Two women, two journeys, one goal. Two youngsters who grew up loving music and then, in all the best ways, were diverted on to a new path, and new, exciting futures.
One, a girl born in Chennai, India who relocated to Hartlepool, Britain aged 11 and ended up, via Imperial College London, at Jaguar Racing. The other born in… well, no one’s sure where… who joined a band before she was even a teenager and who we first met at around 10 years old; a Japanese guitar prodigy and martial arts expert who mysteriously arrived at Gorillaz' Kong Studio in a FedEx crate…
Now, it’s 2016, and Charanya Ravi is a 25-year-old performance engineer on Jaguar E’s Formula E racing project. Noodle is a young musician, still the coolest member of best-selling British band Gorillaz. And, seven years after the release of the four-piece’s last album, she has a new role. Moonlighting from a secret mission to revolutionise music all over again, Noodle is a freshly appointed global ambassador for @JaguarRacing. She'll drive a worldwide push by Jaguar Land Rover – Britain’s largest R&D investor – to encourage more young people, women in particular, to do what Charanya did and pursue a career in engineering, science, data and technology.
“At school I played a lot of instruments – flute, piano, violin, saxophone,” says Charanya. “And, academically, right up until my GCSEs I did a lot of art, all of which I really enjoyed. But I loved maths and physics too, and when it came to A-levels, those subjects stayed with me and drove me towards engineering. Also,” she adds with a grin, “growing up, I loved watching Formula 1. When I went to university I got to grips with the technical aspects of motorsport and realised how many opportunities there were. It suddenly stopped being just a sport and started being a career option.”
That’s a passion understood by Noodle. Touring the world with Gorillaz, she’s seen more in her short years than most see in a lifetime. And if anyone can be a flag-bearer for Jaguar’s newly launched Formula E team, it’s her.
Formula E is the newest and most innovative motorsport in the world. Noodle says: “It’s a baby – just two years old – and it only uses electric cars. Think of all the research and development into electrical engines! It will have benefits for the whole world, so I want to nurture it, support it and help it grow strong. Like one of those Tamagotchi. Remember them? Japanese invention.”
Noodle, meet Charanya. Charanya, meet Noodle. Electric guitar, meet electric car. It’s time to plug in, switch on, power tomorrow and empower the next generation.
In a quiet(ish) room just off a Hong Kong race-track, two young women are talking music, duct winglets, zombie brains and the development of skills and technology that will help engineer a better, brighter, smarter, more electrifying tomorrow. They’re also remembering their first bonding moment, at an off-the-grid test circuit in the heart of the English countryside a few weeks before the launch of the 2016/17 Formula E race calendar. While Charanya was studying some performance data with fellow engineers Noodle, ah, borrowed one of the Jaguar I-Types and drove a quick lap – and drove it faster than any of the team’s “professional” (not to mention male) drivers. That’s the kind of go-getting attitude these women share. (And you can see Noodle in action in this video that recently surfaced)
Ask @JaguarRacing’s new Global Ambassador what inspires her, and the answer shoots back with impressive speed, not to mention idiosyncracy. “Originality,” begins Noodle, “sakura in springtime; soba noodles; speed; explosive chemical reactions; people that work selflessly to help others; art; manga; music; magic; travel.”
Ask @JaguarRacing’s frontrunner female engineer to describe the beginnings of her route from England’s northeast to the global Formula E circuit, and she goes right back to basics.
“Everything was so different, from friends to school to climate,” begins Charanya as she remembers her journey to the UK. “It was just a whole new experience and I was trying to understand a whole new culture.”
But by the time she was studying at The English Martyrs School and Sixth Form College in Hartelepool, County Durham, music had helped welcome the teenager to her adopted homeland.
“Playing music, and playing it on lots of different instruments, just made me so happy!” Charanya recalls with a laugh. “I can play the western flute and the bamboo Indian flute; I learn one thing and then I want to learn something else. But I never considered a career in music – it’s always been a hobby. It’s different from work. It’s relaxation, escapism.”
In terms of mental stimulation, though, she realised early on that her passions lay elsewhere.
“The beauty of maths?” she ponders. “Well, it is a puzzle to be solved and the answers are either right or wrong. Growing up, that certainty was quite nice. With my other interests in music and art, it’s very, very subjective. You never know if you’re correct. I liked that certainty and precision in maths. No grey areas!”
