Back Story: Shini Somara, ‘I wanted to highlight the care engineers have for others’
Image credit: Sofia Medina Cassillas
This month we turn the tables and interview Dr Shini Somara herself, as the engineer and broadcaster tells us how her latest book aims to update the public perception of engineering.
E&T: As the author of ‘Engineers Making a Difference’ (aka ‘EMAD’), what is your experience of engineering?
Shini Somara: After my Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) in mechanical engineering, I continued to pursue an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) in environmental technology at Brunel University in London. My EngD was sponsored by Flomerics, which specialises in computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software. My doctoral research focused on the dynamic thermal modelling of buildings because, at the time, CFD models only provided static images. CFD in buildings has grown from strength to strength and was particularly useful during the pandemic, when we needed to know how Covid was transported among crowds.
My father inspired me into engineering, with his incessant problem-solving approach to life. The plan was to take over the reins of his building services engineering consultancy. This hasn’t happened yet – but there is still time!
The highly visual nature of CFD inspired me to get creative with engineering. I enjoyed presenting my research at academic conferences and inspiring others into the profession through outreach. This led to a full-time career in television for channels like the BBC, Al Jazeera and UKTV, and two YouTube series called ‘Crash Course Physics’ and ‘Crash Course Engineering’, which have helped almost 60 million viewers (to date) with their A Levels.
E&T: Why is it necessary to have a book like ‘EMAD’?
SS: Over the years, I have been invited into schools, colleges and universities to inspire more underrepresented groups into engineering. Year on year, the statistics on equality, diversity and inclusion in engineering remained appallingly low. It prompted me to question why I entered engineering with ease, when so many girls were choosing humanities. The answer was simple. Growing up, my father normalised the idea that anyone could problem-solve. It was only when I entered the industry that I felt a sense of imposter syndrome in a profession that consisted of a predominantly homogenous group of men.
It was clear that to encourage more minorities into the industry, I had to speak up and draw attention to those who were underrepresented. My podcast, eSTEAMd Women, and other media output are all driven by this ambition.
I started writing children’s books to break down the outdated stereotypes of engineers. Ask any student what they think of when you say the words ‘engineer’ and ‘engineering’ and they will respond with “men”, “hardhats”, “fluorescent jackets”, “overalls” and “car mechanics”. Engineering is so much more than that.
My first series of four books – ‘An Engineer Like Me’, ‘A Scientist Like Me’, ‘A Coder Like Me’ and ‘A Mathematician Like Me’ – are aimed at five to seven-year-olds and feature atypical main characters who point out the STEM in their everyday lives.
‘EMAD’, my latest book, is for an age 12+ audience, and Imperial College London, in collaboration with What on Earth Books and supported by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, will be sending two free copies of the book to every state secondary school in the UK as part of a school kit. This also includes a Teacher’s Guide, 12 posters covering a hot topic from each chapter, and a full-length, laminated timeline to update the public perception of engineering and engineers.
E&T: What are the key messages of the book?
SS: The engineers I’ve met are usually making a difference to the quality of people’s lives. I wanted to highlight that engineers don’t have to be geniuses at maths and physics, which can often put people off the profession. Solutions to problems can be found creatively and collaboratively.
I gathered some unsung superhero engineers I have met throughout my career, to show that individuals with curiosity and determination can make a difference through engineering. I wanted to highlight the ingenuity, brilliance, and care most engineers have for others. I am proud of the engineers in the book. They are having a positive impact across several different sectors, from climate and environment, to space, transport, and basic human needs. Some have won prestigious prizes, such as the Earthshot Prize, or entered their profession through unconventional and under-acknowledged routes, such as apprenticeships and T-Levels.
Through ‘EMAD’, I wanted to provide young people with some inspiration to choose engineering. Certainly, anyone who wants to have a positive impact in the world should go into this industry – but I guess I don’t need to tell readers of E&T that!
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.