Written by: Rikhi Roy
Edited by: Abigail Goh
This article is part of ROJAK, a series inspired by the famous Southeast Asian dish, literally meaning ‘eclectic mix of ingredients’. It aims to collate the lived experiences of mixed-identity women who have interacted with both Singapore's society and the wider world, allowing for an exploration of the nitty-gritty hardships of intersectionality while simultaneously showcasing the beautiful diversity in our midst.
Rikhi is a Singaporean-Indian Aerospace Engineering Graduate Student researching Machine Learning Applications for Runway Safety at Georgia Tech in Atlanta (USA). She grew up in Thailand and Malaysia as a third-culture kid and finished her schooling at UWCSEA East, Singapore. Her mission is to change the face of global aviation safety alongside a spectrally diverse and inclusive team. You can find her writing for her blog www.a-balacing-act.com and drinking copious amounts of dirty chai lattes at the neighbourhood Black-owned coffee shop. She is a nationally competitive Indian classical dancer, wellness advocate, dessert enthusiast and founder of Singapore’s first ‘Women Leaders in Aerospace’ Conference.
I am an aerospace systems engineer, who passionately talks about systems safety, wellness, and the latest TikTok trend all in the same breath. When you read this, I am probably curling my hair and wearing fake eyelashes to shoot content for my Instagram.
I am not your ‘typical’ engineer.
Growing up across Malaysia, and Thailand as a Singaporean with an Indian ethnicity, I became incredibly comfortable learning how to fit in and stand-out at the same time. When I attended international schools, I existed entirely in the many intersections that I occupied – never quite Singaporean ‘enough’, never Indian ‘enough’ – a little bit here, there and everywhere. A multitude of peers around me shared this lived-experience. It was common to celebrate our differences, stand in our diversity and be recognised for it. During my time across these schools, I could perform a semi-classical Indian dance at an assembly and take a test in an elaborate Indian costume straight after – I could be anything I wanted to be.
This is the story of how I went from ‘wanting’ to be a banker (or so I thought), to ‘actually’ becoming a female aerospace engineer – speaking to global space dignitaries, advocating for international students, founding Singapore’s first ‘Women Leaders in Aerospace’ conference and sharing wellness resources for the most marginalised in STEM. And it all began when I was 15, around the time I became somewhat conscious of my future.
“Banking… that’s great for women right?”, my dad asked as he peered up from his crisp copy of The Straits Times.
“I uh…I guess,” I said – unsure of what ‘banking’ even entailed.
You see as a 15-year-old girl in an International school in Singapore; it made no difference to me what I’d be doing – “As long as I can pay the bills and buy luxury items”, I thought.
My schoolmates from around the world lived a life of many unfathomable privileges – filled with expensive vacations, yacht birthday parties, and expensive jewellery. As a regular middle-class 15-year-old, all of this felt aspirational – a ‘nice to have’ – something just enough out of reach to deliciously savour from afar.
All of this changed on the 8th of March, 2014.
Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disappeared mid-flight between Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Beijing Capital International Airport. It was both devastating and fascinating to the world. How does a plane go missing in the 21st century?
“Radar, what?” my 15 year-old-self thought.
The Utopian bubble created by Singapore and my immediate International school environment had suddenly popped. Luxury bags didn’t matter if lives were at stake. And suddenly I was up searching and reading up on the words ‘Doppler Ping’ and ‘Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcasting’ till ridiculous hours of the night.
I had to understand what happened. And if I had a say – make sure that never happened again in my lifetime.
Quite a sudden shift you’d say from a girl who was simply being carried by the tide, to someone now with a very specific, and niche purpose. This purpose has become my anchor. Being present in this purpose first braved me through seeking an engineering internship in Singapore at just 16 years old.
In June 2015, I interned as a Non-Destructive Testing Engineer at Setsco Aerospace right by Changi Airport. Imagine being 5 ft 2 in tall and lugging heavy landing gear to spray with chemicals for liquid penetrant inspection, or suggesting a method to shoot an x-ray at an engine twice my size. I didn’t even recognise myself. Touching the cold metal components under my fingers gave me goosebumps and tingles all over. I was hooked.
But the thing is, no one expected me to do it or like it. In fact, the office didn’t even know where to quite place me at first. I had to beg them for steel-toed boots, and soon they found an old scrappy pair left by a previous female employee. The culture there dictated that the women clad in Iora and Charles & Keith did Quality Assurance paperwork on the top floor, while men lugged the heavy metal parts across the first-floor shop. I was the youngest member on the shop floor and the only female engineer. Perhaps my curiosity commanded respect, or it was their curiosity about how or why I ended up there that made them incredibly respectful. Either way, I felt encouraged and supported by my co-workers. My dad also did everything in his power to get me exposed to the industry in Singapore - from seeking out this very internship to purchasing tickets for every air show. In my naivete, I believed that this was how I would be treated in my engineering degree from all my male peers - something that couldn’t be further from the truth.
As an undergraduate, I finally got the opportunity to live out my purpose. This meant braving through experiences of being ignored by men on design-build-fly teams. Simultaneously, I’ve had to face belittling professors despite attending one of the highest-ranked Aerospace institutions worldwide.
Being a woman in STEM, particularly in Aerospace Engineering as a triple minority in the United States (that of a coloured, female, foreign national) has been a constant game of mental gymnastics. It has looked like a literal failure in classes, imposter syndrome when receiving awards, messing up research, being picked on by professors, and having to explain why I dress the way I do, constantly. This is because there are never enough resources guiding us or meeting us at the intersections of identities that we occupy to inspire and elevate us. So much of the work that remains involves finding and speaking to the intersectionality of gender-minorities in STEM. Celebrating us, much like International schools did, consists of equipping us with the right combination of academic and wellness resources that are needed to succeed. Instead, I felt thrown into the deep end – with an inadequate amount of guidance or initial academic coaching necessary to help me thrive.
Since then, it has been my secondary mission to equip other young gender-minorities in STEM with the resources I wish I had.
It has been hectic, messy but rewarding.
You see, those failures have been literal blessings, allowing me to bounce back creatively. First, it resulted in the creation of my wellness blog for engineers. By extension it became, Instagram Lives every two weeks advocating for the wellness of gender minorities in STEM with hundreds of views. Failure allowed me to pick myself back up and to find my voice online. It aligned me with my ‘worthiness’.
I became the only international recipient of the Brooke Owens Fellowship in 2019, awarded by NASA’s Deputy Administrator. In wanting to use my resources from this fellowship for ‘good’, I founded Singapore’s first ‘Women Leaders in Aerospace’ conference. Hosting this significant event with students across 15 high-schools across Singapore, (while planning it across continents in the United States) led me to speak at the International Astronautical Congress in front of global space dignitaries on the value of diversity, equity and inclusion in the aerospace industry.
Collectively, these experiences gave me the confidence to shape a self-designed research project on the ‘Failure Modes in Aircraft Location Tracking’ before graduating to appease my 15-year-old-self’s curiosity finally. Knowing that I had gotten back up after face-planting before also gave me the grit to get admitted to my Master’s program when I graduated unemployed amidst a pandemic. And it has since then helped me persevere to finally land a research opportunity with the United States Federal Aviation Administration and work as a Systems Safety and Certification Engineer at Kitty Hawk, co-founded by Google co-founder, Larry Page.
Having jumped through the multiple hoops required of international students in Aerospace in the United States, I can now give even more attention to advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), as well as for fellow international students.
This has been the best game I have ever played, and I hope you consider joining the arena too.
Where can you find me playing? @RikhiRoy on Instagram and Twitter.