Age isn’t a limitation to do research nor is a degree. All you need is scientific temparement.

Neha Sharma, our next pathbreaker, Product/Materials Engineer, researches acoustics properties of materials that could potentially lead to the development of a novel range of sound absorbing and insulating products for the company in the Power sector.

Neha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from the The Interview Portal about her early interest in biomechanical aspects of machines at school that drove her towards exploring solutions to everyday problems through research and subsequently led to pursuing a PhD in Acoustics & Audio Engineering.

For students, develop scientific curiosity at a young age by looking at problems around you and brainstorm ideas to address them. That doesnt require a degree !

Neha, tell us about your background?

Since my childhood, naturally occurring miraculous marvels associated with liquids, say like the dewdrops, the mysterious patterns of oil on water and the chaotic vortices of water have always fascinated me. Facing the approaching zephyr or breaking of the waves at the feet while spending evenings on the shores of the Arabian Sea, are some of the ecstatic feelings that I have been nostalgic about, since I was born and brought up in the metropolis Mumbai. I did my schooling from one of the leading schools of Mumbai’s twin city – Navi Mumbai (or New Bombay), passing out as an overall outstanding student. 

Being a lone child, I have always been at the centre of attention and nurturing of my parents, who ensured that I never had a parochial outlook in life. My father, a Veterinarian and mother, a Physics Professor (both “doctors” in their respective fields of expertise) have imbued in me the best of both the fields. This scientific ambience at home has been fundamental in shaping my general interest in science and nature. Besides being a keen observer, the other hobbies that I have cultivated since my childhood include writing articles (some for the local newspaper), a couple of poems, some incredible art and craft including water colour painting and playing chess. Since childhood, I have enjoyed outdoor sports like badminton, basketball, swimming, bicycling but above all, refreshing morning walks. I am fluent in Hindi, Marathi, besides English (my medium of instruction all along). In addition, I am acquainted with the basics of Sanskrit and German.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

Machines, specifically those with biomechanical aspects have fascinated me, since I was young. I opted to pursue a course in Mechanical Engineering during my Bachelors in India.

I was then eager to pursue my postgraduate studies from the UK owing to the research and advancements in my field of interest specifically and University of Salford had everything to entice me! It is from here that I have successfully completed my Master’s by Research degree (Acoustics) and have now progressed on with the PhD program.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

While I was in my Eighth grade, an advertisement inviting participation for CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Government of India) Innovation Award for School Children turned out to be the turning point in my life. For the research-based projects submitted, I not only received this annual award four times in a row but also had patent applications filed for the same. This exposure for my research initiatives and being acknowledged for the same have been instrumental in generating that keenness in exploring beyond.

I also feel that the lineage on my maternal side played a decisive role in helping me to opt for the mechanical engineering stream. My grandfather, an engineer with Indian Railways and my mother, a professor in Physics inspired me to decide on this line.

The other catalyst to keep up the motivation in research was my selection for KVPY (Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojana) Fellowship (instituted by Government of India for students interested in research careers), provided me with an opportunity, rather twice to attend summer camps under an internship program at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). During the period when I was awarded with KVPY fellowship, it was open for both basic/pure science and applied science like Engineering and Medicine. However, after two years in my Bachelor’s degree, it got discontinued owing to certain regulations. I got selected for Cummins College through MHCET, and my degree course was self-funded. In addition, I have also been sharing and promoting scientific methodology among the school children for their various assignments, as one of the trustees of an NGO (Vigyan Setu Foundation), to popularize scientific temperament amongst the next generation.

Tell us about your career path

Having a good variety of professional presence at home and thanks to my grasping ability I had something of everything in me. Since childhood, my passion drove me towards exploration of solutions to everyday problems and by the time I was nearing the end of my schooling, I was aware of my instincts to become a researcher. My curiosity for machines and mechanisms concerning living forms motivated me to develop innovative products and processes and I ended up pursuing summer internships at the IITs.