Physics, too, spoke to the A-level student in meaningful, practical ways. “It’s about being able to relate what you’ve learned to actual life; to relate it to me as I walk down the road. Physics is not abstract – you can actually see it. Think about Newton’s Laws of Motion – every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Think about gravity… These things help you understand how we literally walk on the earth.”
A-levels in maths, further maths, physics, chemistry and biology focused Charanya’s ambitions and pushed her towards her choice of university degree: an “M-Eng”, a Master of Engineering, with a focus on Aeronautical Engineering. No wonder @JaguarRacing were keen to hire her.
But as for Noodle… In adolescence she, effectively, ran away to join the circus. What qualifications does she have, academically or otherwise, to be a Global Ambassador for @JaguarRacing?
“My qualifications aren’t exactly conventional, as I didn’t go to a regular school,” the musician acknowledges. Lowering her voice, she adds: “My education was more covert ops and combat training, but that’s all I can say about that. However, I am governed by the laws of physics like everyone. The speed my fingers move over my guitar; the rate of deceleration of a bullet as it passes through a zombie’s brain; how high [Gorillaz vocalist] 2D jumps when he sees a little mouse. If you can see beauty in the numbers and processes around us, I believe you are qualified.”
Still, being a switched-on woman of the world, this firebrand teenage guitarist understands that she has some “skills gaps”.
“Growing up as I did, I missed out on some of the regular things teenagers do. Yes, I’ve toured the world, played arenas, beheaded zombies and machine-gunned pirates. But it would be nice to make some normal friends and just, you know, hang out. Maybe my new Jaguar teammates can help me with that. Oh and making tea, the English way. [Gorillaz bassist] Murdoc says my Japanese tea tastes like the devil’s tears. I’m not sure if that’s a compliment.”
While Noodle was touring the world and dispatching zombies, Charanya was also getting her hands dirty. During her studies at Imperial College London she undertook a year’s industrial placement. The world-beating British automotive industry was her goal. She wanted to get under the hood, literally and figuratively, of the latest R&D in aerodynamics.
“I was modelling in CAD, and I was also able to work in the computer in CFD,” she relates with eyes-wide enthusiasm. Computer Aided Design we might know; Computational Fluid Dynamics is less familiar to the layperson but integral to the automotive engineer’s work. “What I also really enjoyed was being able to test in the wind tunnel. Everything worked at such a fast pace. I could design something and then in about 10 days be able to hold the part in my hand and test it in the wind tunnel. I was able to be part of the full cycle.”
Can she tell us about a specific part that she designed? It seems not. Like Noodle’s covert-ops and combat training, operating at the cutting-edge means Charanya has to keep certain details close to her chest.
“I can’t tell you too much in detail because it’s all fairly confidential,” she affirms. “But let’s just say I worked on the rear end of the car, on the rear brake duct winglets.”
Tech-savvy gear-head that she is, Noodle’s eyes light up at mention of this cool-sounding piece of kit. But being a high-end operative herself, she respects Charanya’s professional vow of silence. Being super-skilled often means being super-discreet.
After graduating from university in 2014, a highly qualified and highly motivated Charanya went straight into employment into her hobby-turned-passion-turned career path: cars.
“I became a vehicle dynamics engineer. Now, two years on, I’m a performance engineer on the Formula E project with @JaguarRacing. This means that while we’re at race events I’ll be working closely with the driver to look at the data from the car and identify areas we can improve for better on-track performance. And because we are a small team the role is really diverse. When we’re back at the factory I get to work on lots of different areas of the car – suspension, energy management, and I particularly enjoy working with computer simulations.”
Charanya is looking forward to Noodle joining her in the factory and trackside at @JaguarRacing, not least because she’ll be a kindred spirit. Yet while this hotshot engineer acknowledges that males outnumber females in her field by some margin, she knows first-hand that there are equal opportunities for young graduates of either gender.
“Absolutely,” Charanya says firmly. “This industry is so good because it’s purely results-driven and the focus is more on your capabilities. In such an environment it’s fantastic because it really doesn’t matter about your gender. If you’ve got the talent, and you are driven, and you can get the result, great – you’ll get the same opportunities as a male counterpart.”
That’s the kind of fighting talk that appeals to Noodle. When Charanya asks her what she hopes to get out of the experience of working with engineers – particularly smart young female engineers – Noodle’s answer comes quicksmart.
