Engineering smart devices to tackle real-world problems

Engineering smart devices to tackle real-world problems

At times under-appreciated, engineering can never really be ignored. It is certainly one of the predominant professions among Global Indians and deserves to be talked about with greater awareness. A particularly welcome development in the field is how more and more women are choosing this career path.

'iGlobal' caught up with one such high-achieving engineer, Dr Sohini Kar-Narayan – named among the top 50 Women in Engineering 2021, to talk more about this diverse and varied field and its many facets.

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Unsung heroes

The theme for this year's Top 50 Women in Engineering was "Engineering Heroes". From being the only woman in her PhD cohort at the Indian Institute of Science to raising two young children while navigating the challenges of academia, Sohini has overcome many societal and institutional obstacles to get to where she is today.

"I am thrilled by this award, and it is indeed a huge honour to share the stage with all the brilliant women on this list. I am so grateful to the Women's Engineering Society for this award, and of course to all the people who have supported me over the years, including my ever-supportive family and my amazing research group without whom this would not have been possible," Sohini says.

As Professor of Device & Energy Materials in the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy at the University of Cambridge, Sohini leads a diverse and interdisciplinary research team, working at the intersection of materials science, engineering and biology. However, she feels that her greatest triumphs have arisen not just from her research but also from the individuals she has been working with.

She elaborates: "My research has involved developing novel polymeric materials that can harvest electrical energy from vibrations and waste heat in the environment to power autonomous wearable health monitoring devices."

In this regard, she has worked closely with clinicians and surgeons to offer sensor-based solutions that can significantly improve patient outcomes.

Sohini sheds light on the innovative projects that she has led: "My group has pioneered a unique nanowire-based bio-electronic platform that cell biologists can deploy to study and control cell behaviour and tissue growth.

“We also develop novel point-of-care microfluidic devices to speed up diagnostics and drug screening greatly. Going forward, my focus is on developing new materials and technologies that will have a broad impact on how healthcare is administered around the world."

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Indian heritage

Born and brought up in Nigeria, Sohini had moved to India for her undergraduate and postgraduate studies. India is close to her heart, as she has spent her defining years there, receiving a BSc (Honours) in Physics from Presidency College, the University of Calcutta, followed by my Masters and PhD in Physics from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

Sohini says that her doctoral training, in particular, has prepared her well for what lay ahead, and it was during this time she discovered her aptitude for scientific research. She moved to the UK soon after her PhD and have been living here ever since. "But we do travel to India quite often to see our close friends and family," she adds.

Following a postdoctoral appointment at the Department of Materials Science in Cambridge, she was awarded a prestigious Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship in 2012, and a European Research Council Starting Grant in 2015. She was the recipient of a World Economic Forum Young Scientist Award in 2015. She is a Fellow of Clare Hall College, Cambridge.

Mind of an engineer

Like many of us, Sohini's earliest memories with technology involve taking apart cassette players and VCR recorders. "But often with limited success at putting them back together again, much to my parents' exasperation," she adds, on a light-hearted note.

However, unlike most of us, this innate curiosity about how things work and the joy of discovery have largely shaped her inquisitive mind in being what she is today.

"It is what drew me to materials science and engineering – the ability to control materials properties at the nanoscale, to discover new functionality by understanding structure-property relationships, and to design and develop ‘smart’ devices to tackle real-world problems," she explains.

Drawing inspirations from the ups and downs of life seems to come naturally to this research scholar.

"My late father was diabetic and suffered from heart disease. This played a role in my desire to use science and engineering to improve patient care by developing 'self-powered devices that can offer personalised healthcare and remote health monitoring and new technologies to study and manage the progression of disease at a cellular level. I continue to be motivated by the huge role material science and engineering can play in improving clinical outcomes and quality-of-life and reducing the burden on healthcare systems," she said.

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Paving the way

The Co-Founder and Director of ArtioSense Ltd, a spin-out from the University of Cambridge that seeks to commercialise a novel, conformable force-sensing technology for applications in orthopaedic surgery and sports medicine, Sohini thinks it is important to celebrate women in STEM to inspire the next generation.

“It is a fact that women have been historically under-represented in these fields, and so increasing the visibility of women working and excelling in these fields does make a difference, not just to young girls but to boys as well. I do hope that the next generation in its entirety will naturally embrace the concept of a diverse and inclusive workforce and value its importance.”

"It is great to be able to train and nurture the next generation of scientists and engineers, and to have the opportunity to work with some truly brilliant colleagues and collaborators," Sohini concludes.

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