Sitting in her office in Hinds Hall, Professor Shobha Bhatia displays a drawing that, to her, epitomizes the position of women in the engineering field. A steep, ladder-like staircase stretches upward until it is nearly lost from view. Just below the middle stands a group of women; farther down, a lone woman crawls toward the first step. “In the eighties, there were many incentives for women to enter engineering,” says Bhatia, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science. “Today, fewer women are entering the field, and very few are at the top.”
Professor Shobha Bhatia, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, wants to inspire women to study math, engineering, and the sciences.
Bhatia’s efforts to change women’s roles in engineering include heading the University’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) initiative with Cathryn Newton, chair of the earth sciences department in the College of Arts and Sciences. The program aims to improve the academic climate for women in science, mathematics, engineering, and computer science by increasing the number of women faculty members hired in those fields, bringing prominent women in those disciplines to campus for lectures, and providing advising initiatives that help faculty mentor women students embarking on their first research projects.
These efforts give women students important role models, Bhatia says, which is crucial to increasing the pool of aspiring engineers, scientists, and mathematicians. Advisor to the SU chapter of the Society of Women Engineering Students for nine years, she recalls the group hosting 10 high school students recognized as their schools’ top women in science, engineering, and math. “We wanted to know where these bright young students saw themselves going,” she says. “Most of them knew that engineering and computer science were options, but many thought management would be a better area. It has more visibility in society, and more respect.”
Bhatia is keenly aware of the issues affecting women engineering students. In her native India, she was one of only a few women studying and working in the field. In high school Bhatia excelled at math and science, and was encouraged to go into either the medical field or engineering. “My older sister is a doctor, and one reason I didn’t go into medicine was I didn’t want to use her old books,” she says with a laugh. “And at age 16 that was a very good reason. I wanted to carve my own path.”
She admired the work of an uncle who was a civil engineer, and soon began attending Roorkee University. After earning a civil engineering degree, she enrolled in the university’s master’s degree program in earthquake engineering, at the time one of the only such programs in Asia. “That was truly exciting because I worked on many large projects, from nuclear power plants to oil refineries to earth dams,” she says. Bhatia also earned a doctoral degree in earthquake engineering from the University of British Columbia, specializing in soil dynamics. She came to Syracuse in 1981 with her husband, Tej Bhatia, a linguistics professor in the College of Arts and Sciences.
About eight years ago she became interested in using polymers in civil and environmental engineering. Approximately 200 different products, known as geosynthetics, are used for such applications as erosion control, filtration, and reinforcement. She also has been evaluating different products’ long-term performance in the field and recently finished studying soil embankments with O’Brien & Gere, a Syracuse-based environmental company, at the 2,400-acre Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, New York, one of the world’s largest landfills. Bhatia examined why a geosynthetic product failed to prevent the landfill’s soft soil embankments from collapsing, and made several recommendations to prevent future collapses, including better placement of the synthetic.
She plans to spend time this summer in Japan, working with earthquake engineering experts at the University of Tokyo. She’ll continue her work with geosynthetics and keep her eyes open for new developments in civil engineering. “I like to always be learning something new,” she says.
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