“I hope to enhance my understanding of progressive automotive racing technology and safety features, but mostly I want to inspire a new generation of engineers to follow in your footsteps. And if there’s time – how do you say – ‘kick some butts’ on the racetrack. When do I get the keys?”
A careful, precision company like Jaguar, however, doesn’t hand over the keys to any old rocker-come-lately – no matter how successful their “day job” band might be. Mindful, too, of the exacting nature of her highly-skilled profession – and of the rigour of her own study and training – Charanya is equally keen to hear first-hand Noodle’s plans for how she’ll fulfil her role as Global Ambassador.
“I wish to inspire more women to get involved with engineering, and promote sustainability in the automotive industry,” begins Noodle, perfectly on-message, with a sober nod of her head. “I also want to work on my wheel spins and donuts,” she adds, indicating that @JaguarRacing’s human resources department may have some, ah, personnel R&D on their hands. Still, with a rock’n’roll icon as your Ambassador, you have to expect a bit of rock’n’roll attitude.
With the Hong Kong opening race of the 2016/17 Formula E circuit now upon us, these two young women are in pole position to change the public perception of both electric cars and careers in engineering. It’s a big task, but they’re more than up to it. Each appreciates first-hand the challenges to overcome, and the benefits to reap.
Noodle has been around the world, seen the pollution on the world’s oceans, the plastic on the beaches. She knows the ways in which connected, sustainable, tech-advanced engineering innovation is vital.
“It is too easy to destroy what we have,” she says passionately, eyes blazing, “and it takes great effort to protect it. But we humans are smart. Well, maybe not 2D. He thought The Exorcist was a work-out video. But the rest of us have the power to change our world. Progress has caused many problems, so let’s use progress to find tech-advanced engineering solutions to solve them.”
OK, but let's put Noodle on the spot: how can she and Jaguar empower women?
“By example. By believing in what I do. By working hard. And by proving that women can do anything men can do… and lots of things they can’t.”
“Also, the perception of an engineer is totally different from the reality,” chips in Charanya. “You don’t have to work in a dirty environment – I don’t come home in an oil-covered boiler suit.” She points out that both she and Noodle are Millennials, members of the digitally-savvy, future-grabbing, experience-sharing generation. These are the youngsters who could embrace engineering more readily than any before it. “I enjoy working in a hands-on environment,” she agrees. “I want to work with the products I’ve designed, not just work with them on computer.”
Her passion comes from her studies and from her training. They’ve helped Charanya develop an understanding of the weight of history and also the pressure of tomorrow.
“We’ve had so many decades working on conventional engines and conventional automobiles,” says the engineer, “so it’s understandable that there’s still such a gap in the technology for electric vehicles – in comparison, that research and drive has only been happening for a short time. So this industry has a great opportunity to give a lot more oomph to drive that tech forwards. And if you think about it, Formula 1 helped engine development so much in terms of the normal combustion engine. So Formula E presents a golden opportunity to do the same for electric vehicles.”
Is the message about the importance of eco-friendly cars getting out there?
“It’s getting there,” Charanya nods slowly in reply. “But no one really questions why they’re wasting this water or that bit of electricity. We do, still, take things for granted. It’s a simple truth: we do need to focus more on alternative energy sources.”
Those energy sources don’t come much more “alternative” than the iconic guitarist with Gorillaz, a “shero” to legions of fans all around the world. If you wonder how we can persuade teenage girls that a career in engineering is as exciting as they come, to Noodle it’s a no-brainer.
“Look, you can’t persuade a teenager to do anything. Just show them it’s cool. At the moment, the word ‘engineering’ has a bad rep. It sounds so dusty and dry and boring. But it’s not. Engineering is apps, 3D modelling, graphics, design, computer science – stuff most of them are already into without realising it. Schools need to find a way to explain it better… that engineering isn’t calculators and weirdoes in lab coats. It’s pure creativity, a place to use your imagination to really, truly change the world. I can’t think of much that’s cooler than that. Well, except Gorillaz.”
Finally, the six-million-yen question: what’s coolest, electric guitar or electric car, and why?
“You’re asking me to choose between playing a face-melting guitar solo and burning rubber on a race track?” Noodle says, her face a picture. “Next question.”