Toolboxes are for girls, too

The Economic Development Board has been nurturing key industries that are driving Singapore's economy and will take it into the future with attractive employment prospects for people here. Arti Mulchand profiles professionals in the precision engineering sector.

Science has figured in Ms Shalina Sudheeran's life for as long as she can remember.

As a toddler, her mother, Ms Sudha Sadasivan, 64, head of science and mathematics at a local secondary school, would take her for long walks in the gardens near the family's Faber Hills home.

She recalls: "She taught me about engineering in nature, how ferns scatter their spores and how the veins of leaves work.

"We'd look at their cell structures under our optical microscope at home."

Ms Sudheeran, now 31, is a technology manager with American manufacturing company Applied Materials.

Her father, an engineering manager, exposed her to the world of electronics and engineering.

She says: "You can imagine what dinner conversations at my house were like."

This early interest in science and technology sometimes meant that family gadgets were not entirely safe.

"My parents once bought a set of headphones. I peeled off the insulation and opened it up. I wasn't very popular in my house that week."

But her tendencies sometimes yielded more positive results, like when her father challenged her to find a solution to the problem of Scrabble tiles getting messed up when the board was turned.

A few days later, she came up with an old cooling fan, which they fashioned into a rotatable Scrabble table.

"Inventing really got my juices going," she says.

It also led the Raffles Girls' School and Raffles Junior College alumna to pursue a degree in electrical and computer engineering at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Ms Sudheeran was a part of the NUS University Scholars Programme, during which she was particularly influenced by the work of one of her teachers, Professor Adekunle Akeyeye, on nanotechnology.

He sparked her passion for research and encouraged her to do her masters.

She says: "He inspired in me the desire to invent something that would see the light of day, even get a Nobel Prize one day."

She went on to do her master's degree in electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University in New York and, in 2006, landed a position as a process engineer with her current employer.

When the company decided to create a Singapore-based advanced packaging laboratory in 2011 - now known as the Centre of Excellence in Advanced Packaging - she came home to help set it up.

Today, she supervises a team of engineers working on advanced semiconductor technology.

She says: "Many people think it means I am always in a lab, but that's not the case. We spend a lot of time with our customers and vendors to better understand their businesses."

When she's not working, she tinkers with gadgets and writes programs with her husband, a solutions architect for a cloud computing start-up.

Some years ago, the couple created NDcrypt, a plug-in that encrypts and decrypts files. It is available online for free.

Ms Sudheeran says: "We didn't create it for financial gain. My husband and I just want to see our inventions get out there."

She is also passionate about recruiting more women into the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths sector, and helped set up the Singapore chapter of Applied Materials' Women's Professional Development Network.

Not surprisingly, then, she stocks up on Debra Sterling's Goldie Blox - building toys designed to introduce girls to the joy of engineering at a young age.

"I have them on standby as gifts," she laughs.

"Seriously, though, I believe a toy toolbox should be as much a girl's toy as a boy's.

"These are fundamental ideas I hope to change."

This article was first published on May 12, 2014