What Nitin Trivedi, our next pathbreaker does should inspire every professional intending to pursue a career in applied research. He mentors/teaches engineering students, conducts research on seaweeds to explore potential uses (biofuels, pharma, cosmetics etc) and travels the length and breadth of Indian coasts retrieving seaweed samples and interacting with locals regarding conservation of seaweeds.

Nitin is DST (Department of Science & Technology) INSPIRE Faculty and a Seaweed Biotechnologist at ICT, Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai.

Nitin talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about his initial years and career path that led him to Seaweed research.

Nitin, tell us about your background?

My name is Dr. Nitin Trivedi. I belong to a small village Chhinch, located in the Banswara district of Rajasthan. My village has a famous temple of lord Brahma and therefore it is also known as Brahmadham. As I grew up in a village, surrounded by agricultural lands, water canals, and trees, I enjoyed my childhood in every possible manner. During those days (early 90’s), education was a real challenge as we had limited schools. I studied in a government school and passed 10th class with first division in Hindi medium. 

My parents had started their career as school teachers (govt. employees) under Rajasthan education department. My father has a special role and place in my life. When I was in 10th class my father was Headmaster in a Government Secondary school. He often took me to his school to attend lectures of different subjects as he had a good teaching staff at that time. He used to set and bring model question papers for me and my sister to practice it at home before board exams. In 2015, my father Shri Mahesh Chandra Trivedi retired from the post of Principal and Mother Smt. Hemlata Trivedi retired as a school lecturer from Govt. Senior Secondary Schools.

What did you study after school?

My father had a dream that all his children study science. As a result, my elder brother and sister did their post-graduation in Chemistry and Botany respectively. Being the youngest, I was inspired by them and passed 12th in Biology from BVB School, Banswara (in Hindi medium). In our district college, we have basic science subjects (Botany, Chemistry & Zoology) and I wanted to study applied science, therefore I moved to Anand, Gujarat and took admission in NVPAS college affiliated to Sardar Patel University. I obtained a bachelor’s degree with first-class in Microbiology in 2006. In 2008, I completed my MSc in Microbiology from the University of Rajasthan, Jaipur. 

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

During BSc, Dr. Akshay Gupte, HOD, Microbiology at NVPAS influenced me a lot to become a Microbiologist. His strict personality and passion for teaching Microbiology was inspiring. My foundation in Microbiology during BSc was very strong and as a result, i passed MSc in Microbiology with distinction. After MSc, I had two options, either work in a company or do a Ph.D/teach. To get admission in Ph.D, passing NET exam was compulsory. Therefore, I took coaching for NET exam and simultaneously applied for the post of Project Assistant in several national research institutes. In October 2008, I got an interview call from CSIR-Central Salt and Marine Chemical Research Institute (CSMCRI), Bhavnagar, Gujarat for the post of Project Assistant. The selection was a two-step process: written exam followed by personal interview. I was surprised as most of the questions were from the NET exam syllabus which I studied for only one month. I was selected and started my research career on 12/01/2009 in the Discipline of Marine Biotechnology and Ecology. The vision for research in me was ignited by my Ph.D. supervisor Dr. CRK Reddy, a known Phycologist (Phycology is the scientific study of Algae) worldwide. Apart from him, Drs. Vishal Gupta & Manoj Gupta, my Ph.D. seniors taught me the basics of seaweed biotechnology

