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12 November 2023

Roma Agrawal’s Q&A: “My specialist subject would be Sex and the City. Or concrete”

The engineer on Bharatanatyam dancing, stand-up comedy and making her industry a more inclusive space.

By New Statesman

Roma Agrawal was born in Mumbai, India, in 1983 and is a chartered structural engineer. She spent six years working on the Shard, designing the building’s foundations and spire.

What’s your earliest memory?

Seeing my sister soon after she was born. I remember clearly noticing her head full of black hair in a room full of bald babies.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood heroes were my teachers; I was always a keen student. My adult heroes are people who help their communities. In particular, the women of colour trying to make engineering a more inclusive space.

What book last changed your thinking?

I have had a sneak peek at Uncivilised by Subhadra Das, which will be published in spring 2024. It tackles the myths of Western civilisations and discusses all the incredible contributions to science, history, art and more from peoples of the Global South. I learned loads.

Which political figure do you look up to?

I’m not terribly enamoured with politics at the moment, but Jacinda Ardern stands out. As prime minister of New Zealand, she shattered stereotypes. I’d love to see more people like her in power.

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’d like to go forward a couple of thousand years to see what life is like. I love sci-fi and am curious about what space colonisation might look like.

[See also: Why we chose Benjamin Myers as the Goldsmiths Prize winner]

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Probably Sex and the City. Or concrete. I know those are quite radically different!

What TV show could you not live without?

Schitt’s Creek. I find it very funny and all the characters are so endearing (eventually).

Who would paint your portrait?

My nephew. He’s four and has the most fantastic imagination. I think he would create something unique for me.

What’s your theme tune?

“Mangta Hai Kya” from the Nineties Hindi film Rangeela. The lyrics are about asking for what you actually want and getting it.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

To look after myself. As women we’re programmed to look after our families and everyone else, and it can come at the expense of our happiness.

What’s currently bugging you?

How utterly awful humans can be to each other. Reading the news makes me feel anxious and helpless.

What single thing would make your life better?

A weekly massage. I have constant aches and pains, so it would be nice to have space regularly to ease that and be forced to lie still for an hour. Also, a society that wasn’t designed for the man to work and the woman to stay at home.

When were you happiest?

When I am dancing. I’ve trained in Bharatanatyam as well as ballroom and Latin forms, and a little bit of ballet. I feel my best in mind and body when moving.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Stand-up comedian. I’ve dabbled but it’s not the most parenting-friendly career to pursue seriously.

Are we all doomed?

At the moment, it does feel like that. I have faith in the scientists who are working to solve challenges and can only hope that governments and policymakers will also do what’s needed to sort things out.

“Nuts and Bolts: Seven Small Inventions That Changed the World (in a Big Way)” by Roma Agrawal is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is shortlisted for the 2023 Royal Society Trivedi Science Book Prize

[See also: The confessions of Robbie Williams]

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This article appears in the 15 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Desperate Measures

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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