As our vehicular traffic grows to exponential proportions, exhaust emissions become a significant contributor to Aerosols in the atmosphere, posing a health and environmental hazard.

Dr Jai Prakash, our next pathbreaker, Visiting Scientist, Aerosol Air Quality Research Laboratory, Washington University, works on aerosol and air quality research, in addition to his engagement with Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) in solving real-time Air pollution challenges in Delhi.

Jai talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from  The Interview Portal about developing a portable dilution system (PDS) for aerosol and gaseous pollutant measurement from combustion sources, that is, emissions from vehicles, especially during on-road driving, which had never been assessed for the Indian subcontinent.

For students, a career in research starts with asking the right and relevant questions. If you get the questions right, then you know what you have to do to get the answers !

Jai, tell us about Your background?

I was born and grew up in Khurja (famous for ceramics and electric goods) city, UP, India. My father (Late Shukhdeo Prasad) graduated with B.Com. (Hons.) and my mother is a full-time house chief. I completed my schooling in my hometown. My primary school was Jatia Bal Vihar and secondary school was JAS Inter college Khurja where I completed 10th and 12th examinations with first division. After completing 10th, I opted biology in 11th due to family’s insistence, though I was interested in mathematics, and science (physics and chemistry). In the 12th exam, I performed well in physics, chemistry, and mathematics. After 12th I attempted IIT-JEE examination to get admission in IITs, but could not crack IIT-JEE. Then, I changed my mind and took admission in Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) from NREC degree college Khurja and completed my Masters of Science (M.Sc. in Physics) in 2005 from the same college . 

Interestingly, I had not decided about what I wanted to do in my future/career. But I feel that whatever I did eventually made my family proud. I would suggest that always pursue your interests and not follow others. Take decisions yourself, convince your parents and complete your dream.  

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I completed B.Sc. and M.Sc. (Physics) from NREC college Khurja. During M.Sc. I completed my project work at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). Thereafter, I qualified GATE examination and joined IIT (ISM), Dhanbad to study M.Tech in Environmental Engineering. After spending a year as a Project associate in IIT Kanpur, I joined PhD in Environmental Engineering at IIT Delhi and gained expertise in Aerosol emission characterization from combustion sources. 

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

My parents were my first influencers; they gave me 3 best Ps for inspiration in my life such as “Patience, “Passion”, and “Possible”. I am where I am today because I followed those three words. I was also influenced by my physics teacher (Manoj Teotia) during my post-graduation. He was young and a newly appointed physics teacher in our college. He encouraged and guided us on “how to crack GATE or NET”. That inspired me to clear GATE and secure a 94% GATE score. In 2007, I joined IIT (ISM) Dhanbad for M.Tech and managed to secure a seat in Environmental Science & Engineering. Interestingly, I was not happy because I was good at Physics.  But I joined because I was selected in IIT. 

Initially, I wanted to pursue a job after M.Tech.Unfortunately, I did not get any placement from IIT(ISM) because my academic background was in science and not engineering. Subsequently, I planned to do a PhD in IITs. I gave interviews in IIT Kanpur, Delhi and Bombay, but was not selected. I found my first mentor in Prof. Tarun Gupta (Professor, Civil Engineering, IIT Kanpur), who is a great inspiration to me. I joined a project under him. He encouraged and supported me in developing my research skills. I wrote a paper and attended two conferences along with him. 

My second mentor is my PhD supervisor, Dr. Gazala Habib (Associate Professor, Civil Engineering, IIT Delhi). I would like to thank Dr. Gazala Habib for her continuous support and encouragement. I got to develop many skills during my PhD and I was lucky to have been her first PhD student. She encouraged and motivated me in the ups and downs of my PhD and my life. During my PhD, I got married (2011) with my life partner and was blessed with a baby girl (Navya) in 2012. After six months, I lost my father due to prostate cancer. It was a big loss for me and my mind was not interested in PhD research work for 8 months or so. But Dr Gazala gave me a chance to recover from all these circumstances. Her unabated passion and enthusiasm inspired me to take up the challenge and also motivated me to focus on my research output and take my plans to the next level. Her confidence always encouraged me to pursue my research to the best of my abilities. During my PhD, she discussed her challenges and struggles because she was a newly appointed assistant professor and she also prepared me for the future challenges. I wrote 8 papers, mostly in reputed journals and a book chapter along with her. She was the person who taught me to write research manuscripts. 

