The micro-particles that remain suspended in our atmosphere could provide the answers to several intriguing questions related to global warming, climate change and even the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Lucy Nandy, our next pathbreaker, Postdoctoral researcher at The Pennsylvania State University studies chemical thermodynamics of aqueous atmospheric aerosols to assess climate change and indoor aerosol transmission mechanics of respiratory infectious diseases like the Corona Virus to understand threat to human health.

Lucy talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being drawn to the field of Fluid Mechanics for its myriad applications and by how fluids behave under varied conditions to make life possible on this planet.

For students, Fluid Mechanics is a fascinating field of research that holds the key to vital aspects of our daily life, e.g. water flowing through tap, blood flowing within body, hydraulic bridge systems, pipelines and transport systems. Read on to know more …

Lucy, tell us about Your background?

I was born to very supportive parents who encouraged me to shape my career as I wanted. I grew up in Bhubaneswar, Odisha with two siblings who also have science and engineering backgrounds; I believe it is the influence of our parents who had post graduation in engineering and biology, separately. As a kid I always had the curiosity of knowing how things were built and how they functioned. That led me to be a lover of mathematics and science, because they had most of the answers. Although I didn’t fare very well in other subjects in high school, I started performing great once I got into science and engineering. I was a little bit keen on sports, so I took up lawn tennis in college. And over the years, I have taken up yoga, table tennis, badminton, trekking, etc. I believe my parents have taught me the value of hard work, as well as inspired me to have a work-life balance. Health always came first.

 What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I went to NIT Rourkela to pursue Chemical Engineering, where I was introduced to Fluid Mechanics, Thermodynamics and Transport Phenomena. I was intrigued by how fluids behave under varied conditions to make life possible on this planet. The physics of fluid mechanics in particular is a vital part of daily life, e.g. water flowing through tap, blood flowing within body, hydraulic bridge systems, pipelines and transport systems. To pursue a masters in similar stream, I joined IIT Kharagpur. There I was introduced to the same topics at a microscopic level, and I started to understand the scientific applications on a nano/microscale, i.e. the physics of microfluidics and microscale transport processes at interfaces. This has applications in microchip cooling systems, drug discovery, aerosol science and much more. After that I knew I had to dig more into studying nano-droplets/particles, which motivated me to join a PhD program at the University of Minnesota, USA. I studied nanodroplets that had applications in atmospheric aerosols. I was more curious to get trained on microfluidics and chemical thermodynamics than on a particular application. But the specific application on aerosol particles in the atmosphere for my thesis guided me to understand the importance of my research. I wanted to continue as it broadened my research to the defining issue of our time, i.e. Climate Change.

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

I had not always planned to be a scientist, but my curiosity drove me to become one. I definitely went with the flow. But I would not deny the fact that there have been a lot of people who inspired me to get into this field. In addition to the direct influence of my parents, the great inspiration was from Albert Einstein. I learned that education is not just getting informed, it trains our mind to think, to question, to understand. Apart from them, my teachers in school, professors in undergraduation, postgraduation and postdoctoral institutions have always supported me during my thinking process. I have personally enjoyed my higher studies than just doing my duty of pursuing the degrees, and now I enjoy even more by serving the community through science.

