Choice of an Engineering Stream should not be driven by rank but by the desire to solve problems that you witnessed as a student and your vigor to find solutions .

Poonam Rani, our next pathbreaker, PhD Researcher at IIT Kharagpur, focuses on analyzing the shortcomings of conventional solar dryers and accordingly modifying them to improve their effectiveness in processing of agricultural produce.

Poonam talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking up Agricultural Engineering spurred by post-harvest losses faced by her family due to lack of proper storage facilities, resulting in rapid spoilage of agricultural produce.

For students, think about challenges that drive you and pursue a stream that can address those problems. Selecting a stream doesn’t get easier than that !

Poonam, tell us about your background?

First of all, I would like to acknowledge the support and guidance of my parents and family which made me pursue my studies and career. I was born in a small village of Uttarakhand and brought up in a joint family with grandparents and uncles. As farming was the main occupation of my grandfather and most of the families of our village, I grew up witnessing a healthy social life, good relationship ethics, agricultural activities, farms, and crops. My father is a well-educated person and works for the government at LIC. He always inspired me to study and set a milestone for other students in my locality. I started my education from a government primary school, and later shifted to private schooling. I was a studious, silent, and sincere student, and hence, always secured 1st position till 8th class. After matriculation, I had to bear the load of English medium as I was shifted to an English medium school, where most of the students were from urban areas and were really fluent in English. The sudden change from Hindi to English medium was little difficult for me to handle, however, with the help of teachers and my father (my tutor at home), I could secure 3rd position in the 9th class. I managed to obtain more than 85% marks in my 10th and 12th CBSE board examinations, without any extra tuitions. This was the time where I developed the habit of self-study.  

During my school days, I participated in many mathematics and science Olympiads, inter-school quizzes and also won prizes. Winning was not the motto, but I loved to participate and my family encouraged me for this. Our school also organized many personality development and career counselling programs, through which I came to know about competitive examinations like CAT, GATE, UPSC etc. at an early stage. Further, I had keen interest in arts and crafts, and dancing. 

I always had my sole focus on academics and neglected extracurricular activities and participation in debates, sports which would have developed my confidence and leadership qualities during school days. 

I must say that because of my supportive parents, I got the privilege of getting a good school education by excellent teachers, and I always remained connected with our roots i.e., culture, family, village, and agriculture. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

During my school days, I dreamt of joining IIT. However, I could not crack IIT-JEE. I had a good rank in AIEEE and I had many options to choose the college and branch. I enrolled in B. Tech (Agricultural Engineering) in GBPUAT Pantnagar, Uttarakhand after appearing in the AIEEE examination. I completed a one-month training course on Tractor and farm machinery at CFMTTI, Budni, Madhya Pradesh which enriched my practical knowledge. Aiming to do post graduation, I started preparing for GATE during my graduation. I qualified GATE 2015 and joined Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, for M. Tech in Food Process Engineering. It was a “dream come true” moment for me and my family and this became possible only because of encouragement from my parents, guidance of teachers, and seniors, along with my hard work. In my masters, I acquired deep knowledge of food process engineering through course work and learned experimental analysis, writing research articles and developed research abilities during my project work. Afterward, I appeared for university entrance examination and joined PhD in the same institution. 

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

I must say that my father always has been the most influential person in my life. I was brought up in a farming family witnessing the problems faced by small and marginal farmers. I always had a soft corner for agriculture and this was one of the reasons I chose Agricultural engineering as my career option. I still remember one incident, during the surplus production of potatoes. My grandfather faced high post-harvest losses because of lack of proper storage facilities, resulting in rapid spoilage which led him to throw the potatoes. Hence, after completion graduation, I selected food process engineering as my specialization in M. Tech. Strong interest in science and exploring new things made me choose research and PhD as my career path. I consider my M. Tech as the turning point of my career, as this was the platform, where I built self-confidence, analyzed my potential in addition to realizing my passion for research. I would like to mention that my teachers, professors and seniors always provided me with the guidance, motivation, knowledge that always assisted me in getting better exposure, taking decisions and preparing for entrance examinations. I consider myself fortunate to get good education, encouragement and guidance, which is still not accessible to other girls of my village. This thought always inspires me to deliver my best and move ahead in my career. 

Tell us about your career path

I was always inclined to go for higher studies. During my graduation, I started preparing for the GATE exam and got admission into the IIT Kharagpur for post graduation with MHRD scholarship. I developed a passion for research during my M. Tech project. I learned doing quality analysis of food materials, developing new food products with extrusion technique, characterization of food products, utilization of food byproducts for value added products, and process optimization. Besides this, the lab gave me a great platform for handling different lab equipment, learning new software for experiment design and analysis of results. I was given an opportunity to present my research work in an international conference at Greece, Athens which was funded by the institute. I always try to attend conferences focusing on my field to present my research work and get exposure to the research work of different researchers from the country and around the world. This facilitates me to grow my network, widen my knowledge and enhance my overall personality. I have managed to publish three research papers from my master’s research work in one year. 

When I joined PhD, with an MHRD scholarship, I was assigned to a professor, whose main research focus was on solar power utilization in the field of food processing. This research field was very different from my M. Tech project, hence, I had to start the work from scratch. Drying of food materials is known to consume the highest energy among all the processing operations. Thermal dryers consume substantial electricity and fuel, making the drying process highly cost intensive. Therefore, exploitation of solar energy for drying of food materials for their preservation is growing as an attractive trend. However, solar dryers suffer from some disadvantages which limit their use. So, my research work is aimed at modifying conventional dryers in order to overcome some of the drawbacks so that these can be used widely for processing of agricultural crops. I have managed to publish four research papers from my PhD work and also presented some results in different national and international conferences. I have been awarded with the “Certificate of Outstanding Contribution in Reviewing” by Elsevier in recognition of reviews made to different journals such as LWT-Food Science and technology and Trends in Food Science and technology.