The projects that contributed towards my participation at the CSIR awards were based on interdisciplinary fields of study and research. My typical works include:

“A Novel Dermal Applicator for Dispensing Liquid Formulation while parting hair on Companion Animals”,

“Herbal Control of Rhipicephalus spp. (Brown Dog Tick)”,

“LIPI – A Novel Writing Aid” and

“TOBACCO: Better DYE than CHEW (Natural dye for cotton fabrics with UV protection)”

Keeping up with my curiosity to explore various arenas of research, my IIT internships have been based on my interests then. In the first year of my Bachelor’s degree, I interned at the Organometallics and Homogeneous Catalysis Lab, Department of Chemistry, IIT Bombay on the “Synthesis of chiral compound intermediates of menthyl imidazole and menthyl triazoles”, under the mentorship of Prof Prasenjit Ghosh. Here I got my first exposure in handling the apparatus set-ups and instruments including Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Spectrometer, Gas Chromatography, Mass Spectrometer and the likes, and was also introduced to the nitty-gritty of referencing, reading, writing and reviewing research papers and articles. 

The very next year, I worked at Computational Fluid Dynamics and Microfluidics Lab, Department of Mechanical Engineering, IIT Kharagpur as a group member working on “Effect of Suspended Particles on Droplet Evaporation kinetics with EWOD (Electro-Wetting On Dielectric) Effects”, under the guidance of Prof Suman Chakraborty. The theoretical exposure to the basics of Microfluidics focusing on the manipulation of microflows and microdrops, their purpose, design and applications, and my hands-on experience with the various techniques including substrate fabrication, droplet solution preparation and experimental studies using the Goniometer associated with EWOD instilled a high level of confidence. Signature of this experience is clearly visible in my Bachelor of Engineering (BE) research project work.

I then stepped into my undergraduate course in Mechanical Engineering at Cummins College of Engineering for Women, Pune. This was followed by an employment with Cummins India Limited as Product Design Engineer and later Thermal and Fluid Science engineer in Cummins Emission Solutions. It was my final year project during the Bachelor’s degree followed by assignments during my placement at Cummins India ltd, that have mutually generated that keen interest for exploring the field of acoustics engineering through higher studies. 

As a part of the curriculum during the third year, for the seminar work, I presented a topical review paper on Cavitation Bubbles near Rigid Boundaries: from Analyses to Applications. I carried out a review-based comparative study of the computational methods; Boundary Element Method (BEM), Finite Element Method (FEM) and the Green’s Function Method (GFM).

While in my final year of Bachelors, I did my research on “A Novel MEMS based Acoustic Filter for Gunshot Detection”. Experimental work for this project was carried out at Microsystems Lab, Composite Research Centre, R&DE(Engrs.), DRDO, Pune while the analytical part was completed in the MEMS R & D Centre of my department. Here, my earlier exposure in handling chemicals and fundamental concepts related to MEMS during internships came handy. The data acquisition using SCADA system and the electronics involved in post manufacturing frequency trials was an interdisciplinary exposure. In addition, I acquired working experience in the Class 1000 and Class 10000 Cleanroom facilities comprising of instruments such as UV LIGA, Mask Aligner, Spin Coater, SEM, 3D Printer to name a few, for the processes like wafer cleaning, sputtering, spin coating, lithography, wet etching and so on for micro fabrication and temporary packaging of the acoustic filter. FEA course, as one of the electives in my final year, facilitated the theoretical intervention. For the analysis part, the software support involving MATLAB, AUTOCAD, SOLIDWORKS, ProEngineer Wildfire, ANSYS CLASSIC, ANSYS WORKBENCH and a superficial extent of COMSOL have enriched me immensely.

During my employment with Cummins India Limited as Product Design Engineer in Cummins Emission Solutions, I have worked on a US based Tier 4f After-Treatment System (ATS) using CREO and PDM-PLM as the software support. Following which I have worked as Computational Thermal and Fluid Science Engineer, while majorly handling fluidics based assignments related to ATS using ANSYS – FLUENT and WORKBENCH software. At Cummins, I have held the post of Corporate Social responsibility (CSR) coordinator and team leader for the tenure. I led a team for an internal competition “Know Thy Product”, who won the Best Overall Project within the Business Unit. It was around then, when my senior managers realized my potential in leadership, research and novelty. They introduced me to a special zone of ongoing research which dealt with Acoustics of ATS. This is when I was introduced to the global research team pursuing dedicated acoustics research on real life problems with diesel engines in general and ATS in particular. Whilst reviewing key literature in relation to acoustics of engine and exhaust linings, a prominent research centre that grabbed my attention was the one at University of Salford. On digging deeper, I found connections within the Cummins UK team and the university. It was like a signal, rather an opportunity seeking me out and I followed it!

