Rupal Srivastava

Ph.D. Research Scholar, Indian Institute of Technology

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STEM holds the mystery of the universe, the solution to a technological challenge, and a cure for diseases.

What do you do?

I do research on composites integrated with 'smart' materials for their applications in shape morphing and vibration control. Imagine a robotic bird, with bird-like feathers, which twist and bend while flapping, we can achieve this using composite structures with smart materials embedded in them which can be actuated using electricity, heat, or magnetic field, thus morphing the shape. Such structures can also be used in origami-based deployable applications, unmanned air & marine vehicles, and in many more fields yet to be explored!
I use this platform to create awareness about STEM and encourage women participation in STEM. I also conduct menstrual hygiene related workshops for college and rural women.
As a researcher, I believe, my job is not only to explore, but also to represent as a brown woman in STEM.

Why did you choose this field?

My interest in engineering grew when I first sat beside my dad while he repaired his Vespa. It was a simple spark plug, but the information I got from my father at the age of 6 was enough to instill a lifelong curiosity in me. That was the moment I knew I had to learn more about machines, and I did! I went ahead to pursue a Bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering followed by a Masters in the same field, both from well-reputed colleges of the country. After my Masters, I withdrew my candidacy from a job offer and took the first six-month break from academics to make a concrete decision on my desire to get into academia through Ph.D. During this time, I lived with a friend and this is when our discussions began about life with a job in a big city vs life doing what we love in a small town. We both clearly realized that we wanted to give back to the community and not work only for ourselves. I applied for a Ph.D. and cleared one of the toughest entrance exams in the country, and she bagged a scholarship for a Master's abroad and has returned to establish a data analytics business in our small hometown.
It was during my Ph.D. that I was introduced to a research project from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) regarding space deployable structures. During the literature survey of the subject, I came across several challenges being faced by these structures and that is when I got into the field of smart materials- to overcome the many challenges faced by conventional structures. This idea led to experimentation, numerical modeling, and optimization of smart material integrated structures. I now aim to extend the application of these structures in the field of soft robotics, and unmanned vehicles.
It took my father, my best friend’s encouragement, my desire to give back to society, and the need for a solution to existing technological challenges to make me choose the field of interest I currently work in. It has been a gradual reveal and a huge character development.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

Pursuing a Ph.D. has instilled in me a tremendous amount of responsibility towards society. With this in mind, I ran for Girl's President and won, and using that as my platform I successfully did two things which I am proud of:
1. A campus-wide survey and analysis of women's safety which led to the first online anonymous counseling service for campus students.
The survey was named #MeToo and the responses were shocking and overwhelming. The online anonymous counseling service is immensely helpful for women (and men) to share their experiences and get the required help.
2. Menstrual hygiene workshops promoting the use of menstrual cups for a safer, and cheaper period, and a sustainable option for the environment.
We regularly conducted this workshop for women on campus (especially students and sanitation staff) and for women from villages around the campus. We found that a majority of rural women switched to menstrual cups, even more than college girls!

Both these programs will affect society positively and will create a 'domino effect' for women empowerment. Younger me always thought a single person cannot bring a considerable change in society, it took time for me to realize that with a strong platform and sincere collaborations, it is possible.

Why do you love working in STEM?

The topic that I am working on currently, embedded composites, finds huge applications in the field of smart structures, soft robotics, and medical implants. Currently, I am working on the fundamentals of these structures and their shape and vibration analysis. I aim to pursue a Postdoctoral Fellowship which incorporates this knowledge in practical applications, especially in soft robotics and medical implants. I work one day at a time, I wake up with a small but certain goal for the day which will help me move closer towards the completion of my current project. STEM allows us to explore the infinite possibilities, it allows us to have the required tools to overcome challenging issues with a system with an innovative idea, and this is why I love STEM, it has made me a zealous woman, with impossible ideas that I am not afraid to suggest or try.
The bigger picture, however, is to become an educator and have a laboratory where I can work on embedded composites and involve rural women in the lab so they could gain exposure to STEM and hopefully pursue it as a career.

Best advice for next generation?

STEM holds the mystery of the universe, the solution to a technological challenge, and a cure for all diseases. If not us, who? If not now, when?
STEM might look hard to understand, like a different language, but all we have to do is learn the language, and everything becomes easier and fun. Take small consistent steps, aim for a giant goal.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

What you seek is seeking you. -Rumi

NOMINATE a woman in STEM

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