Seetha Raghavan’s long and successful career as an aerospace engineer can be directly traced back to an ice cream shop at the Singapore International Airport.
“My dad used to take me to get ice cream there because it was the best ice cream in the city,” Raghavan says. “We would watch the planes take off and talk about the engineering feat. He was an electrical engineer, and he talked a lot about his work. He was so excited about what he did. I think that’s where I fell in love with engineering.”
Raghavan is a tenured engineering professor in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. She joined UCF in 2008 after working in industry for several years.
Her passion lies in research and in teaching the next generation of students. Not only is she conducting research looking at ways to create new and more efficient high temperature materials for planes and rockets, but she also has an amazing track record inspiring excellent students.
Several of her students have achieved national recognition for their work in the aerospace field and many have received highly competitive fellowships. Others have completed research internships at some of the most well known aeronautics and space organizations in the world including the German Aerospace Center in Cologne, Germany and Boeing Research & Technology in Seattle.
Perhaps part of her passion for teaching and research comes her from own experience. She admits engineering was rough, especially her first year in college, and as a women she faced additional challenges.
“I decided that if I really wanted this, then I had to commit 100 % of my time to get through the tough classes and that’s what I did,” she says. “I made sacrifices along the way. But in the end, it was worth it.”
Experiences in STEM
She earned internships and was soon working in maintenance and design for a local plane company. That internship opened the door to opportunities at the company after graduation.
But throughout her career, and even in school, she says she had naysayers. Despite a doctoral degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Purdue University, a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from ISAE-SUPAERO in France and a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, people questioned her ability.
She wrote about her experiences earlier this year in the UCF Forum.
“My own experience being a woman in STEM has not been without struggles of underestimation amidst triumphs that clearly dismantled them. It ranged from being called a liability by my design team in school, being doubted for my ability to handle large equipment at work or being questioned on the first day of class if I were really qualified to teach it. The recourse was to perform beyond the norm, to aim for perfection at everything put before me so that any stereotypical doubts were so clearly and often shamefully dismissed.”
She understands how important her job is not just in conducting research, but also in just being an example as a woman of color that it can be done.
“I have a lot of confidence going into the field because of my dad,” she says. “He really encouraged me and there are people you meet along the way that once they see your passion and your commitment, they will help you. But there were also people who stand in your way. I tell my students, especially young women, they are only there to test your perseverance. Don’t give up. Never give up. Because how cool is it that if you stick with it, you have the opportunity to make a difference in a field that’s all about fixing problems and looking to the future.”
The Future of Engineering
And that’s why Raghavan is at UCF. She wants to be part of the future.
“The academic environment encourages the next generation of innovation. It is looking 20 years into the future of the field and there’s a unique energy at a university,” she says. “It’s fuel for innovation, which is why I decided to go into academia.”
Her current research at UCF includes investigating turbine blade failures that occur when blades are run at high speeds and are exposed to extreme heat. She is looking at creating special coatings that would cover blades to help detect microscopic failures well before they cause catastrophic failures in airplanes.
“These tiny cracks cause a lot of damage and there’s no really good way to detect them early,” she says. “That’s what I’m looking at. Can we design these coatings that would not only make the blades more resilient but potentially could also create an early warning system?”
Her expertise is well known, which is why partner institutions have her access to laboratories and other resources that are not easily accessible to others. Raghavan and her students benefit from working closely with industry and national laboratories to make the research better and give students hands-on experience that makes them even more sought after once they graduate.
And that’s one way she is contributing to changing stereotypes in the engineering field — serving as a role model to her many students who are women and people of color.
“We need women and diversity in participation because that’s how we get our best solutions,” she says. “It’s the range of perspectives that can sometime turn a whole problem around in engineering. So, I tell young people, we need you — especially women.”
For more International Women in Engineering Day videos featuring other women engineers – faculty, students and graduates – visit the Office of Research Facebook page.