The girl who defied convention to become an electrical engineer

Nikita Hari did exceptionally well at school and university. But she didn’t see herself as a high flyer until a chance meeting helped change her mind. As a PhD student at Cambridge she’s committed to encouraging others. The community she challenged to pursue her ambitions is now proud of her success.

Nikita Hari

When I was 12 I realised that I didn’t want the same life as my mother. She had excelled academically and trained as a botanist. But after marrying and having children, she devoted her life to being a home-maker. She’s a wonderful cook, florist and painter. I often helped her in the kitchen of our family house in Kerala where we’d try her exotic chicken dishes.

I walked out of the kitchen and quite literally never went back. Instead I immersed myself in studying. I developed a love of reading, partly because the family library was also my bedroom. I built up my world of dreams. Before I’d even reached my teens I’d read lots of Dickens — Nicholas Nickleby was a favourite. I also loved Eliot’s Mill on the Floss.

It’s a struggle to break free from India’s societal conventions. I’m passionate about outreach, especially encouraging girls to follow their interests. I’m also determined to work with people who are talented but less privileged. With a group of incredible Cambridge PhD students, I founded a social start-up called Favalley. Our vision is to turn slums into the next silicon valleys.

I was top of my class at school and university. But people kept telling me that I wasn’t good enough for somewhere like Cambridge. I was up against the conservative family values that prevail among the Indian middle class. Boys are encouraged to get the best education and build a great career. Girls get an education too, but they’re expected to sacrifice their careers and get married.

My father was protective because I was often ill as a child. Rather than going to a top university, I went to a local one so that I could live at home. It wasn’t a happy time as I wanted to be at a top-notch engineering college. But I graduated from CUSAT University with a Gold Medal and went on to do a master’s in SRM University in Chennai in Tamil Nadu, an 11-hour train ride from home.

At Chennai I made my closest friends and began to gain in confidence. But places like MIT, Oxford and Cambridge still seemed remote and unattainable. It was only when I got a sought-after place as a research assistant in the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi that I began to believe that I could go overseas to do a PhD. I applied to Oxford and Cambridge — and was accepted by both.

A turning point was a chance meeting with a family friend ‘Jay uncle’ in Mumbai. At the time he held a top position in one of India’s leading companies. He told me that I was better qualified than many of the senior people he employed and that I was easily good enough to study overseas. His belief in my abilities percolated through to my family.

In the Department of Electrical Engineering I’m researching novel material-based power electronics. As the myriad of electronic devices we use get smaller and denser, lighter and faster, there’s a demand for better materials that can meet all these criteria.

There’s a big push for the development of new materials. We can’t beat the physics of existing silicon, but we can develop better power switches with materials like gallium nitride to make cleaner and more efficient power converters that meet stringent 21st-century energy requirements.

It’s an exciting time to be working in a transition phase in power electronics. The first revolution in electronics took place in the 1940s. Now we could be on the brink of a second one that will see the development of these new-generation devices as the replacement of silicon. Ironically, I’m following in my father’s footsteps — he runs a small electronics factory that makes electric switches.

When I got a place at Cambridge, and a Nehru Trust Cambridge scholarship, I wanted to keep it quiet. But my mother told the boy who delivers our newspapers — and he informed his colleagues back at the office. Before long, news of my success was all over the front pages of the local and national papers. Apparently, I’m the first person from my hometown to be doing a PhD at Cambridge.

In response to all the press coverage, I had a flood of emails, mostly positive. I’ve since read articles in which I’m mentioned as inspiring other young people to aim high. Now that I’ve achieved at least some of the things I was told were impossible, it’s time for me to stand up and say how important it is to overcome the obstacles other people, and society, put in your way.

I’ve remained close to my family. My typical day starts with a call to my mom. My brother Arjun and I have started a social tech enterprise called Wudi Datatech in Kerala. Wudi offers artificial intelligence driven software products to help students discover their skills and talents. We aim to transform India’s educational space by encouraging students and parents to think beyond the obvious careers.

My doctorate might lead to a career in academia or start-ups — ideally I’d like to combine the best of both. What I enjoy most is working in a team. Ever since school I’ve grasped every chance to practice my leadership skills. In Cambridge, I’ve tutored engineering students, given talks at Cambridge Science Festival, and organised summer schools and conferences — and more.

Once I start talking about the importance of following your dreams there’s no stopping me. As I build my life as a scientist, social tech entrepreneur, consultant and science communicator, back in Kerala my mother smiles happily as she fulfils her aspirations through me — in fact we’re living this dream together.

Nikita Hari is nominated among 50 top female engineers, aged under 35, in a list compiled by the Telegraph in conjunction with the Women’s Engineering Society. She is a member of Churchill College, Cambridge.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.