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Science Careers: Interview with Nidhi Rai

Nidhi Rai Name: Nidhi Rai
Current employer: Pentair. I work for both Environmental Systems and Aquatic Systems platform.
Job title: Project Engineer in Product Development team
Science Career: Mechanical Engineer
Time working in this field: 6 years

How would you describe what you do on a typical day to a student?

I test and develop products/equipment used in Aquaculture (fish farming). If a product test is scheduled for the day, then typically it requires me to be in the Engineering lab, testing the product and evaluating the results. If the product does not perform optimally, I need to disassemble the product to find out what caused the failure. This troubleshooting is the most fun part for me. I get to use all the tools in an engineer's tool box. For product development, a typical day is a mix of working with computer software and brainstorming with other project participants.

How did you become interested in this area of science/engineering?

I have always been curious about how things work. Once you are interested in something, you put time into it, and then you succeed. Then it becomes a positive-feedback loop.

What did you study in high school, undergraduate, and graduate school?

I studied math and science in high school and have an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering.

How would you describe your current work environment to a student?

Since I am a Project Engineer, I manage all aspects of my projects until the product is ready to go out the door to the customer. I enjoy the best of both worlds. My job is 60 % desk work, which involves designing and modeling products, and 40 % lab work, which is largely about testing products. My work environment shatters one of the misconceptions about engineers—that they like to work alone. Here at Pentair, the projects are collaborative and can only be completed by working with cross-functional teams, often situated on different continents.

What are some of the key characteristics that are important for a person to succeed in your type of work?

Basic knowledge of math, physics, and sometimes chemistry, is a pre-requisite. Effective communication, hard work, focus, being detail-oriented, and, most importantly, being able to enjoy your work are keys to success.

What do you enjoy most about your work? What do you not like or wish you could change?

Since I work in a manufacturing facility, the product I work on will likely be built and shipped in less than a year. That is very fulfilling. Positive feedback from customers and sales is icing on the cake. I also like the collaborative environment in the office. It is great because you get the opportunity to work with and learn from different kinds of people. Developing products that help people, while learning from your peers, is incredibly rewarding and fun.

What was a project that you have worked on that you found particularly interesting?

My first project as an Engineer was incredibly exciting. It involved the design of a multi-axes positioning system mechanism to place aircraft prototypes in a wind tunnel. This mechanism was used to put a model of an airplane in the tunnel and then study the pressures, forces, and air flow direction affecting an airplane. By looking at the way this smaller model acts in the wind tunnel, scientists and engineers get a pretty good idea of how a real life-sized airplane of the same design will probably fly. It is a lot easier, cheaper, and safer to build and test a model than to build and fly a real airplane. Since I was fresh out of college, it was exhilarating to apply basic engineering concepts for the structural design calculations, material selections, etc., for the project. That was the start of my career. Within that single project, I learned and applied a wide swath of tools and concepts, including gears, linear magnetic rails, and hydraulic cylinders, and I used CAD software to create 3D models and various manufacturing and welding drawings.

What can a student do in high school and in college to prepare for a career in your field in terms of coursework and extracurricular activities?

Sound foundational knowledge of math and science definitely helps. My advice would be to participate in small science projects to explore hands-on what you have learned from your textbooks and classroom instruction. If possible, try to participate in science and engineering fairs. To be able to see how science and engineering is being used in everyday life is a big motivator. If you live near a university, get in touch with professors in your area of interest. Universities often host projects for school students, and this will allow you to experience the frontiers of science and engineering.

Is there any advice you would give to someone interested in this field that you wish someone had given you when you were starting out?

While you are an undergraduate, use your summer for internships in companies with different work environments to find the right match for you. I had very limited hands-on experience in high school and college. I can only imagine now how I could have done things differently.

Is there anything about your profession that you think people misunderstand, or anything you think people would be surprised to learn about your job?

Engineers do not just calculate, model, design, and build. It is true that these tasks are very important, but more often than not engineering projects generally involve 40% engineering calculations, 20% brain storming (for inventions and development), and 40% management. If someone throws a ball at me, I am not just calculating where it will fall; I will go and catch it! This analogy applies to the projects that I work on as well.

Did you ever participate in science fairs as a student? What was your experience like?

I never participated in any science fair. It would have been interesting, but I missed that opportunity.

What do you do in your free time?

I spend most of my spare time with family. My husband and I go for short hikes, or we take short road trips. I also love watching detective shows, so I try to catch up on that too.