I am also proud to mention my third mentor during my postdoctoral work, who is a world famous aerosol scientist, Prof. Pratim Biswas (Chairman, Department of Energy, Environmental, and Chemical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis). After PhD, I had applied for several post-doctoral positions abroad, but was not selected due to funding and other issues. Luckily, I interacted with Prof Biswas who was visiting the department of Civil Engineering IIT Delhi, India to interact with the aerosol group of Dr. Gazala Habib. It was a very small interaction and I requested him for a postdoctoral position by email. He hired me for an exciting project work with the Delhi Government, funded by Delhi Pollution Control Committee. He offered me to visit his lab (Aerosol and Air Quality Research) during the international aerosol conference (IAC-2018) at St Louis, USA. Till date, I am a visiting research scientist at Washington University in St. Louis. I have commenced 2 papers (+3 papers in the pipeline) for real time source apportionment study in Delhi city. 

I would like to also thank a few more people who have helped me in different phases of my life such as: 

  • Dr. D. C. Tayal (Former, HOD, Physics, NREC college Khurja)
  • Prof. A K Pal (Retd. Professor, ISM Dhanbad)
  • Dr. Ravi Kant Pathak (Associate Professor, University of Gothenburg, Sweden)
  • Dr. Ramesh Raliya (Research Scientist, Washington University in St. Louis, USA)

I participated in 15 international conferences, out of which 3 conferences were from the USA (2 Portland and 1 St. Louis). In these conferences, I Interacted with various researchers/ scientists / professors from different countries. Their research work, knowledge, and skills gave me better awareness about real-time research in aerosol science and technology. An interesting conference was in Portland, USA in 2013 where I was awarded best poster for my PhD research work.           

The major turning point was getting that scholarship through GATE during M.Tech at IIT (ISM) Dhanbad. This scholarship made me more responsible. After the first semester, I submitted the rest of semester fees using my GATE scholarship. I also made several friends from different states of India who came after completing B.Tech., So, I learned their lifestyle in studies, food, and sports, which helped me improve my knowledge about various cultures, languages, professional skills etc. 

Also, my next turning point was getting my first job as senior project associate at IIT Kanpur in 2009. Here I was getting a salary ~14000 Rs. /month and I was able to give a share of my salary to my parents. In IIT Kanpur, I took great interest in my research where we developed indigenous PM2.5 (Particulate Matter/Trace Elements) impactors and evaluated them with conventional PM2.5 sampler with chemical characterization of fine and ultrafine aerosols. Aerosols are minute particles suspended in the atmosphere.

I wrote my first paper with my professor which got published in a reputed journal. I was so excited because it was the first paper for my research career.      

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

I was not influenced by any key person/mentor except my parents. They encouraged me to take science in 10th and 12th so that I could give competitive examinations after graduation and become a government officer. But I felt I was not on the right track. During post-graduation, I realized the need to be serious about my future for two reasons: first, my father’s business was not doing that well and second, I was the elder son. So I had to take the responsibility. During M.Sc., I found a key influencer (Manoj Teotia) who encouraged me and my friends to write the GATE examination. I cracked the GATE examination and took admission in M.Tech. at ISM (IIT) Dhanbad. During M.Tech., I realized that I had the responsibility of shaping my career and my future goals, which led me to work as an aerosol scientist for my higher education. 

After MTech, I visited 3 IITs (Delhi, Bombay, and Kanpur) for an interview for a PhD admission. These interviews gave me more exposure and confidence to prepare for admission into a PhD program. I then completed a one year project on aerosols and their characterization at IIT Kanpur. This gave me more knowledge to work in aerosol and air quality research. I got selected for a PhD in Environmental Engineering at IIT Delhi. 

