The importance of Oils and Oleochemicals in our daily life is evident when we look at their widespread applications, in cooking to create edible products, to the automobiles/machines also using oil/oil products for functioning.

Shaziya Chowdhary, our next pathbreaker, is a chemical engineer with specialization in Oils, Oleochemicals and Surfactants technology, related to the process optimization, synthesis and various other processing conditions of oil related products, saving energy and ensuring a green process.

Shaziya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about facing tough circumstances, but working towards a goal of ensuring better public health via personal care and home care, right from basic raw material synthesis to formulated end products.

For students, even during the most difficult situations, make the best out of what you have. Because there is always a surprise waiting for you round the corner !

Shaziya, tell us about your background?

I’m a very fortunate individual, born and brought up in Mumbai-India and still enjoying a very favorable life.

My mom and dad both are educated and they were, as you say, “The Smart One’s” of their time. My mom completed her schooling till metrics while managing all her home responsibilities, being the eldest child in the family. She wanted to pursue higher education but her father was never in favour of the same. My dad too was in a turmoil as to whether to give up his career for his responsibilities, but graduated with first class and took up his father’s business. This shows the spark in them, to study and accomplish something worthy!

I was a super-active and playful kid since childhood, always doing things which were trouble for my mom. I was inclined towards anything involving creativity, building things, outdoor sports and so on. I was the type who always pondered upon ‘what could be’. In my school days I wanted to be the top ranker always. I also made sure that I didn’t miss an opportunity to at least participate in events because I believe ‘even the slightest knowledge and a silliest idea could bring a positive change to anything and everything’, which resulted in me becoming an achiever. My experiences taught me to become a bit of a good public speaker! And no matter what, I always managed to maintain my academics.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

Hard work! Tons and tons of hard work!

I basically do not come from a family which had any interface to the type of future I saw for myself. My parents were my support system. As is every parent’s motto, ‘what they couldn’t have, their child should have it’, they respected my choice.

“As you know change is the only constant.”

Chemical engineering was never on my bucket list. It happened accidentally. In my higher secondary course, I was trying for medical since i never got much time with mathematics. Though I enjoyed biology, a completely theoretical subject was not my cup of tea. As a result, I struggled with biology and mathematics and gravitated towards physics and chemistry. I started gaining interest in environmental engineering and saw myself making a career in it. Towards the end, I managed decent scores in entrance exams and got admissions into MBBS, BDS and Chemical Engineering as well. However, it was difficult convincing my parents to let me go for chemical engineering, but i eventually succeeded in it.

During my bachelor’s, my mother underwent multiple surgeries. As a result, I could not manage time for extracurricular activities, especially those which demanded commitment of my time for group activity. I focused primarily on my scores.

Many of my classmates were very much into extracurricular activities, and due to my personal issues, I couldn’t be a part of most of them. However, I tried volunteering which gave me exposure to different things that could be done at my disposal. I took up review topics, one individually and another with a friend and tried to present them at inter-college level.

I started liking research and wanted to do good work of great societal impact. I faced a very tough time finding internships through college. Moreover, i had no personal contacts of my own. One of my friends helped me to get into Pidilite and an alumni approached me for another internship. Another difficult time was getting a job. I could not permanently relocate out of Mumbai. I sat for interviews with three core companies, cleared all aptitude and technical written tests, group discussions and landed an opportunity for a personal interview. However, I was posed all sorts of questions due to my attire, which I do not think had anything to do with my working efficacy. Though i was rejected, I do not hold a grudge against them, and i believe everything happens for one’s betterment ultimately. Another friend pushed me to go for GATE, knowing that I was not a person who gives in or gives up easily. Also, my interest to study and do research was very evident. I then looked into it and gave it a try. Meanwhile I was working at IIT-Bombay as a project assistant and got lucky to interact with great professionals in my field and learned a lot from them.

I cleared GATE-CH (2018) with reasonably good scores, but had my boundaries limited within Mumbai due to family concerns. So i had just two options, IIT-B and ICT-M. I did not get Master’s in Chemical Engineering due to the admission category I fell in. As a precautionary measure, I had filled applications for other fields of interest. I got into Oils, Oleochemicals and Surfactants Technology and now I’m a happy bird doing what I like!

I always played around with whatever I had and never gave up, always believing its potential role in my future.

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

My friends played an important role in my career as they had a well-educated and professionally exposed family background. They helped me in getting access to various platforms where I met different people who mentored me.

I got exposure to the R&D facility at Pidilite and to the basic idea of research by volunteering and participating in events like technical paper and poster presentations. And to my surprise. I very much liked it. Through my friends’ experience and external speakers visiting college, I had an idea of other positions in my field and i basically loved exploring things.

Initially, I had a tough time in understanding the field of R&D. I still remember my first mentor at Pidilite, Mr. Jai Kumar, and how hard he worked on me, teaching me things just like i was a school child . He would always smile and tell me that one day I’ll be able to understand it. And as days passed, I really met the best mentors anyone could ever have met and made my decision firm about continuing in this field.

Tell us about your career path

When I got into Pidilite, I worked as an R&D intern in the Sealant section where i carried out some process calculations. It was my very first industry interface. I really struggled to understand what was going on. My mentor at Pidilite worked patiently with me, telling me that one day it’ll all make sense.

In my second internship with G7 beverages, I tried to establish connection between tier2 and tier3 cities and prepared exhaustive contact lists regarding the same.