At the Acoustics Research Centre at University of Salford, UK, I have gained immense exposure to research. Carrying forward my partial research understanding of the acoustics of exhaust systems, I built up on the rest of it as a part of my Masters Degree, a “by research” program. The project was titled as “Design and Analysis of Mufflers based on “Acoustic Black Hole” effect”. It covered the aspects of designing of geometry influenced Sound Absorbers for Exhaust systems, which are also known as Silencers or Mufflers for Noise Control. The approach essentially includes the semi analytical study compared to the MATLAB and COMSOL based numerical methods as also impedance tube experiments on prototypes. To support my curriculum, I have attended acoustics based events like DENORMS (Design for Noise Reducing Materials and Structures) workshops and training schools organized by E-COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) and Annual IOA (Institute of Acoustics) conferences. My overall contributions towards this extensive research have been recognized in a specialized technical conference held in France, where I was a key Invited Speaker.

I have been actively involved in contributing towards the department by assisting at the PoA Lab tasks. Alongside the curricular activities, my participation at the university based Business enterprise boot camps and pitching competitions and attending certificate courses from WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) has been an overall enriching experience. I have enthusiastically been a STEM Ambassador in the UK for promoting my field of research and general interest in science and education among school children and their teachers.

With my unique qualifications and having established a position in the field, the degree program was followed by an equally distinct Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) opportunity at my university. The outcome of the research contributions towards this KTP project helped me develop my research problem leading to the beginning of my PhD program. The KTP at University of Salford and the PhD project work mainly focuses on characterizing acoustic materials both, macroscopically and microscopically, for sound absorption and insulation. The overall study is a package of numerical understanding along with experimental validation wrapped together with highly theoretical and analytical reasoning. The consequence of this research is aimed to culminate into developing better material understanding, enhanced designing and measuring techniques and above all highly optimized sound absorbing materials that serve application in areas of transport, industry and build environment.

I appreciated the concept of KTP being a knowledge transfer between academia and the industry so much that I secured yet another KTP with the University of Bradford. This has now become my current place of work in association with the industry partner that the project contributes to. I am still working on my PhD program in parallel, granting me access to a plethora of knowledge and research support! This is how I realized my potential to become a proper Research Scientist. I have written an article ‘Scientist – To be or not to be’, which is perhaps a relevant read at this stage, so do feel free to get in touch with me.

How did you get your first break?

It was during my under-graduation in Mechanical Engineering at Cummins College of Engineering for Women, Pune, like everyone, I too faced campus interviews. My involvement in research was quite evident during my Bachelor’s degree period with two patent applications which I co-filed. One was along with my Professor in the field of Phytochemistry while the other was an apparatus for aiding veterinary research. These backed by my earlier achievements including internships at IITs, and more importantly it was my final year project that got me on top in the selection list for employment with Cummins India Limited. I was appointed as Product Design Engineer in Cummins Emission Solutions.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

In my journey so far, I have learnt that challenges are part of our life, unless of course you are born with a silver spoon. Adaptation to a completely new environment (foreign land); including language, culture, education pattern, interaction, and most importantly the ever-changing weather, are some of the challenges that anyone would have had to face if they had stepped into similar shoes as mine. At my present workplace, the specific challenges I address primarily have been all pertaining to the complex project work that I have been assigned to. Multitasking, efficiently interacting with different team members from various divisions, keeping up with the heights of technicality with the academicians on one hand and conveying a more result oriented layman version of that message to the industrialists, carrying out the research work and communicating it via different forms of media (oral, written, social/general, specific/confidential), delivering on a deadline are some of the tasks I am accountable towards as a critical part of the project.

A key to handling all this well, I feel for me, is having a good command on communication, trying to make it as fast, crisp and effective as one can. There is no single perfect way, so in my opinion it is wise to define just the one that suits your capabilities and needs.

Where do you work now? What do you do?