During my PhD, my supervisor gave me a very challenging research problem. As we all know, the variabilities in vehicle emissions are attributed to a wide range of factors including road conditions, user habits, on-road driving patterns and fuel types (and adulteration). Notably, emissions of aerosols and their precursors from vehicles, especially, during on-road operation have not been assessed for the Indian subcontinent. My PhD topic was “Emissions of Aerosol and Trace Gases from On-road Light Duty Vehicles”. I developed a portable dilution system (PDS) for aerosol and gaseous pollutant measurement from combustion sources. My PhD research on the development of mobile sampling systems is first of its kind in India. I evaluated the dilution system using a chassis dynamometer and also evaluated effects of residence time and dilution ratio in the gas to particle partitioning. For the first time in India, Aerosol Emissions Measurement System (AEMS) has been used for aerosol emissions from light duty vehicles and we have characterized their chemical, and optical properties during on-road operation in mixed traffic. This system is a very valuable technology for India as well as other developing countries. 

Using this approach, we saw that real-time vehicle emissions are quite different from the dynamometer studies, and understanding the differences can be beneficial for developing emission load and estimating impacts on climate and health. During this time, I extended my professional skills with several researchers, professors in my domain. 

In my PhD, I have authored 9 publications in international peer-reviewed journals, and have received best poster awards at multiple conferences. After submitting my PhD thesis, I worked as senior project scientist at IIT Delhi in an ongoing project titled “National Carbonaceous aerosol programme” (NCAP), headed by Dr. Gazala Habib. After I was awarded my PhD thesis, I joined as Resident Scientist at University of Gothenburg, Sweden formally appointed at IIT Delhi, with Dr. Ravi Kant Pathak (Associate Professor, University of Gothenburg, Sweden) and Dr. Gazala Habib. 

In 2019, I joined Washington University in St. Louis as a visiting research scientist. There, I was also engaged with the Delhi Pollution Control Committee for solving the Delhi Air Quality problem. We deployed 24 low-cost PM sensors over Delhi and connected with real-time Xact-625i ambient metals monitor, Black carbon monitor (Aethalometer), Total carbon analyser monitoring for trace metals, OC (Organic Carbon), and EC (Elemental Carbon) of PM2.5. We also developed an algorithm for real-time source apportionment of PM2.5 in Delhi, which will help track hourly real–time sources of pollution in Delhi and how to take immediate action to control them. 

I have received fellowships/awards/ and travel grants during different phases of my academic career such as:  

  • MHRD fellowship for M.Tech. 2007-2009.
  • MHRD Scholarship during PhD from 2010-2015
  • International Travel Grant for 32nd American Association of Aerosol Research (AAAR) in 2013.
  • Best Poster Award at 32nd Annual Conference on AAAR-2013.
  • Best Poster Award at Workshop on Assessing the Impact of Aerosols & changing Climate on Monsoon & Extreme Events held at Gurgaon, India in 2015.
  • International Travel Grant for IAC-2018 by DST, India in 2018.                                        
  • International Professional Travel Grant IAC-2018 (AAAR) in 2018.                                  

I was also one of the recipients of the SERB-National Postdoctoral Fellowship for 2017, but I did not join because I got another post-doc option abroad, which will give me more exposure internationally in the future.  

How did you get your first break? 

My first break was getting admission in M. Tech at ISM Dhanbad and PHD at IIT Delhi. These breaks helped me choose my future path and goals. I would like to say that mentors play a vital role in developing personal and professional skills. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: My First challenge was leaving my hometown when I got admission in M.Tech. I realized that there was a difference in curriculum between science and engineering, but it provided an opportunity to adapt to a new way of teaching, learning language skills, and adjusting to different student lifestyles in engineering education.    

Challenge 2: My second and biggest challenge was taking care of my family during PhD. Those days, I learnt how to separate professional life from personal life. This was really hard to manage sometimes. But everyday, the smiles of my angel motivated and reassured me to complete my PhD.

Challenge 3: My third challenge was keeping calm during PhD, which was tough due to some failures I encountered during research experiments. This affected my confidence. But I would like to thank my supervisor Dr. Gazala Habib for her constant support. 

Where do you work now? 

