How ‘Women in STEMM’ leader Madhu Bhaskaran mapped her career

By Indira Laisram
Madhu Bhaskaran. Pic supplied

As an engineer in any field, it is safe to say that one’s career is bound to yield pragmatic success. But Prof Madhu Bhaskaran has redefined success. A champion for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and leadership in Australia with her pioneering research into oxide-based flexible electronics—unbreakable transparent electronic devices, she has also recently been appointed to helm Women in STEMM Australia.

Growing up in Chennai, Bhaskaran recalls being really fascinated by computer games and the way, say, telephones were getting miniaturised—from landlines to mobile phones. “The fascination was always on the hardware aspect of it rather than the software,” she says.

No, she wasn’t really a geek, she clarifies, but as the product of two medical doctors, the option to veer towards a career in medicine was high. “However, I looked at my parents and realised it is a very long educational path, but it is hilarious because I did just that amount of time with my PhD,” she says.

Bhaskaran studied Bachelors in Electronics and Communication Engineering in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, and came to Australia in 2004 to pursue a Master’s degree in Microelectronics Engineering at RMIT. She would go on to finish her PhD in Electronic Materials Engineering.

“I really liked creating my own devices with my (gloved) hands and going into a clean room wearing bunny suits and making my own devices. It was just fascinating, it was something I never got to do before,” she says of her getting hooked to do a PhD.

Since then, Bhaskaran has successfully contrived her career as a recognised engineer and applied research leader, co-leading the Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group at RMIT University, where she has been for the past 11 years.

One of Bhaskaran’s proudest achievements is lending a strong voice for gender equity and diversity in STEM. Coming from India where the intake of women in the field of engineering is relatively high compared to Australia’s dismal figures, Bhaskaran recalls being confronted with the stark reality when she took her maternity leave.

Madhu Bhaskaran. RMIT Staff Awards. Pic supplied

She was told, ‘You are the first female academic in 15 years to go on maternity leave in our engineering department’. And that’s when it occurred to her that the numbers were indeed low.

It took Bhaskaran a while to understand why and what the difference between India and here was, for instance. “The issue here is, we have few women entering and we also have women exiting at different points. By the time you get to the end of your career there are very few women left in the system. If you take India or China, you might have a lot of women entering but they may not necessarily make it to leadership positions because of systemic biases in the workspace and things like that but there is no issue as far as entry level is concerned,” she explains.

And that’s when her initial passion for gender equity and diversity came about.

In 2013, Bhaskaran co-established the Women Researchers Network at RMIT so that women can network and talk to each other. “With so few women in the system and scattered, it was hard to network with each other, share our stories and just boost each other up, so this was a good beginning.”

Interestingly, just a year later Women in STEMM Australia was established in 2014 by Michelle Gallaher and Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea AM with the focus to bring together women from different sectors and different parts of the country. Bhaskaran has since been on the inaugural board.

This December, Women in STEMM Australia appointed Bhaskaran and Sarah Chapman, to replace outgoing co-chair and cofounder, Michelle Gallaher, who has now completed her term.

Asked how she would use her expertise and influence in this new position, Bhaskaran, who is uniquely equipped for the role, says she is looking forward to lending her voice towards bringing gender equity and diversity with a clear lens of intersectionality.

Few years ago, when the government put together an expert working group for Women in STEM Decadal Plan, Bhaskaran was a key contributor in crafting of that plan. “Mine is a different and unique voice especially at a time when there is a lot of talk about intersectionality. I am woman, a woman of colour, a migrant and I am from engineering, and so, I can lend a different voice.”

Madhu Bhaskaran. Pic supplied

In her new position too, she hopes to make a difference. “We are all different even as women, our pathways, challenges and perspectives are different. That will be a focus for me as we take Women in STEMM Australia forward”

To someone with Bhaskaran’s engineering sensibility, the future is exciting. Her work on electronic skin and wearable sensors has been patented and her group now works collaboratively with multiple industry and design partners to commercialise the technology for healthcare and aged care. Her team have also won a Knowledge Commercialisation Award (KCA) in 2021 for Best Industry Collaboration.

In March this year, she helped launched a world-first smart monitoring system, REMi. in collaboration with advanced manufacturing company Sleeptite. REMi is the result of an Australian Government Cooperative Research Centres—Project (CRC-P) grant and sees fundamental research taken from the labs of RMIT and translated into a commercial outcome set to benefit the lives of everyday Australians.

“It’s more of an overnight monitoring to know the person is in bed, to prevent falls from bed and it serves as an alarm system that is connected to a dashboard so the person who is giving are knows exactly what is happening and is able to be at the right place at the right time,” explains Bhaskaran.

“I love the current work that I am doing and I love the fact that it is so versatile. Sensors can be used in healthcare, aged care, it has applications in defence and in most sectors,” she says, adding, “I am very satisfied by the fact that you can empower people with all this information to allow them to make right decisions.”

Bhaskaran has received numerous awards for her innovative research, industry collaborations and leadership, such as the Batterham Medal from the Australian Academy of Technology & Engineering, the Frederick White Prize from the Australian Academy of Science, and the Eureka Prize for Outstanding Early Career Researcher.

But more importantly, winning the 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards (2020) has been humbling for her. “I have been awarded for specific research and breakthroughs but this felt like I was being awarded for being a role model migrant in some sense,” she reflects.

To young girls wanting a career in STEM, Bhaskaran’s word of advice is: “Find all the information you can find and make informed choices. Find people who can help you make those career choices by giving you insights into what those careers look like. I am not saying everybody in the future has to be an engineer, but if you choose not to be an engineer, make that decision by knowing exactly what an engineer does or does not do.”

There might not be many role models among women in STEM. But Bhaskaran’s intellectual energy is inspiring and cannot go unnoticed.

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