Meet the Researcher: Rupal Srivastava

Rupal is a CONFIRM SMART 4.0 MSCA Research Fellow based at Technological University of the Shannon, Athlone.

” Always pursue the career that interests you the most. Do not let the popular idea that ‘STEM is complex or not for women’ stop you from taking it up as a career.”

Tell us a bit about your research...

Don’t we all love Iron Man’s Marc 2 suit? Won’t we love to have a rocket booster in the palm of our hands? As much as we would love to have these unimaginable engineering marvels at our hands, the technology behind it is still futuristic but some of these can be achieved in bits and pieces.
In my work at the Confirm Centre, I am trying to develop a lightweight and sustainable smart glove for human-robot interaction. A hand exoskeleton which can make robots move placed meters apart! Your robot can pick things up by just a flick of your finger or can come towards you if you make finger gestures to it! And that is just one application where human involvement has to be reduced as much as possible. Combine the glove with an interactive/immersive environment and make artificial rainfall or a simulated environment react to your movement, combine it with medical equipment and you revolutionise MedTech. Soft robotics is the technology of the future, sustainable products are the need of the hour.

What did you study as an Undergraduate?

I went for my undergraduate studies at BBD Northern India Institute of Technology, Lucknow, India (batch of 2012). I was always intrigued about machines and how they work, so despite it being an unconventional field of study for women, I went for Mechanical Engineering. It was then that I realized how vast this field is, from biomedical to robotics, from civil to electrical engineering, mechanical engineering envelopes a diverse set of applications. In my final year, I worked on solar-powered water pumps for their use in household coolers (a piece of mechanical equipment usually popular in developing countries to keep indoor temperatures low during the extreme summers. ACs are expensive and cost heavy electricity bills). The aim was to work on a sustainable tool for cheap alternatives which are accessible to the middle- and lower-class society of the country.

What made you decide to go into research?

The thrill of finding a long-term solution to an open problem, the joy of contributing to the scientific community and to the general public directly or indirectly, inclination towards public speaking and engagement, and the greed for flexible working hours, led me to apply for a Master’s in the field. I completed my Master of Engineering in 2014 from Birla Institute of Technology Mesra, one of the oldest engineering colleges in the country. Here I researched the traverse deflection and vibration analysis of beams based on two mathematical beam theories. I also worked as a teaching assistant which further proved my interests in teaching and engaging with students.
After this, I took some time away from academia and prepared to crack the entrance exam of the Indian Institute of Technology for a Ph.D., and joined IITK on 30th Dec. 2014. I then spent the next 6 years (fully-funded) working on various projects before working on my thesis on Smart Composite Structures. The flexibility to work on and then choose from multitudes of open problems based on your vision and interests is one of the best things that a Ph.D. or academia has to offer. You can choose from existing problems, or you can propose your own novel idea/solution and work in the direction to see it materialize, the choices are endless in academia which is why I then was motivated to apply for a Postdoctoral researcher position.

What do you enjoy most about being a PhD Student or Post-Doc?

In my Ph.D., I mostly worked on the existing projects and finding solutions to pre-identified challenges. I gained knowledge, and experience along the way and this acted as a foundation for independent ideas on the applications of smart materials and composites in robotic applications. I proposed this idea to my supervisors at AIT and we submitted the proposal to Confirm Centre. The joy and gratitude to get an opportunity to work on an idea that you conceived independently is the best thing about a Postdoctoral research position. Another thing that I am enjoying is collaborating with Ph.D. students and interns, developing my knowledge database in multiple fields, learning how to manage a team, and getting exposed to researchers from all over the world!

Could your research be used to combat any societal issues, such as those experienced during the COVID-19 Pandemic?

With the recent improvement in the current situation, the need for such technologies is reduced. However, having a smart glove that can reduce human interaction can be a blessing in reducing the rapid transmission of communicable diseases. The experimental labs can be handled remotely, and the assembly lines can be managed from afar. Be it from delivering mails or couriers to handing out takeaways, this technology can be implemented at the grassroots level, though let us hope it doesn’t come to that.

Do you have any advice for someone who is thinking about a career or research in STEM?

Always pursue the career that interests you the most. Do not let the popular idea that ‘STEM is complex or not for women’ stop you from taking it up as a career. With a focused interest and perseverance, one can understand the science behind the most complex phenomena in the universe.
Ph.D., however, is a more serious decision that should be taken after deliberate consideration. If the driving force for you is an aim to solve existing challenges, overcome the gaps in current technologies, constantly staying curious, and imparting the gained knowledge to the next generation of thinkers and visionaries, then Ph.D. or academia is the best place for you. You can make a more informed decision by taking up research positions in various domains before committing full-time to a Ph.D. in a field of your interest.

Where can people find out more about your work?

You can visit- where I share small demonstrative videos from my research specifically for undergraduate level and for those who are interested in pursuing STEM. You will also find my research articles here and the current projects that I’m involved in. Also, feel free to drop me emails in the Contact Me section.
You can also connect with me on LinkedIn and Twitter- @rupalsriv

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