured when an inner-city academy in Birmingham contacted me to say that the junior school students had voted to name their new building after me. They learned about my career and my work to promote engineering with young people and saw me as a role model. I work hard to promote our profession and was incredibly emotional that these young students, who were largely from BAME backgrounds, selected me.
How do you think racial parity in engineering can be achieved?
Role models from diverse backgrounds are needed, we need to be able to see people like ourselves enjoying and succeeding as engineers. I understand that children from BAME backgrounds are often highly influenced by their parents in their choice of career, so it's essential that parents are excited about engineering and see it as an aspirational and rewarding profession that their children, especially daughters, can thrive in.
Has being a BAME engineer had an impact on your career either positive or negative?
Being a woman from an ethnic minority means I am a very unusual looking engineer! The negatives are that people sometimes don't think I'm an engineer - I still get mistaken for a secretary. The positive is that being unusual means I leave an impression - new people I meet remember me and it has allowed me to develop relationships and promote our industry in different and new ways.
How has the ethnic diversity of the profession changed since you started working in engineering?
There has been some increase in representation of BAME engineers in the last 10 years, but I think we still have a long way to go. Since we are designing things for society, it is important that we reflect that society to ensure the best outcome for everyone.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
Do it! It's a very exciting time to be an engineer - technology is changing, we need more housing, food, sustainable energy sources and so much more. If you want to have an impact on the world, be an engineer.