Q&A With An Aeronautical Engineer

Varshini Kamaraj is an aeronautical engineer and currently pursuing her graduate studies at Wisconsin. In this post, Varshini talks about her values, motivations and challenges through her engineering career and her future interests in teaching. She is a mentor with Careers Infinite.

What motivated you to choose aeronautical engineering?

I wish I could tell you that I always wanted to be an aeronautical engineer, but that’s not my story. For me, it was a gradual development. Growing up, I enjoyed watching ‘Swat Cats’ on Cartoon Network. Somehow the idea of anthropomorphic felines building and flying a fighter aircraft made of junk appealed to me. I was also very interested in astronomy. My sister and I looked for the space station, constellations and comets when they passed over the city. I think I was really inspired to choose aeronautical engineering when I read a short biographical note about Kalpana Chawla in my English textbook in high school.  She studied in India and then went on to study for her Masters at UT Arlington and PhD in UC Boulder in aerospace engineering. She became a licensed pilot and eventually became an astronaut. I was inspired by her education path and life story. I wanted to follow her path and decided to study Aeronautical Engineering at Vel Tech Engineering College.

Could you give us a brief overview of your educational background and talk about some of your projects?

I did my Bachelors in Aeronautical engineering at Vel Tech Engineering College. There, I did a project in fluid dynamics. Vortex generators are usually found on sports cars (look for spikes on the roof) and are used to reduce the drag force in your car. You can use the same principle inside an aircraft engine to improve the airflow and increase engine efficiency. My final year project involved designing a Y shaped rectangular air intake duct and analyzing its flow parameters with and without incorporating vortex generators, using Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD). At that time, my teammate and I were very interested in the CFD portion of the project.

In India, a lot of people will stay away from CFD as job opportunities in this field are fewer. It is a specialized field about how airflow affects the aircraft’s components. Structures and their components and design change over time. So, there are a lot more opportunities in structural engineering. During my Masters at San Diego State University, I switched to structures and my mentor, Dr. Satchi Venkataraman, played a huge role in helping me understand the importance of structural mechanics in aerospace engineering.

What is the difference between aerospace and aeronautical engineering?

Aerospace engineering is the top part of the tree and its two branches are aeronautical and astronautical engineering. Aeronautical engineering deals with aircrafts that fly within the earth’s atmosphere. Astronautical engineering deals with spacecrafts outside the earth’s atmosphere (The earth’s atmosphere according to international standards is defined as the Karman line. Anything above 100km is outside earth’s atmosphere).

What are some of the challenges you faced in this journey?

The first challenge has been dealing with people who have the misconception that if you are a boy studying aeronautical engineering, you will become a pilot; but, if you are a girl, you will become an air hostess. You will be surprised to know how many people have told me this. Many people don't really know what aeronautical engineers do for a living.

During my undergrad, I remember a phone call when a man tried to convince me to join his training center for design engineering. His reason for insisting that I join was this: “You are a girl, you can work only in the design field in front of a computer. Why don’t you join?” I silently wondered if he had not heard of Valentina Tereshkova, Amelia Earhart, Kalpana Chawla or Sunita Williams.

What are other volunteering jobs and personal hobbies that you pursue apart from your career?

I took up a volunteering position for a year before I moved to San Diego. My sister and I worked for my Karate Master who is involved in NGO projects. The organization is called Venba. They had three projects going on at that time. One was an elderly care home (Paasam), the other was a study center (Ramanujam Study Center), and the third was a tailoring unit for underprivileged women (Veerayi tailoring unit). My job during that year was mainly project management- maintaining inventory, attendance and account handling.

As for my personal hobby, I found my passion in martial arts, specifically, Karate. My sister and I started Karate in 5th grade. Initially, we went for classes to have fun, but then we soon discovered that we were good at it and we started going for tournaments and competitions. Outside school, I also taught other children Karate and started working with weapons (Kobudo). Striking a balance between academics and extracurricular activities was a challenge. But it was worth it.

What is your plan, moving forward?

I am very passionate about teaching. I think that it stems from having had really good teachers. My teachers have always explained things to me in a practical way. I also worked as a teaching assistant for Dr. Nancy Cawley when I studied at San Diego State University. Dr. Cawley worked in the aerospace industry and also taught at SDSU, simultaneously. I admired her teaching methods and also her ability to balance working in the industry and teaching. She taught because she wanted to, not because she had to. She was inspiring. Currently, I want to gain more experience in aerospace engineering either through research or through a job in the engineering industry. I’d like to eventually pursue a career in teaching.