As a young Sri Lankan immigrant woman, Nisha Thirumurugan is no stranger to challenges. From developing an award-nominated robotic hand to founding a start-up, all while working to pay her way through university, Nisha turned the obstacles she faced into opportunities to get ahead. She now “lives the dream of working with machines” as a Maintenance Engineer at Alstom, helping shape the future of Australia’s rail network.
Engineer your future in rail
Nisha wants everyone to know how exciting it is to work in the rail industry. Although a degree in mechatronics opens the doors to many different areas of engineering, Nisha is passionate about encouraging other students and women to consider a career in trains. Although it may not sound as glamorous as some other industries, Nisha has found her happy place and wants you to know that you can too. A quote that Nisha believes in is:
“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” – Gustavo Petro
For Nisha, to be working “in an industry that reflects the country’s advancement” feels as though she is part of something important and life-changing for many people. In addition, the day-to-day work is always different and challenging:
“Trains are complicated and fascinating. A train has so many subsystems – signalling, traction system, air conditioning, CCTV… There are so many areas to learn about and explore.”
By following your interests and passions, by trying new things and continuing to explore and learn, Nisha encourages other young engineers and STEM students to find out where their strengths lie, try out different roles and to discover what doesn’t appeal as much as what does. Only by gaining in-the-field experience can you truly engineer the future career you really want. Nisha credits her success so far to:
“Trying new things and giving 100% in whatever you do. Being curious and wanting to try different things will open more opportunities.”
A career path to rail
In 2018, Nisha co-founded a biomedical start-up, developing a robotic assistant to perform physiotherapy on stroke patients. Although she relinquished involvement in the start-up to take on her current role, the experience enabled Nisha to learn a lot about “managerial skills and handling finances”. No doubt, it also impressed her future employees at Alstom when it was chosen to represent the whole of Australia in the Virginia Tech Entrepreneur Challenge.
Reflecting on her time in her start-up, Nisha realized that her workdays had started to drift away from her true passion and love for the technical side of engineering. Now, as an Engineer at Alstom, Nisha is in her element:
“Solving problems really motivates me. Fixing machines is a practical way of experiencing solving problems. When you solve a really hard problem, and see the machine working again, it’s a different level of joy! It motivates me to learn more.”
Nisha certainly knows how to problem solve effectively, and nothing was going to stand in her way of landing her dream job.
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Recognizing transferrable engineering skills
The main struggle Nisha faced with her immigrant status was not being eligible for financial support during her studies. Rather than this putting her off, Nisha took on several part-time jobs to help fund her education, which opened her up to a wide variety of relevant experiences, significantly helping her along her engineering journey.
Nisha didn’t actually graduate high school. Due to immigration, she had to drop out of school in her final year and was then considered too old to enrol in Australian high school to do her HSE. This meant she followed the alternative pathway to enter university.
After high school, Nisha jumped straight on to the first rung of her career ladder with a role as a coffee machine technician. At university she supported her studies by working as a Health and Safety Compliance Officer, managing six mechatronics labs, and gaining invaluable experience in this area. She also completed an internship in Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning, learning the real-life applications of thermodynamics, and worked as a researcher in a renewable energy start-up. It was during these early placements that helped her realize where her true vocation lay.
A balanced and challenging engineering career at Alstom
Although Nisha loves her job at Alstom so much that sometimes colleagues need to remind her to eat lunch or when it’s time to go home, she also appreciates being able to “forget work after 8 hours in the office and focus on self-developments and other interests.” As her role can be quite physical at times – lifting machine parts that need repairing or recalibrating, and walking around the depot – Nisha says she doesn’t need to spend as much time in the gym. Alstom even have badminton, cricket, soccer and basketball clubs during lunch breaks to help keep everyone active.
This means that Nisha can spend more time on her personal projects – which, of course, for Nisha involve more engineering! In her free time, Nisha likes to explore new sensors and make use of them in fun ways. Her most recent project is an incredible robotic hand, which she designed completely from scratch and printed on a 3D printer. All five fingers connect to individual motors, mimicking her own finger gestures which are read by a ‘leap motion’ sensor. Using the same technique, Nisha also developed a project for hand rehabilitation.
On track for success
Whatever obstacles you face in your career journey, Nisha leads by example to show that every challenge can potentially be turned into an opportunity for growth. Adversity can be a chance to gain more experience or try something new, or to find out what does and doesn’t work for you. With this can-do attitude and her boundless love for engineering, there’s no doubt Nisha is on the fast track to success at Alstom.
Although we get the feeling she’ll never stop dreaming big and will probably choose to make a few stops along the way to take in the view. Who knows what she’ll dream of next? We can’t wait for her to make it a reality.