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How vegetables and diversity inspired a revolution in health care

As a young girl in India, Madhu Bhaskaran was encouraged to do well in maths by her grandmother, who cooked her the vegetable okra before every maths exam, “to sharpen her brain.”

“This was coming from someone who was not educated beyond year eight,” says Madhu, who is now a Professor of Electronic Engineering at RMIT and has a string of prestigious fellowships to her name, alongside a role as Equity and Diversity Director of TMOS.

“In India education is valued highly, it is normal for girls to do well in maths, or become engineers.”

So when Madhu moved to Australia and found a very different situation, it was natural for her to start building networks to support women in STEM. It began with co-establishing a support network for women researchers at RMIT, and before long Madhu was working at a national level and contributing to the Academy of Science Decadal Plan on Women in STEM.

For Madhu the concept of diversity is far broader than just gender and culture. She researches wearable, stretchable technologies – “trying to make them unbreakable” – and conversations with end users have been crucial in shaping her research direction.

“My research journey has taught me that diversity goes beyond just gender. Talking to people outside my discipline has been incredibly useful,” she says.

“The team is diverse on many other fronts and that really pushes innovation. We’ve managed to push boundaries that haven’t been pushed before, because of the conversations around the table.”

Initial ideas envisaged future electronics as flexible devices that were worn on the clothes or skin like band-aids, and monitored the external environment around you, for things like dangerous gases and UV exposure.

“In the last few years, conversations with industry have taken us down a completely different route, into health and aged care,” Madhu says.

“We collaborate closely with a design partner now, and we’re thinking about users right from when we start planning the technology.

“It’s challenging – and not what I would have predicted five years ago – but no complaints!”

Madhu hopes to inspire similar innovation success in TMOS, grounded in diversity and inclusion.

“These diversity problems weren’t created yesterday, and so they won’t be changed overnight. But a seven-year centre sets you up to tackle problems beyond research.

“That’s the beauty of an ARC Centre of Excellence: you can create the environment and influence policies for everyone to thrive,” she says.