I eventually completed my bachelor’s and to be honest, I always wanted to go for higher education than settling into a job. I prepared for entrance exams, mostly relying on self-studies and receiving help from friends and other teachers. Meanwhile, I was also working at IIT-B via a friend’s network, as a project assistant. Here my job was to cover the script for under graduate laboratory practicals. My mentor here was very supportive and encouraged me to go for higher studies. I cleared gate and got into masters. I received stipend from AICTE. After getting into my master’s, I worked on topics which could have some positive influence on society. Choosing a stream other than chemical engineering was difficult. But i got help from my friends, networking and personal experiences.

As a part of curriculum, I worked at Hindustan Unilever Limited under Lifebuoy Liquids as an intern. Here I worked on mapping and introducing new technologies and stability for liquid lifebuoy.

Besides, I’ve seen manufacturing of few Oleochemicals like branched fatty alcohols and polyurethane, mitigation of a carcinogens in refined vegetable oils and manufacturing of nutritionally rich bakery grade shortenings.

How did you get your first break?

I was initially depressed because my college was not responsible for our internships and I personally had no such contacts, whereas most of my college mates could get into something right from the first year. It was a very special friend of mine who helped me. Her father reached out to Pidilite R&D to request them to take me as an intern.

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

Challenge 1: Getting an internship: I personally spent a lot of time looking for internships via internet and calls. I tried all possible means and never belittled anything that could work out.

Challenge 2: Managing my time: As mentioned, my personal life was in a bad shape and I couldn’t manage my health well. I faced a tremendous shortage of time and felt that I was collapsing and failing to maintain balance in my career. But then I didn’t let it affect me and kept working as hard as possible. Till now, I have never taken a day off. I grew up as a young lady managing her family along with her dreams. I value every bit of time and resources I have, as its those things that have led me here.

Challenge 3: What next? I knew I wanted to make a difference but what and how was never clear to me. I’m a very hardworking, dedicated and passionate girl and rely completely on my abilities. I simply learnt things randomly from the surroundings I was in and kept going with what I felt suited me. I had a very bright friends circle who always encouraged and backed me whenever I needed them. They have really played an inevitable role in my life.

Where do you work now? Tell us what you do

I’m currently pursuing my masters and looking for opportunities to be a part of a firm that is a perfect match for my abilities.

I’ve witnessed several problem statements like photochemical smog, storage of hydrogen, mitigation of 3-MCPD (a carcinogen) formed while refining of edible oils, synthesis of branched chain fatty acids, exploiting cavitation phenomenon in treatment of organic waste in water, making a zero trans-fat bakery shortening from palm oil, synthesized food grade emulsifier from waste side products in oil refining, mimicking of an interfacial phenomenon of one surfactant set in another etc.

For me, it took a lot of reading and non-stop learning to get an in-depth knowledge of the subject. It will happen eventually with time, interest and one’s dedication.

This field has taught me that constant efforts and patience give amazing results.

How does your work benefit society?

I am a chemical engineer with specialization in Oils, Oleochemicals and Surfactants technology. This field is related to the process optimization, synthesis and various other processing conditions of oil related products, saving energy and ensuring a green process.

Besides, speaking individually of Oils, Oleochemicals and Surfactants fields, one can never deny it’s widespread applications, in making healthier edible food products. From us using oil while cooking, to automobiles requiring it as their prerequisite for functioning, this covers it all. We also need better public health via personal care and home care, right from basic raw material synthesis to formulated end products.

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

I recently had an internship with Lifebuoy Liquids. Here I worked on stabilizing two naturally dissimilar surfactants in one phase. Lifebuoy is a brand that focuses on hygiene at an affordable cost so that it is available to all. The topic technically was quiet challenging, but worth a try as, as the requirement was to enhance the germ killing activity of the product even more. My work came to a fruitful conclusion and i hope to carry forward my work, by improving public health at a larger scale. And the fact that it all happened before COVID-19 outbreak left a powerful impact on me regarding the importance of public hygiene

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I never decided the end result for myself, but I always knew what has to be done in the current situation. I still don’t know what the outcome of this complete process would be, but I’m certainly assured that with whatever I’ve learned, I’ll manage to do well of it.

Just value the time and resources you have. My personal life tumbled down in ways I wish no one ever goes through, but the only reason it doesn’t reflect in my performance is that I didn’t want it to be so. I utilized whatever time I had to the fullest with the resources I had. I never underestimated all what I had and tried to build myself on it. I appreciated my situation and moved ahead in that way.

Everyone will have their own situations, just acknowledge it and keep moving towards the greater good waiting for you ahead. One variable and I switched from medical to engineering which led me to wonderful explorations. I tried my variable and it did wonders ,I hope you try yours too.

Future Plans?

Coming so far, I’ve realized the loopholes in the society. If I can’t change them I have atleast the capability to overcome them. I would like to bring a reform to it, letting young ladies pursue their dreams as there’s a lot of stigma on working women and I too go through a lot of nonsense. I also want corporates to accept Indian muslim girls merely on the basis of their talents, during the hiring process. I faced rejections for my dressing sense and it’s sad that what I wear gets an upper hand in deciding what I want can do. This can change only if I make myself so strong in my field that people are willing to accept me with that one unchangeable thing in me.

With respect to bigger motives, I want to have an influence on how small things can help us lead a better life. I wish to come up with some social service activities where less privileged people are helped through technologies. I meet several people who would like to be a part of this mission with me in future. The number is still low, but I still feel an initiation would help to promote the idea. I’m currently looking for positions to gain real-world application based experience in my field. Going for Ph.D. is on my mind but there’s time to it as I’m yet to explore and exploit a lot of what I have learned till now. After that, I believe I’ll be in a better position to ponder upon a field, a college and a professor for doing a doctorate.