Our schools mould us in many ways, giving us a platform to discover our interests through several extracurricular activities, which in many cases, lead to a fruitful and successful career.

Dheeban Chakravarthi Kannan, our next pathbreaker, Biofuel Researcher, works on improving the viability of algal biofuels through R&D to develop sustainable means of renewable transport fuels in the future.

Dheeban talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about doing a PhD in Biofuels, motivated by the desire to develop sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels that cause environmental pollution, a concept he learnt in school through an environmental quiz.

For students, schools are not just for studies. Explore different activities at school, leverage your school as a playground of different ideas for a solid career !

Dheeban, tell us about your background?

I am from a coastal town called Cuddalore in Tamilnadu.  I did my schooling there. My parents are from a humble background. My father hails from a remote village and retired as a state government superintendent. His own life was dictated by the principle that education was key to a better future.  My mom is from a nearby village and is a farmer and home-maker.  They were keen to give the best possible education to my younger brother and me. We were given a lot of freedom, but with responsibility. One condition was that we do well in studies. We were never discouraged from playing or watching TV/movies as we always got good grades. We used to play cricket just hours before exams. Both my parents took great care in tutoring us. My father taught our class lessons again at home in the most enjoyable way. My mom is a master manager of home finance. Our first summer internship was to take care of the household budget and balance sheet! We were just 11-12 years old then. There wasn’t much spare money around and we learned the value of money early in our lives, having seen first-hand how much money we got and what our expenses were. Yet, we never felt we were deprived of anything. Our parents were frugal for themselves. Our upbringing made us responsible kids. Our only real responsibility was to study well. We were able to focus completely on the studies in school. My teachers tell me I used to ask a lot of questions in the classroom even at a young age. Physics and zoology were my favourite subjects in school. I loved the language subjects as well – Tamil and English. Unlike many other studious students who cared only about science and mathematics subjects at the time of graduating from higher secondary school to college, I enjoyed studying all subjects including the languages. We had great teachers in our school (St. Joseph’s Higher Secondary School, Cuddalore) and they stoked our interests and encouraged us to be our best. I realized that the reason I did well in studies was that I always tried to learn and understand the subject (I enjoyed that) instead of plain memorizing. I had time to engage in a lot of co-curricular activities at school – general knowledge summer classes, quiz competitions, essay and oratorical competitions, lecture contests, drawing etc. You name it and I was there. I had a great teacher, Dr R Natarajan (better known as writer, Ayesha Natarasan) who inspired and molded us and ensured our interest and engagement in these activities. We were exposed to reading books which expanded our horizons. My father used to discuss current affairs and historical events with me. Thus I developed a variety of interests. These experiences stayed at the back of my mind.  It was one of these co-curricular activities that would eventually lead me to my career. We prepared for an environment quiz in our school district during my sixth grade and that opened my eyes to environmental issues, pollution and sustainability. I was introduced to many environmental topics along the way as part of these co-curricular activities. These continued to increase my awareness and interest. Out of the many interests I had developed in school, this would later pop up as a career interest.  

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I studied chemical engineering at Anna University, Chennai.  It was one of the disciplines I was interested in, based on what I had learned of various disciplines during my higher secondary school days just before college admission. I liked that it was one of the broadest of engineering fields. When I was in the second year of my undergraduate studies, one of the interests I had developed from my school days, environment, resurfaced and reached a point where I felt like doing research and development in that area. This prompted me to prepare for higher studies in the US. 

There was an option to do a direct PhD in Chemical Engineering at that time instead of going through MS. The chances of getting assistantship were better that way. But I was keen to do an MS first as I needed some time to select a PhD topic of my liking in the environmental field. I got admission in an MS-PhD program (Chemical Engineering) at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park.  I was able to do a Master’s project on an environmentally relevant topic as well. During that time, I got introduced to my future PhD guide, Dr Jack Matson. That was when I got into my eventual research career area of renewable transport fuels (biofuels). I was motivated by the desire to address the climate change threat posed by the mounting carbon emissions from fossil fuels and develop a sustainable alternative. Such indigenous renewable fuel production would also reduce the dependence on crude oil imports. My PhD work was on biodiesel production. I soon realized that the bigger challenge was feedstock production. A feedstock with much larger scope of production was needed to make an appreciable impact through renewable forms of transport fuel.  I realized that microalgae could be a potential biofuel feedstock for the future, given its fast growth rate and lipid production. This was investigated as a side project during my PhD. This helped me get into my first job as a research engineer in the field of algal biofuels.

