Please tell us about yourself

Krithika Ramchander completed her Bachelors from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, India in 2013. She is currently a Masters student in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Massachussets Institute of Technology and a fellow with the Tata Center for Technology and Design. Before coming to MIt, she worked with Shell for an year on the deisgn and inspection of heat transfer equipment such as heat exchangers, furnaces etc.

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What do you do? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

About five years ago, Professor Rohit Karnik at MIT in the Department of Mechanical Engineering first demonstrated the ability of the xylem tissue of coniferous trees to filter bacterial contaminants out of water (article link).  When PhD student Krithika Ramchander began her graduate studies in his lab in 2015, Professor Karnik presented this challenge: make a filter using the xylem material that can function effectively in real-world, household settings.

Krithika, a 2018-2019 J-WAFS fellow launched into a research trajectory with Professor Karnik that has since grown into a collaborative endeavor with MIT D-Lab and other NGOs across India.  Supported by funding from the MIT Tata Center, the J-WAFS Solutions Program, and now the Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowship for Water Solutions, Krithika’s work has grown from research for the initial concept to a full-scale entrepreneurial effort rooted in an open-source design.  (Find out more about the xylem water filter project here.)

Krithika, originally from Delhi, where she completed a bachelors degree at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, specializes in fluid mechanics.  Though she spent time after her studies working as a heat transfer engineer at Shell India, her passion for applying her knowledge in fluid mechanics to the healthcare industry led her to pursue graduate work at MIT.  In Professor Karnik’s words, she has since brought uncommon “ingenuity, dedication, and resourcefulness” to her research on the xylem filter, and to growing the opportunities for engagement in the water sector through her extra-curricular activities.

J-WAFS communications and program manager Andi Sutton interviewed Krithika about her research path as well as her future visions for the xylem filter.

Q: What originally attracted you to the xylem filter project?

A: When Professor Karnik told me about the project, he had just completed the proof-of-concept studies.  These studies found that xylem tissue present in a branch cut from a tree could filter bacteria.  But that was all we knew!  We wanted to answer the question: can it be a practical and cheap solution for clean water supply in households?

I was also attracted by the simplicity of the concept, which provided the opportunity to focus on implementation as well as fundamental science questions.  Xylem tissue in trees has never been used for water filtration before.

Understanding the material characteristics and limitations of xylem, and developing methods that can re-purpose into a practically usable water filter – these are the very interesting scientific bits that I was able to explore.

But I like doing both research and implementation, so I can bring an entrepreneurial aspect to the work, too.  That’s the great thing about MIT – people here are able to balance both things and don’t need to choose between them.

Q: Your research process has involved a lot of on-the-ground work in India as well as in the lab.  How has this influenced your understanding of water challenges and needs there?

A: Being from India, I thought I knew a lot about the place, but it’s not at all true.  There’s so much variation in water access and needs across different geographies.

Before working on this project, I knew that water was an issue, but I never knew the specifics.   And it’s been especially interesting learning about the consumer perspective of water quality in particular.   Before working on this project, if a water source was contaminated, I would have assumed that a community would right away think they need a filter for it.  But I’ve since learned that if there’s no immediate health impact or if they can’t see the contaminants, it may be hard for a community to understand that the contamination as a problem.  And if it’s not seen as a problem, then a filter that’s available to them would not necessarily be used, even though it could help.

Q: How have your research trips to India influenced the filter’s design and development?

A: Since the start, my team members and I went into the field every few months.  This meant that our trips, and the interactions we had with local partners, inevitably informed our research direction.  This allowed me to validate my research assumptions in an ongoing way, and correct them before delving too deeply in the wrong direction.  So instead of sitting in the lab pushing a single idea forward, I ended up producing a number of iterations during that phase, and making informed decisions of how they could work in a practical setting, such as a household in rural India.

Q: Many different people have worked with you and professor Karnik on this project since it began.  Tell us what you have learned from this interdisciplinary collaboration.

A: We collaborate closely with researchers at MIT D-Lab on the project.  It was the J-WAFS Solutions funding that we received in 2016 that helped make this happen, and this collaboration has been crucial for the project.  The two PIs on the project bring complementary knowledge and experience, with my advisor Rohit Karnik coming to the project from an engineering sciences perspective and Amy Smith from D-Lab bringing expertise in technology development for resource-constrained settings and human-centered design.  Kendra Leith, Megha Hegde, and Anish Antony brought expertise to the user aspect of the filter, from product design to market research to co-design sessions in the field.

It’s been amazing to be able to work together with these other members of the group—and I have learned a lot working with them!   For example, one of my discoveries through this process, is that that a cool invention does not necessarily end up as a cool product, unless it is well-tailored to suit what users actually want. 

The D-Lab facilitated interviews and co-design workshops with potential users in India that have been very important here.  While this helped people feel involved in the product development process, which eventually can lead to more user acceptance, it also helped us all understand the natural appeal of the idea of a wood filter itself.  It’s a simple concept: a piece of wood works as a filter because it has tiny holes that can trap bacteria.  Also, we learnt that the traditional comfort associated with using wood for utensils and fuel might lower the barriers for social acceptance of xylem filters.  

In addition to our team members at MIT D-Lab, we have been involved with many different field partners at many different locations in India.  They have all helped us in so many ways:  providing access to local resources for technology validation, connections to households for user studies and interviews during the first field studies, feedback on the filters, and potential pathways for bringing the technology to users.

It has been amazing working with everyone who has been involved in this project.  They all have helped us so much!  It is so validating to know that I am spending my research efforts in a useful direction.