Dr Suhasini Gururaja, Associate Professor, Aerospace Engineering, Auburn University: A career in advanced materials will be rewarding

In this Women in Composites interview, learn more about Dr Gururaja’s dedication to pioneering research in composite materials. Gain insights into her professional journey, her passion for academia, and her commitment to teaching.

Dr Suhasini Gururaja, Associate Professor, Aerospace Engineering, Auburn University: A career in advanced materials will be rewarding

6 minutes, 20 secondes

Suhasini grew up in a remote village in India where her father worked as a mechanical engineer at an iron ore mine. She was surrounded by heavy equipment and large industrial structures. With this early exposure, she developed an immediate fascination for engineering.

By the time she reached high school, her passion for physics and mathematics made engineering a natural choice.

Suhasini’s undergraduate experience at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, shaped her career trajectory. The guidance of exceptional educators introduced her to the area of engineering research.

My bachelor’s degree at the IIT Kharagpur was a turning point in my career; I was fortunate enough to have some of the best teachers, who exposed me to the world of engineering research. In particular, I remember spending my sophomore summer in Prof. Swapan Majumdar’s lab developing a finite element code. I felt that, for the first time, I could just let my imagination go wild! There was no one problem that I had to solve or a test to take! It was quite liberating, and I started considering graduate school that summer.

Transitioning to her master’s degree, she worked with Prof. Colby Swan on poroelastic modelling of the human bone, focusing on understanding the impact of repeated mechanical loading on human bone growth. Initially drawn to this field to get out of her comfort zone, she soon appreciated the universality of applying the mechanics concepts to heterogeneous, multi-scale hierarchical structures.

I still use examples from the human body in my introductory lectures on composite materials and structures. Writing my master’s thesis and my first journal paper helped me communicate scientific ideas effectively. I appreciate Dr Swan’s detailed comments on my master’s dissertation; I have adapted his approach as I work with my students.”

Working with composite materials and structures

By the time Suhasini completed her master’s degree, she was confident about pursuing a Ph.D. As she was in search of a challenging research topic for her doctoral studies, the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Washington presented an ideal opportunity. Their program allowed first-year graduate students to select an advisor over three quarters while engaging in teaching assistant roles.

Grateful for this opportunity, Suhasini eagerly explored the faculty labs, including the affiliate faculty from the Physics Department and the Vet School. She found the experience enriching and became convinced that she wanted to focus on a problem at the intersection of mechanics and materials.

While Suhasini was exploring potential Ph.D topics, the Boeing 787 development was underway, and faculty members at the University of Washington were actively collaborating with Boeing. The partnership generated significant excitement within the department. This piqued her interest in composite materials, and she decided to work on understanding the mechanical response of composite materials and structures.

She went on to join Boeing, as she wanted to broaden her perspective and gain industry experience.

I was fortunate enough to join a group working on the 787 Wing Test and Technology. It was exciting to witness the large-scale testing and certification of composite structures. The connection between material selection and design, processing and manufacturing, and testing and certification in commercial aircraft made of advanced composites allowed me to engage with the full spectrum of engineering challenges.”

Transitioning from industry to academia

Although working at Boeing was an enriching experience, Suhasini felt boxed within the confines of industrial research. She wanted to shift towards academia and become a faculty member, motivated by the prospect of contributing to the academic community, being part of groundbreaking research and mentoring the next generation of innovators.

Suhasini now is an associate professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Auburn University. Her research group – Advanced Materials and Processing Laboratory (AMPL) – focuses on intersectional research questions in advanced materials and manufacturing, mechanical behaviour and long-term sustainability of composite structures.

Dr. Gururaja’s AMPL research group at Auburn University.
Dr Gururaja’s AMPL research group at Auburn University.

We strive to develop a fundamental understanding of process-structure-property relationships that is essential to develop an optimal material design for targeted performance in lightweight, high-strength, and sustainable applications”, Suhasini says.

Although her AMPL group delves into the fundamental aspects, they believe in a productive collaboration with the industry.

While most of our work is more fundamental, I have always sought industrial support to promote translating our research findings to applications. Pratt & Whitney, Boeing, and Honda have supported AMPL research over the years, primarily to understand the effects of process-induced defects on the structure’s load-carrying capacity.”

Being an academic, she engages not only in collaborations with industry partners but also with faculty members from diverse disciplines, including chemical engineering, forestry and dental sciences. This collaborative effort enables her to work on a spectrum of advanced materials.

Working in academia allows me to constantly explore new research areas needed to support various current and futuristic applications. With the growing threat of climate change, advanced material design and manufacturing have grown rapidly. Understanding the effect of these new processes on long-term performance is essential to prevent critical infrastructural failures.”

As an academic professional, Suhasini finds that working with her students is the most gratifying and fulfilling aspect of her role.

It is very satisfying to witness a student’s ‘Aha!’ moment as they grow through their academic journey,” she expresses enthusiastically.

She is a constant source of support for students and extends her guidance beyond research and academic projects. When graduate students express uncertainty about their fit in academia, her advice is characterised by empathy and wisdom.

I often encourage students to seek internships at national labs or work in industry for a few years to help them decide if academia is truly their path. The number of choices available to students today can be overwhelming, but it is also an opportunity to explore various interests. It is perfectly okay to discover that something is not right for you!

An inclusive environment for women

For the fifteen years or so that she has been working, Suhasini frequently stood as the only woman in different settings. She advocates for an inclusive environment, emphasising the importance of collaboration and gender diversity to foster a truly inclusive workspace.

I have often been the only woman in the room throughout my career – grad school, industry, and academia. While recent efforts towards hiring more women faculty have somewhat improved the representation of women in engineering, we are still way behind parity. Engineering is a collaborative effort, and gender and ethnicity can make it challenging to build the necessary connections to grow, whether in academia or industry.”

Being the only woman in the room meant she lacked female role models at every point in her professional career. Despite this, she was persistent and actively sought mentors among her peers and seniors throughout her career.

Suhasini stresses the importance of a supportive family that provides women an unconditional support system to thrive in their careers.

Women also face the added challenge of balancing family responsibilities, particularly when taking time off to have children. Juggling family commitments with work can be extremely difficult without a supportive spouse. Fortunately, I have had a supportive family that enabled me to pursue my career without feeling guilty.”

Dr. Gururaja in front of a 67 m long composite wind turbine blade
during a visit to TPI Composites, IA.
Dr Gururaja in front of a 67 m long composite wind turbine blade during a visit to TPI Composites, IA.

Motivation for women scientists

Suhasini is optimistic about the future for all inquisitive minds interested in working in composites. She strongly believes that active collaboration among national labs and with industry and academic institutions will be crucial in order to address fundamental research questions and enable workforce development.

The future of advanced composites is promising, with industry trends indicating sustained growth in the coming years. In particular, advancements in multi-material additive manufacturing technologies and multifunctional and smart materials which are geared towards sustainable applications across aerospace, automotive, energy, and consumer goods sectors are expected to drive this growth.”

She looks forward to working in a more inclusive environment and supports an increased representation of women in the industry.

She signs off on a positive note: “I strongly encourage women to pursue careers in advanced materials and engineering. While there is a dearth of women in these fields, with the right mentorship and networking, a career in advanced materials will be rewarding. The future is bright for advanced materials, and we need creative thinkers and leaders!

More information www.auburn.edu