The growing demand for land space for our current and future needs presents a unique challenge for infrastructural engineers, but this also offers an incredible opportunity to build innovative solutions based on technology and structural design.

Rajat Gangrade, our next pathbreaker, Ph.D. researcher at the Center for Underground Construction and Tunneling at Colorado School of Mines, applies Data Visualization techniques to help tunnel designers and contractors forecast structural risks and identify the means and methods to mitigate them.

Rajat talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about getting an opportunity to work on Mumbai Metro Line 3, an underground metro project in Mumbai that played a pivotal role in shaping up his career in tunneling and geotechnical engineering

For students, India is on the cusp of an infrastructural transformation. If we want to match the world’s best cities in terms of infrastructure, we need Civil and Geotechnical engineers.

Rajat, tell us about your background?

I grew up in a very small suburb, then, in the northern outskirts of Mumbai, Vasai Road, formerly known as Bassein. I did my schooling from Holy Paradise English High School, a small school near my house. No fancy swimming pools, polo grounds, running tracks, huge libraries – just a simple school with classrooms and a small playground. My parents prioritized on schooling from a nearby school rather than schools farther away with more facilities. After finishing up my 10th standard, I pursued science from Vartak college (again in Vasai), for my 11th and 12th.

My parents have been professors at Vartak Polytechnic at Vasai Road for the past 33 years. My father is a professor in civil engineering and currently heads the department. My mother is a professor of chemistry and heads the humanities department. Not surprisingly, education was heavily prioritized in the household, as I grew up. My initial interest involved being a cricketer, like every other Indian kid. But that took a backseat by the time I was in standard 7th or 8th as education gained priority.  To be honest, I did not have an interest in developing a specific technical career. I never thought I wanted to be a professor, a consultant, a lawyer, or a doctor (however, my father wanted me to be a doctor). I went with what came across the best option on that day. It was at the end of the 10th that I took up science. By the end of 11th, I thought I wanted to be a mechanical engineer with a focus on aerospace engineering, so I decided to pursue PCM.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I pursued civil engineering from VJTI, Mumbai. My CET score was not sufficient to get a seat in mechanical engineering at COEP or VJTI and I did not want to lose the option of not studying at VJTI. Most of the engineers on the paternal side of the family are civil engineers, so in a way I followed the family tradition. After completing my graduation from VJTI, I went on to pursue a Masters in Geotechnical Engineering from Virginia Tech., Blacksburg. 

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

There were three turning points that I remember quite specifically-

I did not understand structural engineering, one of the most attractive career options for a civil engineer, not only in India but worldwide. VJTI had good professors for structural engineering but none for soil mechanics. Learning soil mechanics and concepts of building foundations, on my own, led me to develop a strong interest in the field. So, I guess, development of interest without any teaching assistance was one of the tipping points.

The second turning point was pursuing a Masters’ degree from Virginia Tech. and then working in the industry for about four years. It only strengthened my technical skill-set and the goal of developing a strong professional career in geotechnical engineering.

Returning to India in 2015 and getting an opportunity to work on Mumbai Metro Line 3, an underground metro project in Mumbai was the other turning point. Here, I met, Dr. Makarand Khare, who played a pivotal role in shaping up my career in tunneling and geotechnical engineering. Also, Mr. Ankush Tikhe helped me develop a holistic skill-set in tackling technical and contract issues in tunneling projects. Their constant motivation and support helped me decide to pursue a doctorate in tunneling. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

My career path has been strongly driven by what interests me at a given moment. While pursuing civil engineering from VJTI, I was fascinated with the design of retaining walls, one of the key elements in highways and building construction. I took up an unpaid internship with Larsen and Toubro (L&T) ECC division to observe and learn the design and construction of retaining walls. In this internship, I simply followed the most interesting aspect for me, in civil engineering.

By the end of graduation from VJTI, I was quite confident in pursuing a degree in geotechnical engineering. Virginia Tech. offered a strong program and ranked among the top 3 schools for geotechnical engineering in the North American region. I applied – got in (easy) – got out (difficult) and landed up a position in CH2M, a leading design consultant for geotechnical engineering projects. At CH2M, I worked for about a couple of months in Washington DC and later moved to Des Moines, Iowa. A typical 8 to 5 job, where I worked with state agencies in Iowa in designing highways. I worked on-site, for the most part, leading investigation programs to map the subsurface conditions. The office work predominantly involved designing retaining walls, ramps, and drainage systems for highways and compiling technical reports for state agencies. This was my work routine for about 2.5 years.

In 2015, with an interest in geotechnical engineering and a very limited market for my work, I returned to India and was fortunate to land up an opportunity with AECOM. I started working on an underground metro project in Mumbai. Here, for about a year, I was working on routine geotechnical engineering stuff, some environmental engineering problems, and some heritage building renovation issues. It was not until a year that I developed a strong inclination towards tunneling. The field of tunneling interested me because (1) as the field is multi-disciplinary, I enjoyed coordinating with different engineering teams and involved stakeholders, (2) it required an application of what I had learned over the past years, and (3) it demanded more out of me, not only in terms of engineering but in terms of people management and communication skills. Also, the movement of a tunnel boring machine underground and the engineering involved in keeping the surface undisturbed fascinated me.

After about 2 years at AECOM, with a strong interest in tunneling, I decided to pursue a professional career in tunneling. My decision to pursue a Ph.D. was to build a career with a specialized focus in the field of tunneling. A geotechnical engineer turning into a tunneling engineer is quite a rare combination. Generally, people with strong mechanical, mining, or structural engineering background build careers in tunneling. I found the professors who practiced research in tunneling and found Dr. Mike Mooney to be one of the biggest names in the tunneling society in the US. I applied for a Ph.D. position under him, was accepted, and started my Ph.D. in Fall 2017.