I have also qualified for the ICAR NET in Agricultural Process Engineering. I consider utilization of time for enhancing skills along with continuous hard work and discipline as the key factors for achieving my goals. Apart from the research work, I always keep updating myself by learning simulation and statistical software, doing courses organized by GIAN and NPTEL. 

How did you get your first break?

I consider my M. Tech research project as my first break towards my research line. My supervisor and lab mates helped me in gaining practical knowledge, handling lab equipment, developing research abilities, team spirit, and leadership qualities. Whatever I learned during my one year of master’s research work, acted as a strong foundation for my PhD. 

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

There were many struggles, but they all taught big lessons and made me stronger. 

  • Challenge 1: Changing my school and joining an English medium school in my 9th class appeared to be a big challenge for me at that time. But with my hard work, determination, and support of my family, I managed to secure 3rd rank in class and soon, I became a favorite student of many teachers.
  • Challenge 2: Minimal participation in extracurricular activities during school and graduation created a fear of public speaking. Hence, I was not comfortable while presenting seminars. But encouragement of my best friend Amit Kumar and senior Dr. Soumya Ranjan Purohit along with continuous practice and rehearsals enabled me to overcome my fear. The monthly progress seminars organized by project supervisor Dr. P S Rao proved to be highly useful in building confidence in me. But I admit that, I learnt it very late. 
  • Challenge 3: Transition to a new supervisor and to a new research field on joining PhD also emerged as a hurdle for me. Modeling and simulation of food processes and solar thermal energy systems was new to me. However, I took it as the opportunity to master new subjects, and update my skills by learning simulation software and studying solar energy thermal systems. Now, the results of computational simulation give me the satisfaction that experimental analysis cannot. I have published many papers on these topics (from my PhD research), but this would not have been possible without the support of my supervisor Dr. P. P. Tripathy.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

Presently, I am pursuing my PhD at IIT Kharagpur in the field of food process engineering under the guidance of an associate professor. 

My research work focuses on analyzing the shortcomings of conventional solar collectors and accordingly modifying them to improve their effectiveness in processing of agricultural commodities. I am also working on a design of an improved version of a solar collector which is a crucial component of solar thermal systems such as solar dryers, solar water heating, solar refrigeration, solar cold storages, etc. for preserving food products. Using computational modeling and simulation, different configurations of solar collectors, dryers were tested and optimized. I find my work to be very interesting and enjoyable. The most efficient design was chosen for fabrication after in-depth analysis of fluid temperature-velocity, water removal from food samples, energy and exergy performance. The research has been conducted to cut down the dependency of the industries and farmers on non-renewable sources of energy. 

During the research work, I have to face many hindrances related to experiment failure, unexpected experimental and model results, incorrect values or results, unavailability of resources, etc. But solving these problems by studying, getting help from lab mates, seniors, supervisor, and exploring new software help me update my knowledge and acquire new skills. Along with it, writing research articles, attending conferences, enrolling for courses are the things that I enjoy doing. I love to utilize computational software to simulate real and complex processes. I truly enjoy this exciting journey of discovering new things.  

In addition to academic work, I find some time from my daily schedule for exercise to remain fit and work more efficiently. Moreover, I spend some quality time with my close friends.

How does your work benefit society? 

As an agricultural engineer and food processing researcher, I am committed to working for the betterment of Indian farmers. My M. Tech research work was on process development of healthy and convenient, expanded and flaked multigrain ready to eat products using extrusion technology. Processing of food materials and value additions can help in improving the income of farmers along with reducing the post-harvest losses. My PhD work is related to improvement of existing conventional solar dryers. Utilization of redesigned solar dryers will facilitate faster drying of food materials along with preserving the quality of food products. Small farmers and entrepreneurs can set up these improved solar dryers for preserving fruits and vegetables, drying of spices, developing value added products like chips, soup mix, raisins, powders etc. and reap good benefits. Further, efficient flat plate solar collectors developed through my research work can be employed for heating of water and different fluids, utilized in different operations in food industries. The research work will contribute towards penetration of solar power into agricultural applications in rural areas and minimize dependency on exhaustible fossil fuels. 

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

After countless hours of experimentation, many failures and challenges during my research study, successful end results and findings are something which have given me immense pleasure. One such memorable work is the design of a solar collector satisfying my objectives, in conjunction with providing augmented efficiency. 

Further, joining IIT Kharagpur, getting an opportunity to present my research work in an international conference in Greece with financial assistantship and acceptance of my first publication are the moments/instances, which are very close to my heart. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Based on my experience, I would like to provide following suggestions to the students 

  • Always embrace your failures and learn from them. Failure helps in making us stronger, more capable and confident. 
  • Your comfort zone limits your growth. Step out of it to accept new challenges and opportunities and become the best version of yourself. 
  • Always self-evaluate yourself to know your strengths and weaknesses. If you develop any kind of fear that could hinder your success, push yourself to conquer it. Don’t hesitate to ask help from your seniors and teachers.  

Future Plans?

After completion of my PhD, I wish to work as an Agriculture/Food Research Scientist, and utilize my expertise for upliftment of farmers. Further, I look forward to participating in activities promoting an educational environment in rural areas, and facilitating girl students in higher studies.