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path

If remembered well, in February 2009, our HOD, Discipline of Marine Biotechnology & Ecology at CSIR-CSMCRI called the recently joined JRF (Junior Research Fellows) and Project assistants for work assignments. At the same time, he called Dr. CRK Reddy and asked him to choose any one student among all 7-8 students. Among all, he chose me and took me to his research laboratory “Seaweed Biotechnology Lab”. I think that was the turning point in my research career and the journey of seaweed research started. From January 2009 to January 2011, I worked as a Project Assistant in a project entitled “Farming of seaweeds and their value addition”. I was fortunate that I had great seniors to support me and teach the basics of seaweed biotechnological research. Those days, seaweed-derived biofuel (renewable source) was one of the hottest research areas, therefore, i decided to work on Macroalgal biofuels. Due to some problem, our batch did not register for a Ph.D program and therefore I applied for the Ph.D program at Energy and Environment Fusion Technology Centre (E2FTC), Myongji University, South Korea and got selected to do Ph.D. on Macroalgal biofuel. At the same time, i also got selected for Ph.D program under AcSIR (CSIR), New Delhi. I registered for Ph.D and continued my research at CSIR-CSMCRI Bhavnagar. With three years of research experience and 4 research papers, I succeeded in receiving CSIR-Senior Research Fellowship in March 2012. In March 2015, I visited the University of Messina, Messina, Italy as a part of a collaborative project between India & Europe “Biowalk4biofuels”. In December 2015, I was awarded a Ph.D. in Biological Science on “Bioethanol production from marine macrophytic green alga Ulva fasciata Delile”. I published 6 research articles and two book chapters as first author and overall 11 research articles, two book chapters and one patent during my Ph.D. tenure.

After Ph.D, I decided to do Postdoctoral research and succeeded in receiving several national and international postdoctoral fellowships such as DS Kothari PDF by UGC, New Delhi, ARO PDF by Israel, Research Associate at DBT-ICT Centre for Energy Biosciences, Mumbai, PDF at Dalhousie University, Canada. In February 2017, I was awarded DST INSPIRE Faculty, independent Early Career research award for 5 years, by the Department of Science and Technology, New Delhi. In May 2017, I joined DBT-ICT Centre for Energy Biosciences, Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai as DST INSPIRE Faculty.

My Ph.D guide, Dr. CRK Reddy has played a major role in the success of my research career. Not only me, but all his Ph.D. students are also well recognised in their own research areas and currently working in different research laboratories across the globe. During my Ph.D tenure at CSMCRI, I worked on marine microbial identification, enzyme production & characterisation, fermentation, seaweed biomass characterisation, seaweed bio-refinery and value addition of seaweed cellulose. The advantage of doing research (Ph.D) in a National lab is that you get good exposure in terms of research and professional relations. The CSIR-CSMCRI is a very renowned institute and has all the research facilities for basic and applied research.

How did you get your first break?

After Ph.D. thesis submission, I started applying to several national & international fellowships. In India, I applied for a Research Associate post at DBT-ICT Centre for Bioenergy, Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai. The project was on Macroalgal biomass production and biorefinery. Based on my Ph.D. research experience, I was selected as a Research Associate and joined DBT-ICT CEB on 01/09/2015 (12 days after my Ph.D viva).

What were the challenges in your career path? How did u address them?

Ph.D is a learning phase. I did mistakes in planning and designing of my experiments but with time I learnt and succeeded in completing my research objectives. I was lucky that I had a supportive supervisor and colleagues. After Ph.D, the biggest challenge was my own thinking because when you have good research publications and national lab experience your mind starts dreaming in a big way.  After Ph.D, you can go for postdoctoral research, teaching or any relevant industry job. In India, very few people are working on seaweeds, therefore, I decided to continue my research in the same field. 

The second challenge was writing a project proposal for Postdoctoral fellowships. Globally, different seaweed experts are working on different aspects. Therefore, as an early career researcher, we need to expand our thinking which matches their interests. For every country, fellowship format is different. Initially, it was hectic and tedious, but we all know that experience comes with practice. It improves your thinking and writing skills. 

The last challenge was social and family expectations. It’s obvious as we are human beings. It’s necessary but difficult to balance personal and professional life if you are in research. I am lucky that I have supporting and caring family and friends.

Where do you work now? 

At present, I am working as DST INSPIRE Faculty at DBT-ICT Centre for Energy Biosciences, Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT), Mumbai. Apart from my project research, I am teaching Microbiology in B.Tech & B.Pharma courses at ICT. ICT is a deemed to be university under Section 3 of UGC Act 1956. It has Elite status and Centre of Excellence and in February 2018, UGC has declared Category 1 Deemed to be University status to ICT. (NAAC A++: CGPA 3.77/4.00). 

