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'Through exposing truths, change can happen': engineer and broadcaster Dr Shini Somara

Professional Engineering

'Shining a light on equality, diversity and inclusion within STEM is a passion'
'Shining a light on equality, diversity and inclusion within STEM is a passion'

There has never been a better time to build a career in cutting-edge engineering, says mechanical engineer, broadcaster, producer and author Dr Shini Somara.

I chose mechanical engineering as a career path for the simple reason that it was expected of me. Born and raised in London, and being the eldest of three daughters, I was to inherit my father’s engineering consultancy. While that was the expectation, I did luckily possess the typical traits of an engineer, that of inquisitiveness, technical creativity, logic and attention to detail. Picking the subjects at school that would enable me to study engineering, namely maths, physics and science, following successful A-level results I embarked on a BEng (Hons) degree at Brunel University London.    


Four years later and not quite ready to enter industry, I stayed on at Brunel to do an engineering doctorate (EngD). Completely fascinated by fluid dynamics, the subject of my doctoral thesis was dynamic thermal modelling using computational fluid dynamics (CFD). I specialised in developing CFD within enclosed spaces and my research was sponsored by Flomerics, a CFD software company. For four-and-a-half years I worked at their offices alongside completing my research. I was surrounded by other engineers and enjoyed learning from them, but overall my research, like most doctoral research, was conducted in a silo. 


Having qualified in 2004, the spark into television work came during a science lecture I attended by Dr Simon Singh, a mathematician, author and producer on The BBC’s Tomorrow’s World. I regularly attended science lectures, as I found them extremely interesting, and this one was particularly so as I was curious to know how he went from maths to media. Chatting to him after his lecture, he suggested that firstly I needed to learn the skill of being able to communicate to a wide audience. As I didn’t yet possess this skill, he offered to lend me his World War Two Enigma machine on the condition that I go into schools and talk to young people about the coding and mathematics behind it. And so I did, and I loved it, not least of all because it got me out of the shell I’d crawled into while doing my doctorate.


Meanwhile I applied to many production companies that make science and tech documentaries. Working behind the scenes for a number of years, I eventually managed to get in front of the camera during a live broadcast of the One Show on the BBC. From there I have hosted and presented many shows, including TechKnow on Al Jazeera America and Crash Course Physics, an educational YouTube series for PBS Digital Studios. I also regularly give talks and presentations, particularly around equality, diversity and inclusion, including a speech at the United Nations for International Women and Girls in Science Day 2017.


Shining a light on equality, diversity and inclusion within STEM is a passion because during my time in engineering it was obvious that as a profession and industry it is very homogeneous. I was often under-represented, being not only a woman but a woman of colour. The engineering profession lost a highly qualified engineer in me largely because of my differences. Today, I’m really passionate about making sure that women in STEM don’t ever feel outnumbered or unrecognised.  


I’ve learned a great deal about women’s experiences through the launch of my weekly vodcast, eSTEAMd Women, which began as a podcast Scilence in 2018 that then evolved into Innervation in 2020. During these conversations I encourage women to speak openly about their experiences in predominantly male industries. They often share their wisdom and experiences on how they stay empowered. For instance, common themes of discussion have included assertiveness, resilience, self-belief, confidence and flexible working hours for women who’ve had children. Through exposing these truths during these conversations, I believe change can happen.


I can see change is happening. Under-represented talent is starting to shine through and I’m feeling really encouraged by this. We still have a way to go but wouldn’t it be great to get to a point where gender and race is no longer a topic, where the focus is on the engineering, incredible innovations and advancements in human capability through technology?  


This celebration of engineering is what I’m trying to accomplish with my new book, Engineers Making a Difference, which is supported by Imperial College London and the Gatsby Foundation. Like my previous series of books (An Engineer, Scientist, Coder and Mathematician Like Me), the aim is to change the public perception of engineering. With an equal balance of genders, including a transgender person, the book reveals personal journeys into engineering, as well as fascinating technical content. I particularly want to bust the myth that you have to be of a certain standard in maths and physics to be an engineer and have to take an academic route. This was not the case of some of the 46 engineers that I interviewed. Through writing this book I’ve discovered that apprenticeships are a brilliant way into engineering. I would have loved to have taken a more practical route into the industry myself.  


Engineering really is an exciting field to enter and now has never been a better time to build a career in a cutting-edge and continuously evolving industry.  Engineering used to involve human-operated big heavy machinery. Today this industry is being led by digital transformation, involving creativity, innovation and lateral thinking, like never before. Diversity, inclusion and equality are certainly issues that need to be addressed in engineering, but, putting those issues aside, the UK desperately needs more engineers to keep up with fast-paced global advances.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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