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

Before I started engineering, I was in love with Physics and Mathematics. More than getting a degree in software engineering, I wanted to become a conventional engineer. But then through campus placements I got a job in a software company. It took me about half a year to realize that I wanted to pursue Chemical/Mechanical engineering for a masters degree. During my MTech program at IIT Kharagpur, I got the DAAD fellowship to visit Germany as an exchange student for my thesis, where I was intrigued by the research infrastructure, work-life balance and a different perspective overall. DAAD was always there to support my stay in Germany, making my first foreign country visit extremely comfortable. I was introduced to microfluidics in the IIT which was a brand-new course at the time. I did experimental microfluidic research for my thesis that I continued in TU Darmstadt (Germany) with a new set-up. I also learned an engineering simulation technique, ANSYS, to complement and validate my experimental studies. The networking at the foreign institute helped me gain insight into different kinds of research that people were doing, and how that passion in research can shape one’s career. After defending my masters thesis at both institutes, I knew I wanted to learn more about micro/nanoscale physics and chemistry, and pursue the same for applications in the society in future. Meanwhile, I got a job at Tata Steel where I was able to apply my engineering skills to solve industrial problems. That again was a whole new perspective where I felt content to see how conventional engineering could be used in the real world for the betterment of the society. That is how engineers contribute. For example, they design machines, equipment, systems and processes starting from refining raw materials to make valuable products in the modern life that we have today. Not only that, software and IT engineers have gone out of their way to make these large-scale processes automatic with minimal manual intervention. After discovering and absorbing all of this for 5 years, I decided to follow the microscale studies which still required a lot of research to make its way to the large-scale industries. I had few mentors from previous institutes who I had always been in touch with. They along with my family encouraged me to chase my dreams. So I went ahead and left my job at Tata Steel to get a PhD. A good thing about my doctoral research at University of Minnesota is that instead of working directly on an application, I worked on developing fundamental theory on complex fluids and nanodroplets, the applications of which are plenty. For example, studying the aerosol particles that we breathe in along with air, complex phenomena at solid-liquid-gas interfaces, nano-printing, spray coating of photoresist, microreactors, food emulsions, drug delivery and many more. Over the years, I developed an interest in applying my fundamental research in aerosol science, i.e. particles that remain suspended in air. These particles along with having an adverse impact on human health (because we breathe these in), also pose a threat to Earth’s climate. Now that we are facing the COVID-19 challenge, research tells us that the virus can also transmit through aerosols. Therefore, my current essential research has been studying the engineering dynamics of such aerosol particles that contain pathogens in indoor environments.

How did you get your first break? 

I worked in Tata Steel after completing MTech. The job ad was through IIT to which I applied and was selected for an interview. I was posted in Jamshedpur in the Automation Division, a service department to the plant operation and maintenance. The department hires engineers from various streams, e.g. metallurgy, electrical, computer, chemical, mechanical engineering, as it requires multidisciplinary expertise as a team to optimize plant processes by research, development and implementation. I worked in the steelmaking and slab casting group, where I worked on two major models. One was a heat transfer model for uniform cooling of slab casts (to minimize defects on steel slab surfaces by providing accurate water flow rates to the casting process so that slab surface defects are minimized), and another was a mixing model for optimized mixing time of alloys and liquid steel to get the desired composition of steel (for complete homogenization of liquid steel and provide mixing time to the process operator to achieve target chemistry of the steel grade). Both the models required knowledge from my chemical engineering background (heat transfer, fluid mechanics, mass transfer). Apart from R&D, I, with my team, was also involved in implementation of the models in the plant unit and interacting with plant operation employees. 

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

Thriving on challenges has been the biggest challenge for me. 

Challenge 1: Self-doubt

I have been fortunate enough to have been educated and worked in competitive and challenging learning environments where I have met brilliant minds in various fields. Along with feeling inspired, sometimes I grapple with self-doubt. But as we all know, failure is only a stepping-stone to success. Self-doubt has never impeded me from what I have set out to accomplish. To prevent self-doubt interrupt me, I have learned never to make excuses. For example, sometimes we may be afraid to fail or look bad; the inner voice then starts making excuses to back-off. The way I overcome self-doubt is control this mental barrier by being kind to myself. Practicing self-compassion has helped me remind myself that imperfection is a part of our experiences. I have learned to trust my values, and this has never stopped me to keep trying.

Challenge 2: Commitment to recharge

The competitive environment usually makes us feel that we must try faster and harder each time to get going. This has sometimes led me to work without breaks. Sometimes we feel we are doing fine by sleeping less or by not committing a few hours for personal life. But science tells us that this is not true even though it may look like that when we are young. I have learned over the years that there is no trade-off between work-life balance and working hard. While we commit to work, it is also important to commit to unplug and recharge ourselves every single day so that we are not exhausted. This will actually help us to be more efficient in what we do. Taking care of physical and mental health is equally important. 

Challenge 3: Toxic people

Like I said, I have been fortunate to have met great minds who have inspired me indirectly or directly by helping me reach my full potential. Unfortunately, there are also toxic people who create negativity, stress, and try to drag you right down with them. Here I have learned that avoiding such people and surrounding yourself with the right kind of people will help you reach your peak. I always try to distance myself from negativity and set limits. 