The DST INSPIRE Faculty scheme has been launched by the Department of Science & Technology (DST), Government of India. The scheme is designed to provide tenure track research positions to young achievers for independent research and emerge as a leader in future science & technology. The duration of the scheme is for five years supported by research grant. The project is on the utilisation of aquaculture wastewater to grow seaweeds followed by the extraction of value-added products for different applications. The aquaculture wastewater is rich in nutrients which if released into the environment may cause serious problems to aquatic flora & fauna. Seaweeds or macroalgae are marine plants that require nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) for growth. Therefore, if we use aquaculture wastewater to grow seaweeds it will not only stop the release of nutrients to the environment, but the harvested seaweed biomass could also be used to produce different value-added bio-products. My current research interest includes; Algal (seaweeds) biofuel and biochemicals, Algal biorefinery, Algal growth engineering, Algal bioremediation and value addition of algae using marine microbes & enzymes. So far, I have 18 publications, 3 book chapters and two patents to my credit. I have also reviewed several research articles for international publishers like Elsevier, Springer, ACS publications.

For any job, dedication, ability to learn new things and hard work are very important. In research, you need to update yourself with the current R&D going on in your research field. For this, I have been attending several workshops, conferences, symposiums. These kind of events provide a platform to interact with the subject experts and develop relationships for future collaboration. Researchers also have several media platforms such as ResearchGate, Web of Science, Publons, LinkedIn to interact with each other. 

My day at the lab starts with a discussion with my project students. We discuss and design the experiments to be done. Most of my time is spent on reading research articles, preparing a presentation for class teaching and checking assignments. ICT is known for industry oriented research; therefore, several industrial people visit our centre and discuss collaborative research possibilities with faculty.

I love research and teaching. Luckily, I am at a place where I can do both. My research area is unique and interesting. I love to visit different coastal areas to understand the diversity of seaweeds in India. For my project work, I often go for seaweed sample collection to different parts of the Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat coasts. I interact with the local people and tell them the importance of seaweeds.

How does your work benefit the society?

Seaweeds have proven applications as a source of food, feed, fertilizer, and phycocolloids. The biggest advantage of using seaweeds as a feedstock for biobased products are: it does not require fresh water, arable lands, and fertilizers to cultivate or grow. They can be grown in a tank or in an open sea depending on the type of species. As of now very few institutes and industries are working on seaweeds. Most of the small-scale industries in India are involved in phycocolloid and bio-stimulant production. India has a long coastal line (7500km) and several people are living in the coastal area. There are huge possibilities and scope to explore this field and come up with the invention which can directly benefit society. I am trying to develop a proof of concept for seaweed biomass production followed by the extraction of value-added products for agricultural, nutraceutical and biomedical applications.

Tell us an example of a specific work you did that is very close to you!

As a part of Ph.D. course work-CSIR 800, I did a field project on “Benefit to the farmers of West Bengal and Rajasthan by using affordable CSIR-CSMCRI invented seaweed sap formulations” under the guidance of Dr. Arup Ghosh, Sr. Scientist at CSIR-CSMCRI, Bhavnagar. I visited different villages of West Bengal and Rajasthan and interacted with the farmers to know their experiences after using seaweed sap as biofertilizers.

During my school time, I joined “Scouting” and received Rajyapal Puruskar. Scouting is a voluntary non-political educational movement for young people. In this, I served as a volunteer for Pulse Polio Abhiyan, Svacchata Abhiyan, etc. I personally believe, every student should join such movements during school time. It helps to develop the physical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual potential of individuals which is necessary to become a responsible citizen of society or country. I think these two incidents are very close to me.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

“Nothing is Impossible” and always think “how to make parents proud”. I did not study in private and English medium schools, not did i clear NET or any other competitive exam yet received my Ph.D from National laboratory (CSIR), was awarded several national and international fellowships and am currently working in one of the best universities in India. I couldn’t get a chance to study in higher institutes (IITs, IISER, NITs) but today I am receiving invitations from CSIR, IITs, etc. to deliver expert talks in conferences. The only thing we require is self-belief, dedication, vision and hard work. God has created us with a beautiful mind, use it well for personal growth and for serving society.

Future Plans?

I am at the beginning of my professional career and have a long way to go. Along with teaching and research, I am planning to visit different schools and colleges of small districts to interact with the students and deliver scientific talks. I want to make a booklet or website that has all the information about the best colleges in India, syllabus, fees, mode of admission, fellowships availability, etc. so that students don’t require guidance at each step of their career.