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#STEMStories: Suria, DPhil Engineering Science, UK

#STEMStories: Suria, DPhil Engineering Science, UK

Name: Suria Subiah
Role/Occupation: DPhil Engineering Science (Aerospace Engineering), Oxford University
Country: South Africa, currently in the UK

Suria Subiah’s father is a carpenter and her earliest childhood memories were of spending time with him in his workshop, which probably initiatedher interest in technical fields. Her childhoodinterest in mathematics and science, foreshadowed her career in engineering. As Subiah was fascinated byaircraft and space vehicles, she pursued an undergraduate degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. She then completed her MSc. Aerospace Engineering focused on hypersonic flows and aerothermodynamics at the Georgia Institute of Technology, USA. Subiah is currently pursuing her doctorate (DPhil Engineering Science) in Aerospace Engineering at theHypersonic Group at Oxford University, UK. Her research involves studying the extremely high temperature effects around space vehicles entering the atmosphere.

Subiah views her experience as a woman in STEM asboth positive and negative, “I’ve worked in some environments where people have doubted my skills and knowledge without knowing anything about me…many times when I’ve been the only woman in the room.” But she has also been fortunate enough to have worked in great environments where her supervisors and peers treated her impartially, regardless of her gender. She emphasised the importance of having a network of wonderful women within STEM to provide support and to build each other up through their shared experience. Her advice to young women aspiring to enter the STEM field is to work hard and be resilient,“if you’re passionate and interested in this field then it doesn’t matter what other people think, putting in the time and hard work to be good at what you do will get you far.”

And she is definitely passionate about her current role inSTEM, “I am excited to be at the forefront of discovering new knowledge which may one day put humans on another planet! I feel extremely privileged to be working in this environment among some of the best engineering minds in the field and I’m excited to work on challenging engineering problems every day.”

Subiah’s enthusiasm has certainly paid off as shown bythe various milestones she has achieved through the years- she received the Fulbright scholarship to study at the Georgia Institute of Technology; got accepted to the University of Oxford for her doctoral research; was the lead experimentalist in the control room for the first commissioning of the successful test of the hypersonic tunnel (which is one of the fewin the world that is capable of simulating the conditions around space vehicles) in the mode that she had developed, duringthe first year of her doctoral study.

In terms of maintaining a work-life balance, Subiah is the first to admit, “I’m still figuring this one out to be honest... I think it’s important to take a break when you can and not feel guilty about it!” She loves reading and going for runs, watching series to destress as well as travelling and experiencing different cultures whenever she gets the opportunity.

Read more about Suria Subiah, a young female engineer who shines as brightly as the future of interplanetary space travel that she envisions in the very insightful interview below.

1. Describe what your work entails.

I am currently pursuing a PhD in aerospace engineering at Oxford University in the UK (at Oxford it’s called a DPhil Engineering Science). I specialise in hypersonic flows, which are the extremely high speed flows that space vehicles experience (these can be up to thirty times the speed of sound). Because these flows have such high energy, the temperature around the vehicles rise to incredible amounts (easily over 2000 degrees Celsius). When the air is heated up this much, strange phenomena happen where the molecules may dissociate (break apart), ionise (lose electrons), radiate or become a plasma. In order to protect the vehicle from being destroyed by these heat loads, a thermal protection system is required. I am studying how this thermal protection system performs when these extremely high temperature phenomena become present.The goal of my research is to provide fundamental knowledge for a reusable thermal protection system for space vehicles which will eventually enable interplanetary exploration!Oxford has a hypersonic tunnel which is one of the few in the world capable of simulating these conditions and during my first year as a DPhil student I was lead experimentalist in commissioning the tunnel in a new mode of operation for these tests.

2. Describe your engineering journey.

As a child I was always interested in maths and science and knew that I would pursue a career in this field. My father is a carpenter, and some of my earliest childhood memories are of spending time with him in his workshop, which was probably the start of my interest in a technical field! Aircraft and space vehicles fascinated me so I pursued an undergraduate degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. Following this I received a Fulbright Scholarship to the Georgia Institute of Technology, USA where I completed my MSc. Aerospace Engineering specialising in hypersonic flows and aerothermodynamics. I then applied to the Hypersonic Group at Oxford to pursue my doctorate (DPhil Engineering Science) where my research involves studying the extremely high temperature effects which happen around space vehicles entering the atmosphere.

3. What excites you about your job? What motivates you to get out of bed every morning?

I am excited to be at the forefront of discovering new knowledge which may one day put humans on another planet! I feel extremely privileged to be working in this environment among some of the best engineering minds in the field and I’m excited to work on challenging engineering problems every day. Oxford is such a unique and beautiful place and I get to learn from the best and be part of a great team of people at my lab. What gets me out of bed is usually my long list of things to do but I’m usually eager to get started on it!

4. How would you describe your experience as a woman in the engineering space?

Being a woman in aerospace engineering has definitely had its ups and downs! I’ve worked in some environments where people have doubted my skills and knowledge without knowing anything about me other than first appearances, and many times when I’ve been the only woman in the room. I’ve also been in environments which have been great to work in and where my supervisors and peers didn’t treat me any differently because of gender. I’ve found that the best thing that comes from being a woman in this field is finding the supportive and encouraging people who inspire you to just do your best, regardless of what gender you are. I’m also lucky to have a network of wonderful women in STEM who provide great support and we build each other up through our shared experience.

5. What advice would you give to young women aspiring to enter the engineering/ STEM field?

My main advice would be to work hard and be resilient. If you’re passionate and interested in this field then it doesn’t matter what other people think, putting in the time and hard work to be good at what you do will get you far. Don’t be discouraged by negative people – STEM fields take a lot of work and effort but they’re definitely worth it.

6. Have there been any milestone moments or eureka moments in your career?

Definitely - getting the Fulbright scholarship to study at the Georgia Institute of Technology was a huge milestone. The other incredible moment was being accepted to the University of Oxford to do research on experimental hypersonics which is what I’ve always wanted to do. Being lead experimentalist in the control room for the first commissioning test of the hypersonic tunnel in the mode that I’d developed and having the test be successful was another wonderful moment in my career.

7. How do you maintain a work-life balance?

I’m still figuring this one out to be honest... I think it’s important to take a break when you can and not feel guilty about it! I love to read and go for a run or walk, or just watch a series to destress. I also love to travel and experience different cultures so I try to explore and see new places whenever I have some time off.

9. Who is your role model? Who inspires you?

My mother - she’s the strongest and most determined woman I know. She has always motivated and encouraged me to do my best and power through the difficult times. Having her as an example of someone who is such a hard worker and has overcome great adversity has been a huge inspiration to me.

10. Where can more information or insight into your work be found?

You can check out my profile (along with those of some of my impressive fellow female engineers at the Oxford Department of Engineering Science) here: https://www.eng.ox.ac.uk/women-in-engineering/profiles/.
I’ve also just started tweeting about my research and experience as a DPhil at Oxford on my Twitter account @HypersonicSu. If you’re on ResearchGate, check out my publications at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Suria_Subiah.

Suria Subiah interviewed by DhrutiDheda

DhrutiDheda is a Chemical Engineer with a strong interest in media and communication. She is the editor of the Engineers without Borders South Africa Newsletter and the Community Manager – South Africa and Regional Outreach for Geeky Girl Reality. If you wish to collaborate or network, contact her at dhruti@geekyreality.com or find her on twitter @dhrutidd