A day in the life of electrical engineer Sowmya Nagesh

Sowmya Nagesh

I got into engineering because I liked solving problems. My father was an electrical engineer and he was the first engineer in my extended family. I was the second. Growing up, I loved seeing him work with circuits. I liked how we could read signals, measure electrical properties such as current, voltage, power, and conductivity, and decode data. In the last years of high school, I also liked to decode data into zeros and ones and then put it together, which is what most electrical engineers do. I was especially excited when I was able to read the meter in my house, notice how it went up and down with the seasons, and understand how that translated to what was going on electrically in the lines behind the walls of my house. I ended up going into electrical engineering because it’s so fundamental and necessary to know how things are made to work in everything we use in the world around us.

I first got my bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from Visvesvaraya University of Technology, then I got my master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago. During my undergraduate studies, I worked as an intern for six months in the sensor department of the Indian Space Research Organization. I worked on writing sensor commands for satellites. This was my first time working with an actual application, as I could see that the accelerometer commands I had written were going to be used in space. It also gave me my first exposure to embedded systems. Embedded systems are systems that go into a controller in any application involving electronics. These different controllers talk to each other to operate the machine correctly. Any device or anything that contains electronics these days has built-in systems. Usually the code written for these systems uses a language called C or a tool called MATLAB that allows you to create blocks of code. This internship experience helped me land my first job at Caterpillar, Inc. after grad school, where I worked from the start in embedded systems. I started working with motor controls and from there I gradually worked in different areas of controls engineering. It involves a mix of hardware and software design that goes into the machines.

I recently started a new job as an engineering project team leader at Caterpillar, Inc., where I worked on the cutting edge of alternative power systems. I work on new technologies for new sustainable power systems that will go into the machines, locomotives and stationary power systems of tomorrow. I use every aspect of what I learned in my undergraduate and graduate studies, such as my electrical circuit courses. These courses have proven useful when I solve problems that arise when setting up all these complex power systems. My job creates sustainable sources, which is the best part of my job.

One of my favorite projects at work was creating a hardware lab where everything was automated. I had to control how many times I had to run an iteration of code to control certain machines. Several ways to operate the machine were controlled on a complex lab interface where I could switch between applications. I needed to figure out how to run different iterations remotely if I was going to test a new feature that was in development. I was able to run these tests multiple times from home to make sure the little computers, or electronic control modules (ECMs), were working as efficient controllers. I had to make sure they could handle the workload and the amount of communication in continuous loops. This was one of the coolest projects I’ve worked on because I had to use a lot of my knowledge of making and building electronic circuits and my coding skills. I also had to be very hands-on because I built the harnesses myself, soldered breadboards and switch circuits by hand, and tinkered with so many different components. It was a very interesting and stimulating experience for me. We still use the lab setup I created six years ago.

Girls interested in electrical engineering, don’t be afraid to cut, crimp or splice circuits and wires. Try to get a soldering gun, a multimeter or a breadboard and start playing with electronics, like Christmas lights, or Diwali lights, or Hanukkah lights, or ornaments of whatever you celebrate. Don’t be afraid to put things together or take things apart. You may read a multimeter in different modes and wonder why the part you are testing is designed that way. I didn’t have access to a lot of these things growing up in India, but I do a lot of local outreach and that’s what I encourage my mentees to do. Electrical engineers are more essential than ever, especially as we search for alternative sources of new and carbon-free energy. I encourage students to lean into these experiences and not be afraid to take things apart and put them back together.

  • A Day in the Life of an Electrical Engineer Sowmya Nagesh Electrical Engineer

    Kristine Loh

    Kristine Loh is a PhD candidate in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities and a “Day in the Life” reporter for the high school’s SWEWNext newsletter. She graduated from Drexel University in 2020 with her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and her master’s degree in materials science and engineering.