One day while sitting in Miami’s unremitting traffic, 10-year old Diya Agarwal, announced to her mother that she wanted to create a flying car. Not just any flying car, this one would be practical, with detachable wings.

To most fifth graders, this idea would be an exercise in imagination at best. But Diya, whose parents are both engineers, was serious. “What do I need to study to make a flying car,” she asked her mother. Simple, become an engineer.

This Mother’s Day, we’re celebrating women engineers who inspire their daughters. Diya’s mom is Anuradha Godavarty, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at FIU’s College of Engineering and Computing. Her father, Arvind Agarwal, Ph.D. is the associate dean of research for the College, and a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.

On a recent visit after school, an inquisitive Diya observed her mom in the Optical Imaging Laboratory, and asked questions ranging from how tools are made to how optical scanning works.

Her mother explained that imaging works like a magic camera, allowing researchers to see deeper. In fact, when Diya was four years old, she participated in one of her mother’s optical brain imaging studies.

“She keeps asking questions,” said Godavarty. “I want her to do what she likes, and if she pursues engineering, I want it to be because it’s her passion, not because her dad and I are engineers.”

Yet, Diya is already showing a penchant for mechanical engineering. At home, she designed and built an elevator system consisting of a basket and string that allows her to transport things up and down without having to use the stairs. “I like to build things,” she said.

Her curiosity and interest for engineering shows promise in a profession where women are typically underrepresented. There is a national movement to reverse the trend by encouraging females to pursue STEM careers. Women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than those in non-STEM related occupations. Yet, it can be difficult for women to balance the demands of academia, work and research with motherhood.

Godavarty said being a mom has actually helped her become more efficient. “When you have a small amount of time, your focus increases,” she explained. “When I’m home, I focus on my daughter. If you concentrate only on work, you’re not being efficient.” Research backs her up. “It’s pure science; the brain needs a change.”

Godavarty is a chemical engineer by training, but segued into biomedical engineering while pursuing her doctorate. She was involved in interdisciplinary research that involved interacting with the human body, so biomed was a natural transition for her.

Her research today focuses on a near-infrared optical scanner (NIROS), which has many applications. The novel, ultra-portable device performs non-contact 2D area imaging of wounds, which allows for a quantitative method to differentiate healing from non-healing wounds. The device, which can also be adapted for breast imaging for cancer pre-screening, is currently translating to clinical studies.

Dr. Godavarty demonstrates to Diya how a 3D works.

Dr. Godavarty demonstrates to Diya how a 3D printer works.

She explained it to her daughter like this: “We use light to look deeper into the tissue beyond the surface. We design the instruments, write the software, test it out in the lab, and then take it out to the clinic.” Diya listened intently, with attentive eyes and an accompanying smile.

Godavarty manages expectations of her daughter. “She can be whatever she wants to be, but she has to be her best,” she said. Then she turned to Diya, “Whatever you pick, you have to work towards it, and give it your 100 percent.”

Millie Acebal