It doesn’t have to be a case where you know right from your PhD as to what area you would be working on in your research career. Fundamentally, a PhD is only a stepping stone to a research career in that it teaches you how to conduct research in any topic. One could do a PhD for the sheer interest of doing research and learning without being specific on the topic. However what matters is that one pursues something that makes sense to them and that they believe in.  This is true for any profession – do the best groundwork possible to learn about the options, choose the one that you like the most and build it from there. Interests and vision can evolve. But I believe we should educate ourselves on the possibilities as much as possible and pursue what we know best at that time.                                                             

Who or what were the key influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

My parents (Mr R Kannan and Ms K Mala) were my first influencers, giving us a lot of freedom and responsibility. The only condition was that we do well in studies. The freedom that they gave and their upbringing directly resulted in me choosing research as a career out of my own interest.

Dr R Natarajan was a visionary teacher who taught us General Knowledge in our school initially. He inspired and imparted great wisdom through his General Knowledge classes in our school. He identified students who had interest in a variety of co-curricular activities. He used to organize summer classes for these students to give exposure in these areas and let them learn and train in their areas of interest. He was a great story-teller who knew how to inspire students and identify their interests. I was one of those students. He took me under his wing and guided me. I got to develop many interests during that time and it was one of those that would eventually go on to shape my career. Teachers shape our society. I was lucky to have other teachers as well who encouraged students to have independent thinking and nurtured us well. Dr Jack Matson was my PhD guide. He is a friend, philosopher and guide. I met him during my Master’s when I was looking for a good PhD topic to work on. He was a totally committed environmental enthusiast and a great teacher of innovation and creative skills . His unabated passion and enthusiasm inspired me a great deal and motivated me to take my plans to the next level. He understood my interests and aptitude. His supreme confidence in me encouraged me to pursue my research to the best of my abilities. I could be fearless and he taught me to take calculated risks to identify and solve problems.  We explored three different topics for my PhD in the first semester. We later identified a solid catalyst method for biodiesel production as my research topic. He gave me freedom to evaluate a variety of topics and worked with me to select this one.  During the course of the PhD, we used to discuss and ponder a lot on the future challenges in the field beyond my PhD.  This helped me identify algal biofuels as an area to pursue my research career later.

How did you get your first break?

I was about to graduate from my PhD and had begun to send out job applications to organizations engaged in algal biofuel research. I had initiated a side project on algal biofuels during my PhD – a sunlight distribution-based algal growth system designed to improve outdoor algal productivity. This helped me make a case to be considered for a research position in organizations engaged in algal biofuel research. Dr Vikram Pattarkine, the CTO of algal biofuels company, OriginilOil gave me an opportunity to work in this field based on my overall aptitude and passion in spite of not having an extensive experience in the field.

Tell us about your career path after Phd

My first job at OriginOil in the US was the launch pad for my present career in the field of algal biofuels. My PhD research was not on algal biofuels and I had not done any practical research in algal biofuels (only a theoretical photobioreactor design development). Dr Vikram Pattarkine (CTO of OriginOil) hired me for my first job after my PhD. Dr Vikram went through my application and contacted me to discuss further.  From our initial phone calls and further personal interactions, he understood my interest and aptitude for algal biofuel research. I could also sense that he is a pleasant, knowledgeable and nurturing person. I joined there and the time I spent there under his guidance influenced and shaped my career in algal biofuels.  Dr Vikram gave me a lot of freedom and inculcated a sense of ownership in pursuing research problems in a professional environment. I learned the practical fundamentals of algal research, learned the numerous challenges in the field and approaches to tackle them, and flourished under the guidance of Dr Vikram. He has remained a close friend and confidant ever since.  However, he had to leave the company as its CTO due to personal reasons. This gradually led to a void between the management and me both of whom came from different backgrounds – management from business development background and I from an academic background. This led to me leaving the company eventually.    I joined another algal biofuel company after that. Soon I realized that that company was undergoing a transition phase and I had to move on. These are start-up companies and lack of stability is a possibility even though there may be various other upsides. Though there had been a boom in funding of algal research in the mid-2000s, by now the funds were beginning to be diverted more towards lignocellulosic ethanol which had more immediate commercialization prospects. Algal biofuel research funding was restricted more towards national labs and universities. My PhD was not on algal biofuels and I lacked a long, thorough academic experience in algal research. Typical candidates would have had a more proven track record in the field even though I was supremely confident of my abilities. This led to me to seek an R&D position in fields outside renewable fuel and I joined a carbon and graphite company. I decided to bide my time until the situation became more favourable for algal research. During this time, I started checking out opportunities in India which would allow me to continue algal biofuel R&D. I had always wanted to return to India but after some time. However my predicament at that time, being engaged in a general R&D area, made me look for algal biofuel opportunities in India. I received interests from some reputed organizations in India. Eventually I returned to India having got a good opportunity to work in TERI.  I have since been able to work on many of the challenges in the algal biofuel field.

