Roma Agrawal, 29, is an associate structural engineer at WSP Group. She lives in north west London with her husband Badri, an investment banker
"Working on The Shard in London has definitely been my career highlight to date. I spent six years helping design what’s now one of the world’s most recognisable buildings. Whenever I’m walking around the city and I overhear people commenting on how impressive it looks, I feel a surge of pride. My favourite part is the semi-open platform on the 72nd floor because when you look up there’s another 60 metres of structure which I designed. It’s all completely exposed and it hasn’t been hidden by any architectural finishes so you can really appreciate the steelwork.
The Shard is the tallest building in Western Europe yet when I started the project I was scared of heights. When the building was in its final construction phase, I did site visits twice a month which meant going up ladders was a real challenge. But after a few weeks I learned to push that fear aside and now I love the thrill of being 310 metres above the ground.
I’m usually out of bed by 7am and for breakfast I eat porridge and drink a glass of water. I feel best in bright colours so I pair smart trousers with a blouse from Hobbs or Zara and I also pick up new clothes whenever I go home to Mumbai because I love the quality of the cotton there. My office is a short Tube ride away in Holborn, central London, and I spend my commute catching up on industry news in magazines such as The Structural Engineer or I lose myself in a good book. I’ve just finished Solar by Ian McEwan, which is a great satire about a physicist. It struck a chord because I studied physics at Oxford University and that’s where I decided to be a structural engineer.
When I get to my desk at 9am, the first thing I do is check my emails. They could be from a junior engineer in my team with a query on a project we’re working on, a client asking for ideas or an architect sending me a sketch for a new building, bridge or sculpture, asking how I can turn their concept into a reality. One of the most challenging things about my job is juggling the expectations of clients and architects, but I love that aspect. Structural engineering is collaborative and the best ideas come from bouncing ideas around together. At the moment, I’m working with a team of engineers and architects on the refurbishment of a Georgian house built in the 1700s and a residential project close to railway tracks in east London.
There are three phases to any project. The first is conception where a client tells us what they want and I work with the architects in our company to figure out how we can make that happen. Next, it’s the detailed design phase where we flesh out how a structure will look using computer models. This is where the maths comes in. I make calculations of how big columns and beams need to be. It’s like fitting a jigsaw puzzle together. The third and final stage is construction and this is where unforeseen challenges can arise. Contractors might get in touch to say they’ve found something unexpected in the ground such as a geological fault line so it’s my job to rethink calculations quickly.
At 12.30pm I’ll eat homemade soup or a salad wrap and chat to colleagues. In the afternoon, I often visit schools or universities to give careers talks as part of a Royal Academy of Engineering diversity programme. The UK is desperately in need of young engineers so I’m passionate about encouraging it as a career, especially for girls who are often put off by the perception that engineering is a male industry. Sadly, only 8% of engineers in the UK are women and I’d love to see that figure rise to at least 30%. I think being a female engineer is an advantage as it makes me more memorable.
My job involves some travel and in March I went to Mumbai to do a client presentation on a project which is under wraps at the moment. The city was my home until I was 16 so it was exciting to go back there for work.
I usually head home by 6.30pm but it can be later if there’s a big deadline. I do a weekly yoga class and my husband Badri and I have recently taken up Latin American dance classes, which is fun. Once I’m home I love cooking my signature dish, a lentil and vegetable curry with Indian bread, then I’ll watch The Good Wife or a Battlestar Galactica DVD before going to bed at 11pm.”