Research is all about asking the right questions, and the right questions should steer us towards pragmatic solutions that our world needs to ensure a better future for us as a society.

Divya Rajasekaran, our next pathbreaker, Research Scholar at IIT Roorkee, works on developing a new methodology for bulk recycling of all kinds of plastic waste together into a single raw material with modifiable behaviors and properties, so that dumped plastic bunches can be recycled together even without material segregation, hence reducing plastic accumulation.

Divya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about the challenge and satisfaction of working on a very relevant research problem to address the massive plastic waste polluting our environment.

For students, research is not only about high-end or cutting edge work. It is also about thinking of innovative and practical solutions to existing problems around us !

Divya, tell us about your background?

I am Divya Rajasekaran, Ph.D. scholar from IIT Roorkee, India. I am working on the recycling of polymer waste for a sustainable future. As everyone knows, plastic pollution is exceeding at an alarming rate. As a researcher with plastics as my primary skill, I opted to work on the most promising work area, a solution to plastic pollution. Plastic pollution left uncared can cause lots and lots of deaths every day. As a researcher and as a human, I wanted to create a better future and that motivated me to work on plastic recycling. 

I was born in Chennai, Tamilnadu, and later relocated to various cities in and around Tamilnadu. My childhood’s critical phase happened in Madurai, where I did my secondary, higher secondary education and bachelor’s. Like every normal kid, I had fantasies and dreams, like becoming a playback singer (with zero interest in academics) until I finished school. The best part is, I never attended any classes for it (funny though). I belong to a middle-class family with extraordinary parents; life was never easy. However, my parents made sure I got an excellent education in one of Madurai’s top schools. 

What did you do for graduation/postgraduation?

When it came to academics, I was never a straight-A student in any subject until my higher secondary. I scored below average in my higher secondary exams and opted for B.Tech Polymer Technology from Kamaraj College of Engineering and Technology, Virudhunagar. Though I took the course without much interest and knowledge of where it would lead me, I should thank Mr. Gandhi, HOD of my department for his influence. He was my inspiration, someone who speaks and teaches you in a way that one could never get over with the subject. I started to love my course and started working towards my master’s and joined the College of Engineering, Guindy, commonly referred to as Anna University Chennai by many, for my Master’s in Polymer Science and Engineering. Through hard work and patience, I graduated from there and joined IIT Roorkee for my polymer processing doctoral program.

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

Initially, I joined engineering to fulfill the dreams of my parents. I was never so concerned about what is happening around me academically. However, my parents’ love and trust kept me going even when I was an average/below average scorer in school. A thank you is never enough for the support they gave me. My first step towards success was the teaching methodology of my HOD in my first year of engineering. It made me realize the love and interest I had towards the subject. Once I understood the passion, love, and thirst for knowledge I had deep in me, I became more focused on my career, thanks to my first academic influencer, Mr Gandhi, and later on, a few more faculty who played a significant role in shaping me. One such person is my master’s supervisor Mrs. Saroja Devi. She is a renowned professor of polymer chemistry. Although she is the head of a department with an excellent research network, the simplicity, the equal treatment she showed to every student in helping with scholarly research activities, and the humanity I saw in her helped me shape my personal and professional life. After my doctoral degree, whenever I get into academics, I always wanted to follow her approach and treat the students just right. 

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 Ph.D. was never a plan until my M.Tech. I wanted to work in the industry after B.Tech, but at the same time, I appeared for M.Tech entrance examinations. As I already said, I come from a very average background, so I always had a push to do something to raise my family standard and make my family proud. Once I entered Anna University, I was delighted and felt it was the time to stop as my parents were already proud (haha). That’s when I got an inner urge to be different from others . It motivated me, pushed me to work hard for 2 years, read more technical books, and crack the national level entrance examination for a Doctoral program in Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee. If you ask me whether I am satisfied now, I would say a “yes” on a few days and a massive “no” for the rest of the days. 

As I had a rare degree and was interested in entering the industry during graduation and postgraduation, I contacted a few industries through phone and emailed many for internship/project opportunities. In general, polymer industries are enclosed in manufacturing units, including plastic, rubber, and fibres. The toothbrush in your home till the last switch you touch before sleep, everything is a polymer. So polymer industries are everywhere, from small scale to large scale. Getting an internship was hard because small scale industries don’t understand what an internship is and large scale industries don’t have time for students.

I mailed 100 firms over a day and made several phone calls. After several rejections, I got a project position in Tamilnadu’s reputed rubber firm for a year. Higher education is always a dream for many motivated school kids. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford it. The most exciting part is that there are several scholarship programs available and once you clear “The Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering” (GATE) after your bachelors, you get to study masters with a scholarship which is enough to cover the expenses and the same entrance examination provides a scholarship for a Ph.D. program which is 35000 Rs. (without taxes). The money is enough to cover your expenses, tuition fee, and also send a few bucks to your family. So guess what, higher education is affordable than you think. The only thing that matters is hard work and brushing up your courses now and then.

How did you get your first break?

