Breaking stereotypes, not electronic devices


Associate Professor Madhu Bhaskaran. Photo: RMIT

Associate Professor Madhu Bhaskaran is a champion of women in STEM, pioneering research into flexible, unbreakable, transparent devices.

When you picture an engineer, what comes to mind? According to one particular group of students, the image of an engineer is a man in a hard hat.

That was what RMIT University’s Associate Professor Madhu Bhaskaran found when she recently presented at a girls’ school.

“Five or six girls came up to me and said ‘I never thought that what you’re doing is engineering’.”

She said the girls envisioned engineering as only related to civil and infrastructure, rather than a science applicable to a vast pool of disciplines like electronics, materials and even biology.

“If we can dissolve those misconceptions, we’ll get a lot more girls doing engineering. Their idea about what engineering is needs to change.”

Associate Professor Bhaskaran is an electrical engineer pioneering research into oxide-based flexible electronics – unbreakable transparent electronic devices.

These electronics have an enormous range of applications, from bio-dissolvable devices that can reveal detailed information about the body, to gas sensors that can monitor pollution.

“It’s not just about creating new products, but enhancing what you already have.

“Rigid electronics have their own set of advantages and functionalities but they also have their own set of limitations. They’re almost the polar opposite of the stretchy polymeric bases we’re trying to combine them with,” Associate Professor Bhaskaran said.

It’s not just about creating new products, but enhancing what you already have.

With so many potential applications, however, it can be a challenge to know what direction to take, she added.

“It’s a very nice field to be in, because it’s advantageous to society in the long run, no matter what application it’s used for.”

And the stretchy unbreakable devices won’t necessarily be costly. She said there’s a pervading misconception that anything to do with electronics is expensive.

“The message that needs to get out there is that you can have these things made at a lower cost, you don’t need billions of dollars of investments.

“This is a new wave of electronics, and we can’t afford to go offshore for things like this. It’s something that will obviously become an integral part of peoples’ lives.

“And if we can make a difference, why lose all the innovation to overseas? It makes sense to retain the intellectual property here,” she says.

Associate Professor Bhaskaran moved to Australia from Chennai, India, when she was 21 and has since won numerous awards and prestigious recognitions for her research.

She was recently the first woman to be awarded the Batterham Medal, a $5000 prize for engineers under 40, administered by ATSE.

And having only completed her PhD eight years ago, Associate Professor Bhaskaran is not only changing the course of electronics, but also is a champion for women in STEM and leadership.

She is a director for Women in STEMM Australia and co-leads the Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group at RMIT.