Tell us about your current role? 

Currently, I am a Postdoctoral researcher at The Pennsylvania State University. I have been studying chemical thermodynamics of aqueous atmospheric aerosols. I have done most of the numerical development part of my work in the University of Minnesota during my PhD, and then as a visiting postdoctoral researcher in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I advanced my fundamental research on aerosol droplets to apply it in predicting droplet growth and optical properties that affect climate change, and now, at Penn State, I study ice nucleation in the aerosol particles because the number of aerosol particles that ultimately form cloud droplets and ice particles affects cloud optical properties. The reason I like this work is because it helps us advance the understanding of how complex aerosols and clouds affect climate change through solar radiation scattering.

Recently, we have been locked down at homes. So currently, for an essential project, I am studying indoor aerosol transmission, specifically to study virus transmission like the coronavirus. This is important because airborne transmission of respiratory infectious diseases (via bio-aerosols) in indoor environments are major public health concerns as we spend most of our time at homes, offices, classrooms. The goal of my project is to quantify the transmission risk. For this, I am working to understand the properties of a sticky viral system by tracking particle bounce and wall deposition in a test chamber.

I love my work because it not only meets my passion for research in science and engineering, but also addresses urgent challenges that we as people face on this planet.

What is a typical day like?

A typical day for me looks like practicing gratitude and self-compassion first thing with my early morning tea, speed walking and meditating. I then immediately start working on my research as I am most productive in the mornings. Then throughout the day, I take little breaks (5-10 mins) during work to chat with colleagues/friends, or call a family member, or get a healthy snack/drink, or simply relax to collect my thoughts. We would think that this may slow us down, but it actually picks us up to be more efficient. Regular healthy eating habit is of utmost importance, and I never compromise with that. Neither do I compromise with something I like to do that is not “work”. After work and family time, I try to devote an hour or two every alternate day to take that up. For me, it is usually a sport like tennis or badminton or table tennis or hiking. If I have to be at home, then I like to bake or do yoga or just watch a movie. This keeps my physical and mental health in check.

How does your work benefit society? 

The work of a scientist generates knowledge and understanding. My research improves understanding of how aerosol (nano) particles behave in the outdoor and indoor environments, how they affect human health, and how they affect air quality and climate. This in turn can help inform and improve policy and regulations in our society. I as a scientist can explain the current situation of a problem to decision makers through experiments, theoretical analyses, numerical models and data. In addition to disseminating my knowledge within the scientific community, I also participate in outreach programs to support and inform the non-technical community on critical societal issues related to engineering, science and technology by showcasing live experiments and informative posters depicting some of the research activities.

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

I always admire my contribution to regional/global climate models. They come in different forms – from those that cover one particular region of the world, to those that simulate the whole planet. The models simulate the life cycle of atmospheric aerosols, and the output from these models drives forward climate science. For my postdoctoral research at University of Illinois, I studied how a nanoparticle in the atmosphere takes up water and grows with increasing relative humidity in the atmosphere. And then my goal was to calculate how much light an aerosol population scatters and absorbs, in order to estimate the planet’s energy balance using a climate model. This study was important because aerosol size distribution directly affects air visibility, climate and human health. I compared my model with the current existing aerosol modules in climate models and found significant errors in predicting warming /cooling effects on the Earth. This was a step forward for more accurate estimations.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

From the many things I have learned so far, I want to offer few suggestions. Try to engage in what you love, and opportunities will follow you to make you feel successful. Be inclusive of the variety of fields; no subject area is superior or inferior. Build up a good network and maintain that (don’t lose contact, be it professional or personal). Be a good mentee and learn to be a better mentor to your juniors. And never ever forget to take care of your physical and mental health (find ways to nurture both). Everybody has the same 24 hours in a day; don’t complain about how things could have been or should have been, instead be grateful for everything you have. Always focus on your effort to make things happen to improve your life and everybody else’s.

Future Plans?

My plan is to keep working on my scientific research addressing existing problems in our society. Currently, I am looking for faculty positions in engineering institutes in India. As a long-term goal, I plan to get involved in a position in Public Policy to work on policy solutions that address climate and environmental problems using my research perspectives. I will work with policymakers to improve both outdoor and indoor air quality regulations.