An alumna of Sheffield University, Lavanya Balasubramanian knows what it takes to be part of a future where advanced, sustainable technologies involving robots would revolutionise work in different industries.
In a Zoom chat with Edugraph, Lavanya shared her experience of transitioning from Electronics and Communications to Robotics during her postgraduate studies overseas and her work as a project assistant at Swansea University.
Edugraph: What sparked your interest in Robotics?
Lavanya: I have been fascinated by robots since I was a kid. Back then, I didn’t know much about the discipline. It’s only at the end of my BTech in Electronics and Communication Engineering that I developed an interest in Robotics, primarily because of its application in a variety of sectors. That’s when I decided to pursue Robotics.
Would you like to tell us something about your academic journey from India to the UK?
Lavanya: I studied at CSI Jessie Moses School in Chennai and after that went on to pursue a BTech course in Electronics and Communication Engineering from SRM University Ramapuram. Then my interest in Robotics propelled me to the UK. I did my master’s course in Robotics from Sheffield University and am currently working at Swansea University.
Why did you choose Sheffield for your master's course?
Lavanya: When I first decided to do my postgraduation in the UK, I approached a lot of people to learn more about the opportunities available. Everybody told me that Sheffield University was an amazing place for students. Another reason to choose the university was its highest quality of research. I felt my opportunities would increase if I learned the subject from the best teachers and used the best research facilities.
You arrived at Sheffield University through a Woman in STEM Scholarship offered by the British Council. Can you tell us more about this scholarship and who can apply for it?
Lavanya: As part of its 70th anniversary in India, the British Council in 2018 sponsored the tuition fees of 100 girls who got an offer from UK Universities for Masters in STEM courses. I was one of those girls who got nominated for the scholarship, which enabled me to study in the UK.
I would say that women willing to expand their opportunities in the STEM field can apply for this scholarship to broaden their horizons and avail more opportunities abroad.
What did you work on during your time at the Sheffield Biomedical Robotics Lab?
Lavanya: I worked on a small flexible implantable robot during my master’s project. The aim was to fix it inside a patient’s body to treat a disease called esophageal atresia, a birth defect in a baby’s esophagus — a tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. I was working on the fault-tolerant control of the robot.
The route to Robotics depends on what you want to do at the end of the day. You could be someone who designs the hardware side of things or someone who is good in programming and coding.- Lavanya Balasubramanian
Can you tell us something about Medical Robotics and opportunities in that field?
Lavanya: I won the “Best Paper Award in Medical Robotics” at the International Conference of Robotics and Automation (ICRA) 2020. I wrote the paper during my master’s project where I was part of the Sheffield Biomedical Robotics Group. Medical Robotics is already a thriving sector and quite a few companies focus on Medical and Surgical Robotics in the UK. A lot of design and development roles are available in this sector.
Do you want to work in this field in the future?
Lavanya: My focus is now on Industrial Robotics and Sustainable Manufacturing. This will give me insights into the inner workings of the industry with which I might step into the Medical Robotics field at a future point of time.
How did you transition to your first job? What is your current work about?
Lavanya: My master’s course had a module on industrial training, which is all about practical experience. It helped me realise what a job in my field would look like. It also helped me get my current job and made the transition easier.
I am currently working at ASTUTE 2020 at Swansea University as a project assistant. We work with Welsh manufacturing companies to resolve their technical challenges through research and innovation. This involves being integrated in projects that require more than just an off-the-shelf solution.
Is there a standard route for young students to enter the field of Robotics?
Lavanya: I don’t think there is a standard route because my classmates had come from different departments. Some of them were Mechanical Engineering students, while others studied Computer Science or Electronics. The route to Robotics depends on what you want to do at the end of the day.
Coming from an Electronics background, it had been a smooth transition for me — it wasn’t a huge jump from what I had studied to what I was going to do in the Robotics course.
What areas in Robotics can they look at? Are there any specific skills needed to make a mark in this field?
Lavanya: Some really good opportunities are coming up in this field. I was interested in Medical Robotics and Agricultural Robotics. There are universities with dedicated research centres that specialise in specific areas and studying in those places would help you move forward. For instance, Sheffield University’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre is a fantastic facility. These research centres work on Robotics-related industrial work.
I wouldn’t say that you need a specific set of skills to make a mark in this field. The primary thing is to be passionate about the subject. Of course, you’ll have to complement your passion for Robotics with some essential skills. You could be someone who designs the hardware side of things or someone who is good in programming and coding. Everything depends on what you are interested in.
What would be your advice to young students interested in Robotics?
Lavanya: I would suggest young students to consider their future course of action based on their passion and skills. You need to balance these two essential things to overcome the daily challenges that you might face in your job. As long as you’re interested in optimising your resources and adapting to different opportunities, you’re set to enjoy a brilliant career.