Name a challenge or two you had to tackle on your way to realize your career

One area where I had to put in a lot of effort to get into a graduate program in the US was the verbal section of the GRE test. Other qualifications such as course grades, recommendations, research internships, the analytical and quantitative sections of the GRE test came relatively easy for me. My spoken English and fundamental grammar were always good, but the GRE verbal section needed a much stronger proficiency in English. Strengthening verbal skills to that level was not easy and it required a lot of effort. I would never have been able to improve it just for the sake of scoring marks. But the motivation to do research in the environmental field drove me to plan and focus which ultimately helped me get a good score. I started buying books and learning materials to prepare in a way that I had not done earlier. I used to set aside about 1-2 hours every day from my second year to systematically improve in this area.  The content of the subject and its reach seemed alien and I would not have done this otherwise, but the implication the exam had on admissions into a graduate program meant that I was able to push myself to do well in an area that wouldn’t come naturally to me. I got a good score in the end. This also shows that verbal and written communication skills are important for any professional no matter what his/her interests are. It is important to take pride and put in effort to become good in such communication skills.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I work as a Fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in Mumbai.

I work on improving the viability of algal biofuels through R&D to develop renewable transport fuels in future. Specifically, this involves development and design of an outdoor algal growth system that yields improved productivity, a methodology to harvest algae, recovery of lipids from wet algae without having to dry it and techno-economic analysis of algal biofuels production employing new technologies

What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?

Algal biofuels is a wide field.  A variety of skills and qualifications have a place in this field. Biologists and biotechnologists could study the physiology and genetics of algae. Chemical engineers could design growth systems and focus on downstream processing of algae. Chemists could be involved in the treatment and recovery of products from algae. 

What is a typical day like?

I check on how our latest version of the outdoor algal growth system is performing. We check the latest data and see how we are progressing towards our target. There are a number of maintenance follow-ups and data parameters that need to be checked carefully to monitor if the algal system is working the way we want it to be. I interact with other colleagues in the group to catch up on how our various research activities are shaping up. These involve ongoing lab experiments to improve algal growth and lipid productivity, studies aimed at improving the efficiency of lipid recovery from wet algae, evaporation water loss-related salinity maintenance in outdoor systems and so on.  If there is an algal harvest to be made, I coordinate with the team on how the algae are harvested. I work on future concepts that build on the ongoing present iteration of various technologies. We regularly do techno-economic analysis of the technologies being developed. 

How does your work benefit society? 

I have an opportunity to address one of the biggest challenges facing mankind – climate change. This is a great motivation.

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

My PhD project involved developing an alternative to the polluting liquid-catalyst-employing method of biodiesel production from vegetable oil.  We were investigating a variety of solutions and nothing worked for a year.  We seemed to have reached a dead end.  My PhD advisor was well versed with innovation thinking and learning from past failures. This meant thorough and fast analytical evaluation of any problem and complementing it with a healthy dose of creativity. Some people tend to think of methodical analytical approach as an opposite to creative innovative thinking. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Both go hand in hand.  We had made sure to thoroughly test all approaches methodically one by one and listed what worked and what didn’t. We realized that some of the approaches could be merged and new solutions were needed for some of the gaps.  We deduced that we could use solid catalysts that would have been weak for the normal mild reaction conditions but could prove to be much more effective if the reaction could be conducted at a higher temperature and pressure. At the same time, we realized that this higher reaction temperature and pressure is much lower than  the temperature and pressure that other approaches attempted without any catalysts. We then decided to pursue and evaluate new catalysts in this class and see if some of them give improved results. We saw some yielding good results. A research problem that seemed to have reached a dead end was ultimately turned around through rigorous evaluation, methodical analysis and a search for a creative solution at a new intermediary reaction condition. That was very memorable.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Expand your horizons. Learn about a lot of new things. Read books. Pursue and engage in a variety of activities. Try to develop a range of interests and you may end up developing a strong liking for some of them.  Choose your study discipline and career based on your interests. Do due diligence and take a well-informed decision before you decide on such aspects. Have a dream. Chase it. Put in the effort. Let the effort be driven by enthusiasm. Mental toughness and stability are key to excel both in life and profession. Don’t get caught up in the little day-to-day things and always keep the bigger picture at the back of the mind.  Have an open mind and this would help you in constant betterment of your own self. Physical fitness is key to mental fitness and it is anyway needed for a complete life. So playing/fitness activities and eating healthy is important no matter what profession you may pursue.

Future Plans?

My future goal is to realize a viable algal technology that would facilitate integrated production of biofuels and commodities. To this end, I am also keen on developing an effective business model that can help the society reap the fruits of the technology and benefit the local community in terms of livelihood.