Science is tempting and all the fascinating technologies around us make it difficult to choose one particular area of research. People around me were working on various scientific breakthroughs. I started scaling up my research ideas with eagerness, just like every new student who joins PhD. 6 months passed by, but nothing happened. Another 6 months moved on very fast. Things were not falling in place, as I had expected. Every move I made to optimize my work failed. I started running processing machines every day with new recycling compositions. 1 year passed, things were the same. I was confused about what’s happening. I worked harder, more rigid, with more focus every time. If one method failed, before jumping into the other, I focused more on the failure, observing how it failed and why? I understood the science behind it and modified my recycling and after 2 years of hard work and focus, I made the first plastic pollutant blend with primary plastic waste materials. The product came out with 500% property improvement and it got published in a very reputed journal.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: 

When the entire world was focused on high-end research, I was the only one to work on recycling plastic waste in my laboratory. It was challenging to organize the research materials and start the work from scrap independently. I approached more than 100 plastic scrap manufacturers for supplying materials. As it was for research purposes, the quantity and quality needed limited my options. Eventually, I started collecting plastic wastes from in and around my institute as I couldn’t find a good source for material transport and delivery.

Challenge 2: 

When you decide to make recycling innovative, in order to control the existing pollution, mixing every kind of plastic was the only solution that hit my mind. Plastics come in various types and are chemically different. The compositions, processing temperature, behaviour, resistivity to external factors differ for every material. Mixing them was the most formidable challenge I ever had during my research. 

Challenge 3:

Once the idea is executed into a product, justifying the science behind the innovation in a convincing way for the experts was the next biggest challenge. I worked on improvising the work by changing my recycling methodology while the world is preaching you to ban plastics. It sounded weird and the idea was denied initially. However, after I executed it with perfection and explained the science and technology behind the innovation, I was able to get my work published. In-depth knowledge and understanding of what I was working on helped me in handling the experts in my field. So one should always be aware of what he/she is doing scientifically. Compiling the things in a more understandable format and speaking with perfection and better theoretical understanding will always help anyone succeed.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I work as a research scholar at IIT Roorkee. Since it’s a residential campus, I stay close to my working lab. My typical day is waking up, wearing something work appropriate and leaving for the lab. Every day is a new beginning with new challenges ahead. Ph.D. is all about how well you find what is wrong and how you address them. Since I work with plastic recycling, which is growing dramatically, I need to update myself with the latest techniques developed and followed worldwide. My educational background is in the same field as my bachelor’s. So, I have used the equipment and materials that I am working on now, and I groom myself by reading recently published research papers on my work topic. Understanding the different recycling methods available and figuring out why it did not work as efficiently as possible, and how else you can improve it, is my daily thought process. The research I am working on keeps me motivated as I work close to real-world problems and the 

How does your work benefit the society? 

Plastic pollution in the environment adversely affects wildlife and humans at an alarming rate. Due to the high demand and consumption, the rate of plastic production is increasing day to day. The commercial plastics we encounter every day are disposed off on streets, lakes and oceans in an unethical way, harming everyone. Although recycling methods are developed, the awareness about it is deficient, and less than 30% of plastic waste is recycled.  It is widely studied and reported that if plastics disposal is not controlled, in 50 years, oceans will have more plastics than fish. As a polymer researcher, my work on recycling not only makes it efficient, I am working on developing a new methodology for recycling all kinds of plastic wastes together into a single raw material with modifiable behavior and properties. In this way, once recycling of mixed waste is practically adopted, the accumulated or dumped plastic bunches can be recycled together even without material segregation. Bulk recycling of waste will not only reduce the existing plastic accumulation; it will avoid the need for disposing of plastics in an unethical way. Once the research technique I am working on is commercialized, in a few years, the world with more recycled plastics and without plastic pollution is possible.

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

The most memorable work I did was in the industry as an M.Tech student. I was one of the very few girls in the industry to handle production instruments. The satisfaction of working in manufacturing is when you see the final product in hand. The first time I processed a material into an end product gave me the pride and satisfaction of finally

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Advice is one thing that comes free. Anybody can advise you, but what matters is, what you make out of it. I am still learning in my life and mistakes are very common no matter how old you get. So all that I would like to share is, don’t be scared of taking a step ahead. Mistakes happen, you will feel miserable, everything will fall out of your hands, you will feel lonely and depressed, just remember to keep moving. Always move forward; don’t be scared of losing a battle. Failure teaches you more than success. So if you fail, don’t compare yourself with the one who wins; instead, focus on how you lost. All you need to know in this life is who you are and what you want, so analyze yourself. Everyone is unique, sharpen your gifts, analyze what made you lose, learn more about what you don’t know and don’t want to know. Success is never far; it is always a step ahead, so keep moving. 

Future Plans?

I am right now on the verge of my Ph.D. completion, but still have few projects to work on. I am actively looking for a research position on polymer processing to mold myself for the better.  As I am working on sustainability, controlling plastic pollution is my ultimate goal. Once everything falls in place, I am looking forward to starting my research unit on polymer recycling to make clean plastic and a pollution-free world soon.