Currently, I am working as a Visiting Research Scientist at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL), USA. I apply my expertise as an aerosol and air quality researcher in the Aerosol Air Quality Research Laboratory (AAQRL, headed by Prof. Pratim Biswas) with training from WUSTL. I am also engaged with Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) in solving real time Air pollution in Delhi. My responsibilities as part of the project team is involvement in real–time monitoring, data analysis, source apportionment, algorithm development, interim reporting and final report writing and research journal paper writing for these projects.

What problems do you solve?

To combat the air quality in Delhi, adequate real-time PM (Particulate Matter) speciation and harmonized PM monitoring at multiple points are urgently needed. Therefore, DPCC of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (NCT-Delhi), are conducting “Real Time Source Apportionment Study of Delhi City” through AAQRL of the Washington University in St. Louis. We developed a cloud-based approach in the city of Delhi,where we have deployed a network of APT PM low cost sensors with cloud-based data analytics and demonstrated the power of such networks by analyzing spatio-temporal variations in the Delhi region. We also connected real-time chemical speciation of PM2.5 (trace elements, organic carbon, and black carbon) through a real-time dashboard. This dashboard is an urgent need to create a database of air quality in Delhi. We also developed “real-time source apportionment” in the same dashboard that will explain the real-time sources of PM2.5 in Delhi and help in instant decision making to control the sources. This tool will also increase the transparency and efficiency in policy making or health. 

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

In every project, solving real problems is very challenging. I learned and developed my skills at every stage of my research career. I was always eager to learn new skills from other areas, like statistics, programming such as VAB, Excel, Matlab, R-Studio etc. These tools have helped me a lot in my research career.

What is a typical day like?

I generally go to sleep for 6-7 hours, and normally get up around 8 AM, taking some light breakfast before I start my day. Before starting my working day, I write down my daily tasks, appointments in my diary. For me every day is a new day, and I take this very positively to come up with better performance. 

What is it you love about this job? 

During my research career, everyday was a new challenge and difficulties to solve. Furthermore, these days I am taking a lot of interest in machine learning and artificial intelligence, which can help in predicting air quality parameters which help in decision making/policy. 

How does your work benefit society? 

My PhD work is very timely and important for society given the detrimental impact of vehicular emissions on air quality. In 2015, Volkswagen’s scandal in North America and in Europe, and developments since, have shown that emission factors provided by car manufacturers correspond at best with optimized in-laboratory conditions and at worst, falsified computer-controlled conditions. Emission factors in real world conditions, i.e. on the road and under real driving conditions, may be different than emission factors “advertised” by car manufacturers. It is therefore of paramount importance that academic and research institutions provide government and regulatory authorities with the tools to perform actual measurements of emission factors. Developing effective air quality policies require detailed and accurate emission inventories of pollutants. 

Currently, I am working for Delhi air quality using APT PM (Particulate Matter) low-cost sensors, which is appropriate for high pollution conditions like in Delhi. These can provide beneficial information on trends of spatial-temporal PM mass and number concentrations. We also developed a network with cloud data storage and with chemical speciation data to do real-time source apportionment, which will help in robust policy making for improving the local air quality and health.

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

During my PhD work at IIT Delhi, I developed a portable dilution system. This system was mounted in a trolley for on-road aerosol emission measurement, which was attached to the vehicle through the towing and vehicle tailpipe. Initially, the trolley had only three wheels like a tractor, which made it very uncomfortable turning the vehicle. Sometimes the duct would drop off from the vehicle tailpipe. It was a major challenge to perform experiments in the vehicle. Then, I modified the trolley with four wheels, so that the front wheels were free and flexible to turn.I also modified the duct to make it flexible so that my trolley was easy to turn along with the vehicle. Thus, I was able to experiment for on-road operation and collect the aerosol mass. This was very memorable work for me and also, sitting in the trolley during on-road was a very memorable experience.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I am not able to give any advice because every person has their own goal or aim. I have only a few tips which can help students if 

  • Take decisions on your own
  • Be learner and listener at each stage
  • Be Passionate 
  • Be Patient 
  • Everything is possible

Future Plans?

My future plan is to join academia or research. I wish to work on good projects and contribute to society. I also wish to continue to work on development of smart cities using low cost sensors and any startup for improving the air quality in the urban cities of India.