Structural engineer Roma Agrawal is at the top of her field — and she thinks you have what it takes to join her.
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17 January 2019 | Volume 1, Issue 14
  A note from our editor:
I am constantly learning from the girls and women who we feature in Assembly.

In today’s issue, Singaporean student Janine Shum introduced me to a Southeast Asian form of poetry called “twin cinema.” She recently won The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Writing Competition with a poem written in that style — over 12,000 students from Commonwealth countries entered! In her piece for Assembly, Janine explains why she chose this unique structure for her winning submission.

Also in this issue, London-based structural engineer Roma Agrawal debunks myths about engineering — I had no idea that the field requires so much communication and collaboration. Nadya Okamoto, co-founder of the organisation PERIOD, taught me about a U.S. tax on many menstrual products. And girls from Argentina, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Chile share what qualities they value in their teachers.

I hope enjoy reading and learning with us!

Q & A
Standing tall: Interview with trailblazing structural engineer Roma Agrawal
Roma Agrawal
  By Tess Thomas

Appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by Queen Elizabeth II for her contributions to engineering. Headlined a fashion campaign shot by renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz. Named a “Twitter account to follow” by The Guardian. Roma Agrawal’s work has been recognised around the world — and yet, most people have no idea what she means when she says that she’s a structural engineer.

“They will ask me, ‘Is that like an architect? What’s the difference between engineering and architecture?’,” Agrawal remarks. Her work may be technical, but understanding what a structural engineer does is quite simple: she designs the structure of buildings. She takes the sketches created by architects and figures out the technical specifications that will make the structure actually stand up. Roma spent six years working on the Shard, the tallest building in western Europe — she designed the building’s foundations and signature spire. Roma currently works as an associate director at AECOM, an international engineering company committed to addressing the gender imbalance in the sector.

I spoke to Roma about what types of people might enjoy engineering, how teachers can better support female students and what she looks for in job applicants.

Tess Thomas (TT): Your love of building things began at an early age, what was it about engineering that first attracted you?
Roma Agrawal (RA):
I always had this very innate curiosity. I used to make things and break things. I used to build with building blocks and play with this construction toys and stuff. I think my parents always gave me and my sister a very strong grounding in this kind of scientific world, but I don’t think I ever associated the word "engineer" with what I was doing. I always loved science because I felt like it made sense, it was logical, I could solve problems. I really loved maths as well and so I decided to go and study physics at university.

That spark for engineering rather than physics happened over one summer when I was working. I had a really boring job, but the people around me were doing so much interesting work and they were all mechanical engineers. Being surrounded by them and watching them work for three months, I realised that they use maths and physics to make real things. That’s when it really struck me that engineering is about being practical and pragmatic. It is taking all these complex scientific principles and actually creating something for people out of it. That’s when I said, “OK, this is what I want to do.” So I had to study a master’s in engineering after I finished my degree in physics, which is a really unusual route to take actually.

TT: You’re an advocate for engineering and scientific careers, particularly for young women. What do you think needs to change in education systems so that we can encourage more young women to study STEM?
I think it’s quite a cultural thing. Having grown up in India, we definitely have more of an emphasis on STEM subjects — and I think that is to the detriment of history, English, literature and so on. When I moved to the U.K., I found it quite strange that girls didn’t seem to see STEM as being something that they were good at or that they would enjoy.

I feel like from a very young age, we are putting children into these stereotyped boxes and that continues through school. I consistently hear women saying, “I’m not good at maths.” There’s a lack of confidence with teachers and parents who don’t see STEM careers for their daughters because most of the role models that they see are men. There’s absolutely no biological reason why girls wouldn’t thrive in these subjects and that’s proven by going to the country a bit further east. So it’s really about us trying to question these deeply ingrained stereotypes that exist in our society, but I don’t believe for good reason.

Read more.
Around the world 
  Tell us about one of your favourite teachers.

“My favourite teacher used to travel a lot and she always brought us souvenirs. She was the best.”
— Helen, 19, Argentina
“I like my Korean teacher because she doesn't pressure her students and I feel very comfortable around her.”
— Tsolmon, 17, Mongolia
Nadhira “My class teacher in grade three is so open with her students and makes everything she does or teaches fun and enjoyable. She always makes us feel like she's a friend who we can share everything with, without students losing any respect for her.”
— Tiara, 16, Sri Lanka
“One of my favourite teachers is Yoying, my Organic Chemistry teacher. She is very nice and always smiles with her eyes. She teaches with passion and every day we learn something new in her class."
— Soo Yeon, 19, Chile
Student essay
My journey to finding a poem
Janine Shum
  By Janine Shum

When I decided to participate in The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Writing Competition, I started by writing a series of letters between a girl from Singapore and a girl from Afghanistan. In the letters, I completely fleshed out the characters. I knew who their families were, their siblings and even their pets. Amana had a pet goat whom she eventually had to sell because a landmine had blown up the rest of their family’s livestock, plunging them into poverty. Yu Zhen frequently got into disagreements with her mother, who was very invested in her grades, flying into rages when she didn’t do well. Each character had her own personality too, with Amana being mature and resilient, and Yu Zhen na├»ve and lost. Through the letters, I got to know the two girls as my friends. Neither of them was perfect; they had their own problems and their own flaws. When I started writing the letters, I could only see the vast differences between the girls. But the more I wrote, the more I realised that what they needed was the same.

When I was almost done with the letters, and about to submit my work for the competition, disaster struck! Alas, the word limit for the junior category was 750 words, and I had written over 2,800 words. How I did not notice the word limit remains a mystery to me to this day. Amidst my panic, one good idea came. I realised the best way to condense the essence of the letters was to write a poem. Poetry would work in my favour given the tight word limit because poetry can convey meaning not only through words but also through form.

I chose the “twin cinema” poetic form because its structure reflects my message. The twin cinema form consists of two columns of individual poems. Just like the two columns, the two girls are worlds apart. Literally.

Read more.
Sound off!  
“Menstruation and periods isn’t something that [should] hold anyone back from discovering and reaching their full potential.”
— Nadya Okamoto, 20 years old, U.S.

Nadya Okamoto is tired of people who are unwilling to talk openly about something as natural as menstruation: “When we say period we don’t whisper it, we change the stigma by literally breaking the silence.”

Nadya is executive director of PERIOD, a nonprofit she founded at age 16 to shed the stigma surrounding periods though service, education and advocacy. She created the organisation to help those in need access menstrual products — and the process helped Nadya rediscover herself.

Read more.
Get published in Assembly!
  Assembly publishes original work by girls, for girls. And we would love to include your voice! Send us your ideas and you could be featured in the next issue.
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