I work as a Product/Materials Engineer under the Knowledge Transfer Partnership program, jointly conducted by Kimpton Energy and Acoustics Engineering Solutions and the University of Bradford. My role is to link the fundamentals of acoustics to materials, thereby leading to the development of a novel range of sound absorbing and insulating products and hence opening new market opportunities for the company. A key challenge of my research work mainly deals with the characterization and Thermo-Acoustic analyses of conventional, sustainable and meta materials for applications specific to the power generation industry. A good mix of expertise in interdisciplinary sciences such as materials and acoustics which perhaps is all present as a specialization for a Mechanical Engineer, the knowledge of the necessary tools like mathematics and the software support, but above all good observation and common sense is required! I acquired the set of skills on the way, some through the curriculum, some by self-motivation, yet others by the necessity to arrive at solutions with less effort. However, my parents have ensured that I cultivated the habit of mostly self-teaching myself the best of skills.

A typical day in my present life; 

05:30 am: Getting up, freshen up, preparing breakfast and lunch

06:30 am: Driving around a 60-100 miles (100-160 kms), either to University of Bradford or Kimpton as per the work plan. This is generally a drive for around 2 hours due to heavy traffic (because here in the UK, breaking traffic rules could lead to suspension of driving licence!)

08:30 am: Start research / administrative work at the facilities.

12:30 pm: Lunch break

04:30 pm: Leave for home and drive back those 100 odd miles (occasionally having snacks on the way, either at halt / mid-way, or in the jam)!

08:00 pm: Exercise, sometimes outdoors but usually at home as it is generally cold and wet outside in the UK

09:30 pm: Prepare dinner listening to my favourite music

11:00 pm: Retire to get up afresh next morning. 

It is typically a do-it-yourself lifestyle here generally, but of course with the gadgets at our rescue. So, the laundry and house cleaning are typically scheduled for weekends. I am more regular with maintaining my little indoor garden and other hobbies. With all these daily challenges (if someone feels them to be) I look forward to the next morning that brings in fresh ideas filled with challenges, and solutions too. That keeps me going. Being in the research domain of different kinds, which still somehow seems to be male dominated, and have hardly any presence in our country, boosts me up to lead the day, the life!

How does your work benefit society? 

Noise pollution is one of the biggest problems we face day in day out. There is no need of explaining the trauma we have to face due to unnecessary honking on the roads or a loud neighbour! There are many more examples of noise pollution that we witness in everyday life. My work is to reduce this nuisance to the bare minimum so that we all can enjoy the goodness of sound (as per our own definitions of goodness), retain the music of nature and let society live life in peace and harmony.

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

Perhaps a very special memory of my several endeavours has been created by the Novel writing aid journey. My grandfather has always had a flair for penning his ideas and since my childhood I have noticed him do so. But as I began observing better, his fingers often grabbed my keen attention. I began growing worried even as a child to see how his slightly arched, slightly swollen but very likely aching fingers would slow down his writing speed, distort his otherwise beautiful handwriting, yet he didn’t wish to stop. I decided there was something I had to do about it. I couldn’t let him stop; but what could I possibly do? I thought hard and finally arrived at a weird looking solution from the random odd scraps I fancied gathering in a box! I tried and self-tested that mechanical solution until I justified it with as much scientific understanding I possibly could as a school child. I showed it to my grandfather, and he tried it on. To my amusement he liked it a lot as it eased off the pain allowing him to write longer than usual. I ended up shaping it into what my patent now calls it ‘LIPI’ the Novel Writing Aid. In the process of this simple innovation, I had applied for the CSIR Innovation Award for School Children. I did naturally win it; however, the most memorable part was when the Head of IPMD (Intellectual Property Management Division) of CSIR himself wore the device, wrote his name on the paper, and appreciated the device from the core of his heart. His acceptance and approval of the device was my biggest award that day.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I would like to convey to my fellow students, a fundamental approach to life that I have gathered through my journey – “to believe in yourself, follow your instincts and keep your interests alive. For there is a huge difference between ‘Success’ and ‘Satisfaction’, both bearing different end results. So, choose and tread on the path that resonates the best with you.”

Future Plans?

I often try to relate to how Issac Asimov puts it, “Science can amuse and fascinate us all, but it is engineering that changes the world.” As an engineer, I have always had that urge to contribute towards the common good of the society. At my current position, I feel equipped to take up new challenges. The concept of bridging the gap between academia and industry motivates me presently to continue treading on this journey. With a specialization in acoustics, particularly catering to the needs of quieter technology, I aspire to thrive in this industry by creating solutions that will transform the way we perceive ‘Sound’ materials (pun intended)!