I believe the only career path I planned was getting a Ph.D. in tunneling. The rest of the opportunities that came along in the career path were not severely planned and were based on what interested me. One opportunity led to another and I ended up with an interest in tunneling.

How did you get your first break? (please explain if it was through campus or networking or any other approach?)

My first break in the industry was through a strong recommendation, a senior Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech., provided about my technical skillset and general work ethic. His recommendation helped me secure a geotechnical engineer position with CH2M.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

A major challenge was the decision to pursue a degree in geotechnical engineering. In India, at least until a couple of years ago, geotechnical engineers had quite a small role to play and most often firms do not have a geotechnical engineer. There was limited guidance available on the possible opportunities after pursuing a degree in geotechnical engineering. My father and seniors at VJTI helped me connect with a few professionals outside India and I spoke to a few independent consultants within India to get a perspective of the potential career. This helped me understand the typical opportunities for a geotechnical engineer.

Where do you work now? 

I am currently working as a Ph.D. researcher at the Center for Underground Construction and Tunneling at Colorado School of Mines. The campus is located in Golden, Colorado. As a Ph.D. researcher, I am involved in 3D and 4D visualization of subsurface data (e.g. identifying the type of ground conditions in which tunnels will be situated), characterization of uncertainty and risk in the ground conditions, and interaction of the tunnel boring machine with the ground. I forecast the probable locations for further investigations and monitoring to minimize uncertainty and mitigate the risks associated with tunneling. With the amount of data available, nowadays, data analysis is slowly getting into the core fields of engineering. I analyze the tunnel boring machine data, geologic-geotechnical data, instrumentation, and monitoring data from tunneling projects. I, generally, code in R and Python to develop sophisticated applications and tools that generate intuitive visualizations conveying risk and uncertainty in tunneling projects. I had never written a single line of code, in any language, until I started my Ph.D. in 2017. The experience has made me realize that acquiring a skill is not difficult but requires a minimum of 200-400 hours of consistent focus and effort. 

I am heavily into data visualization. I have learned, over the years, that people will not remember what you write but remember what you show. From our daily life, we remember messages that are conveyed in graphics/sketches or pictures. Data visualization is the future! Without any background in data viz, I started following the Data Visualization Society (DVS) blogs and data viz enthusiasts on Twitter. This helped me in learning what visualizations are most useful for my problem set of tunneling. 

For most of the Ph.D., I have started my day at about 4:00 AM. My typical day looks like – 

4:00 AM – 6:00 AM 🡪 I focus on the most challenging task at hand. If nothing else to do, I write about a couple of paragraphs for a paper or on-going research. Early morning work sets the tone for the rest of the day.

6:00 AM – 6:45 AM 🡪 Answer any burning emails, questions, or requests.

8:30 AM – 2:00 PM 🡪 Continue to work on research, mostly at school, and schedule any brain-storming sessions with my peers.

I am highly unproductive from 2:00 PM to 6:00 PM. During this time, I generally try to make figures for my research, play around with coding something, catch up with social media (YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn), or simply talk to colleagues in my research group.

9:00 PM – 10:30ish PM 🡪 Code, write, prepare a list of tasks for the next day – anything that takes minimum effort.

I know I sleep less than average suggested hours, but that is how I have been throughout.

The best part about my current job is the develop solutions to the most practical challenges in the tunneling industry. My professor and I work with actual project data, real project challenges, and risks, and develop coherent solutions to mitigate the risks. I feel the experience of working on innovative and practical research has made me more confident in tackling realistic challenges faced by the industry.

How does your work benefit the society? 

My work helps the tunnel designers and contractors to forecasts risks and identify the means and methods to mitigate them. More importantly, building tunnels and underground facilities help the community with improved public transportation facilities and quality of life. Lack of space is one of the significant challenges in urban development and tunnels offer a unique opportunity to integrate the critical facilities – transportation, water, and sewage conveyance, laying out utilities. One of my favorite examples is Delhi, where the construction of underground metro changed the face of transportation within the congested urban environment and improved the travel experience of the community.

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

I want to say that every single day I worked on Mumbai Metro Line 3 project is memorable work for me. To be able to work on such a complex engineering project, in a city that I have seen grow; will always remain special to me.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

  1. Follow your interest and instincts and be the best you can. If you are not interested in engineering or medical science or law – it is completely okay. Find what interests you and it can be as simple as a sport, a hobby, or even a pastime. Follow your interest and get options on your plate. Choose the options that are the best fit for you.
  2. Grades do not matter. I have observed that most of the students who pursue a graduate/post-graduate degree have remained within 10% – 20% (above and below) of the average grade in their class. A genuine interest in learning and not extraordinary grades have helped these students in pursuing higher degrees. Class toppers are not necessarily smart/intelligent/wise. It is the middle of the bell curve (the average students), that carry the most potential to make a strong contribution to their field. It is okay to be average. Remain average that is where the fun is.
  3. Develop an interest along with what you do. It can be mountain climbing, cooking, or even just sitting on the couch and binging on tv series. I have realized this additional dimension of life helps connect you better with the people around you and provides a sense of belonging to the community.

Future Plans?

I have no specific plans for the future. As you must have guessed by now, I work tirelessly to do my best, get the best options on my plate and I choose the option that fits best with my interest/goals. I strongly believe working tirelessly towards achieving the most immediate goal at hand is more important.