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Stanford University’s Bhavna Hariharan on How Engineering can Change the World

January 9, 2014
Bhavna Hariharan

Bhavna Hariharan

The next profile in’s ongoing Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Series features Stanford University Research Associate Bhavna Hariharan, who shares her experiences as a woman completing post graduate degrees in mechanical engineering, and how engineering provides the tools to address real world problems. What inspired you to pursue engineering?

Bhavna Hariharan: “This may not sound like an obvious path, but since I was very young I always wanted to teach. Teaching was something I was very passionate about and in many ways I learned through teaching myself.

“I grew up in India, completing my education including my undergraduate degree before moving to the United States for post graduate studies. While growing up one of the things that sparked my interest in science was the encouragement of curiosity, not having to accept things as they are, the ability to ask new questions. The school I went to encouraged that kind of thinking and I realized that I wanted to teach students to be curious, to understand phenomena that fascinate you.

“Pursuing what interested me led me to specialize in the sciences, and I realized that as much as I enjoyed the language of mathematics, I was more interested in applied science – seeing how the things I was learning could be put into use. That led me to pursue a degree in engineering at Stanford University, ultimately earning a masters degree in mechanical engineering, and a PhD specializing in engineering education research. In doing so, I was able to satisfy my passion for building things and understanding how the world works.

“I’m currently working on sanitation and hygiene in rural India, and I challenge my undergraduate engineering students to come up with technologies in collaboration with community groups in India.” What was your experience as a woman pursuing an engineering degree?

Stanford Student Project Presentation

Stanford Student Project Presentation

Hariharan: “In India, being a woman in engineering is rare, and woman in mechanical engineering is almost unheard of. I attended an all girls engineering college that had recently opened in New Delhi, which was an interesting experience; the mechanical engineering building we inherited only had urinals – no bathrooms – in an all girls college! If we had to go to the bathroom, we had to go to a different building, which is just one example of how male-dominated engineering has been.

“There was also a sense from some professors, and in particular professional engineers, that women in engineering was something of an indulgence. We had to work really, really hard to demonstrate that we were competent. During my first internship I worked in the engine design department of an automobile company. While everyone was very polite, it was obvious they were watching for my first mistake, unsure if I actually knew what I was doing. And any time I displayed competence the reaction was surprise rather than something that was expected.

“What I learned is you need to believe in yourself, and if you don’t know something admit it. I also learned that after people get over the surprise factor of a woman engineer, and are more accepting, to not hold a grudge against them. I have found that being able to build friendships, to communicate what it feels like to be singled out as a girl with my male colleagues, made it easier for me, and made them aware of their unconscious prejudices.” How do you define engineering?

Hariharan: “Engineering is about having a world view that if something isn’t working you can fix it, and that’s very different from the training in other fields. Engineering builds on the belief that change is possible. I think what is so unique about engineering and how we train engineers, is that we view the world as problem solvers, applying science to real world problems. Engineering does include calculus, or working with metals, or writing code; but we need a broader definition, a ‘meta’ definition of engineering, which is that engineers can envision change and then use tools to make change happen.” What are some of the more interesting problems you’ve worked on?

Hariharan: “During the final year of my bachelors degree, we had to identify a problem and develop a thesis. Working with a team of three girls, we took on the challenge of redesigning helmets used for motorcycles and scooters. The percentage of people that wear helmets in India is very small and we wondered why that was the case. In addition to the design effort on the helmet, we also learned how to field surveys – to understand why people didn’t wear helmets. We learned that most helmets are designed for colder climates and not adapted for India’s more humid climate. The primary reason people we surveyed didn’t wear helmets was due to comfort – they would rather risk multiple head trauma than be uncomfortable! We ended up with a fairly simple solution of improving the vents that allow air flow through the helmet when in motion. It was so satisfying to see that such a simple solution could create so much benefit.

“From that experience, I’ve focused on creating local solutions by better understanding the users of technology. You really need to take into account the local environment when designing solutions. I teach my students to understand the needs of people at a local level and then apply engineering solutions to address those needs. When working on my Stanford PhD dissertation I was working with hand-loom weavers; we initially assumed the problem space would be focused on efficiency, to increase competitiveness; but when we worked with the weavers we learned that the technology they relied on hadn’t change in 75 years. The machines they used were designed for use 3-4 hours per day and now they were used 10 hours per day. As a result, the project definition completely changed from a focus on efficiency to ergonomic design, back support and safety. My students realized that they came in with pre-conceived notions about what it meant to be an engineer. They became much more sensitive to understanding the problem and questioning assumptions before designing a solution.” What advice do you have for students that are considering a career in engineering?

Hariharan: “Engineers can be called unflattering things like ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’, but first and foremost you should be proud of your academic abilities. If you enjoy mathematics, you should enjoy the fact that you enjoy math! If you are good at science or building things be proud of it.

“Talk to upper year students, your professors, teachers and engineers, to understand how engineering is a part of everyday life. My students sometimes tell me that they enjoy engineering but want to do things for the world. Engineering gives you the tools to understand problems and make change possible.” One final question, describe your post-graduate experience at Stanford.

Hariharan: “It was wonderful. I still remember my first day on the Stanford campus – it felt as though anything was possible. For me it has been a place where you are surrounded by extremely bright people who care passionately about the work that they do. Yes, it can be grueling, in a quarter system you learn a lot in ten weeks, but after one quarter you adjust to the pace and it becomes really fun. You meet excellent, inspiring people and if you have a dream you’ll very likely meet the people and have the resources to make that dream come true.”

Stanford University campus

Stanford University campus

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