As we look for new sources of water for our rapidly growing population, there is an urgent need to address the challenges of pollution in our existing water resources, mainly due to wastewater treatment plants.

Sulagna Mishra (PhD candidate), our next pathbreaker, designs models that estimate pollution in river networks owing to anthropogenic sources like wastewater treatment plants, with an aim at providing sustainable solutions to mitigate the microbial pollution in rivers for data-sparse catchments.

Sulagna talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about attending a Civil Engineering camp during her bachelors and being blown away by the plethora of topics and possibilities that Civil engineering had to offer, ranging from the core subjects of designing steel and concrete structures to water resources management, and environmental remediation.

For students, Civil Engineering is not just about construction but also about our entire infrastructure that makes our daily life so easy and comfortable. Take up civil engineering to address challenging infrastructural issues !

Sulagna, tell us  about your background?

I grew up in the beautiful city of Bhubaneswar, where I finished high school before dreams and career took me places. I hail from a family with a long lineage of bureaucrats, lawyers, engineers, and academicians. However, my parents, unlike most Indian parents, never forced me to study or score. My mother particularly believed, “a child will find his/her own way at his/her own pace and parents are only here to support”. The pressure of doing well was mostly self-imposed.

Academically, I was a fairly above average student. I was an ever-curious child and studied purely for my love to learn new topics. I did always have strong fundamentals and I loved teaching my friends at school and my younger cousins during summer or puja holidays. As a kid, I did not have any clear favorite subject, I liked reading about everything. As I grew (around std IXth), I developed a knack for physics and chemistry. I did not access private tuitions until I started preparing for the competitive exams during std Xth and relied heavily on reference books (as proxies for tutors). Not having to ever run for tuitions after school, gave me plenty of time for extra-curricular. I was a public speaker and also participated in literary writing and cultural activities like dance and drama.

As a teenager, I was fascinated with the journey of Dr. Kalpana Chawla. In a fan-struck moment, I had decided to pursue engineering and I knew it had to be in one of the core engineering subjects. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my Bachelors in Engineering in Civil (to be read as Civil and Environmental) from BIT Mesra – Ranchi (India). I completed my Masters in Environmental Engineering from Technical University – Darmstadt (Germany). Currently, I am finalizing my doctoral research at Technical University – Dresden (Germany) under the project “Resilient complex networks” in collaboration with Purdue University (USA). 

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

As a sophomore during my engineering, I was chosen to represent BIT Mesra at a Summer camp organized by IIT Kanpur. The camp chose toppers of Civil engineering from 60 colleges all over the country and introduced them to all facades of the stream: ranging from the core subjects of designing steel and concrete structures to water resources management, and environmental remediation. During the camp, we visited several companies, attended lectures by the pioneers from all over the country in different fields, participated in workshops, etc. The plethora of topics and possibilities that Civil engineering had to offer, blew my mind!

After I came back from the camp, I was very keen to work on research projects going on at my institute. I worked as an (unpaid) intern with Ph.D. scholars and professors on their on-going projects, mostly at the applied chemistry lab and hydrology lab. This gave me an insight into the field of research and how projects are handled from conception of a novel idea/ hypothesis, to proposal writing and all the way to its delivery. I went to work on several other research projects on water quality and dam-break modeling at IIT Kanpur and IMMT Bhubaneswar during the 3rd and 4th year of my engineering. 

I knew for sure that I wanted to do my master’s in Environmental engineering. However, I did want to take a break and gain experience in real-time projects in a corporate setting. Post-engineering I started working as a planning engineer at a reputed construction firm. Though my colleagues and the working environment was quite good, the nature of work in itself didn’t excite or challenge me enough. Soon, after office hours I found myself preparing university applications and preparing to write the tests (GRE, TOEFL). I focused on universities with strong Environmental Engineering programs and got offers from a few universities in the US and Germany. I chose TU Darmstadt which offered me an invite for a fully-funded masters on a DAAD scholarship.  

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

The MS at TU Darmstadt had a very holistic approach and provided an ocean of electives to choose from. I chose to focus on IWRM (Integrated Water Resources Management), water quality, statistics, and GIS as my core topics. As my masters was supported by the DAAD scholarship, I had a lot of flexibility in terms of funds and resources to choose my research projects/training and study sites.  During my masters, I also did a spatial survey of fluoride pollution of groundwater in Jharkhand (India) and its effect on the users. My masters thesis was a part of a European Union project, where I worked on finding methods to use desalinated water and treated wastewater to recharge aquifers. 

After my MS, I worked at the Climate and Water Department of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) at Geneva as a Carlo Schmidt fellow. I was a part of the Associated program on flood management (APFM) team. I also assisted in preparing training material and roadmaps for the program Flash flood guidance system (FFGS) for several countries. I absolutely enjoyed my role and work. It was during this stint that I realized that I wanted to do a Ph.D. in order to gain deeper knowledge in my field. I discussed my thoughts with several colleagues at WMO and my professors at Darmstadt and they wholeheartedly encouraged me to take that leap. 

How did you get your first break?

I was very clear about the topics I wanted to focus on in my doctoral research. I started making my applications for Ph.D. positions (mostly in Europe), in Mar’16 and by May’16, I had my offer letter in hand. This is just to tell you that, once you are clear about your topic, and apply for the right positions, things can move quite fast!  

I am a part of the International Research and Training Group at the Center of Advanced Water Research which is a collaboration between UFZ Leipzig and TU Dresden. I work on the water quality modeling aspect in the “Resilient complex networks” which is a joint initiative by several partner universities around the globe.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

The major and probably the only challenge I face now is in maintaining the elusive “healthy work-life balance”. I am in the final stage of my Ph.D. which is (as one can imagine) the most stressful phase in a doctoral journey. I juggle between giving my 100% to work, to looking after my little 20-month-old toddler, while maintaining a healthy social life, amidst the covid situation. Since I have the extra feathers on my hat, I have allotted specific time slots to every compartment in order to be the most productive during the 24 hours.   

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

To put it in a nutshell, I design models that estimate pollution in river networks owing to anthropogenic sources like wastewater treatment plants. I aim at providing sustainable solutions to mitigate the microbial pollution in rivers for data-sparse catchments (keeping in mind developing and underdeveloped countries).

A major part of my research is to develop mechanistic models that can be used to estimate the spread of antibiotic resistance genes in surface water. 

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

You need a fundamental understanding of hydrology and water quality. Apart from that, developing models always needs an understanding of the background of the underlying processes in every compartment of a stream network and the behavior of the specific pollutant (microbial- in my case) that you focus on.

Coming from a non- microbiological background, the first half-year was quite a learning phase. I took lectures meant for bachelors and masters students to learn the fundamentals of the topic.

Similarly, though I had some basic ideas of C and C++, I had never written or dealt with complex software development projects prior to starting my Ph.D. My doctoral research is completely model development based, where I work with R (and sometimes Matlab and FORTRAN). The programming languages are self-taught through online certification courses.

What is a typical day like?

My typical day today looks very different from how it did 2 years ago. My day starts around 6:00 and until 8:00 I am a full-time mother getting me and my son ready for work and day-care respectively. My workday starts between 8:30 – 9:00. I am a compulsive planner and my first task is to break up the things I need to do during the day and put it into a schedule on my whiteboard. Ticking off completed tasks keeps me motivated. Now that I am wrapping up my research, most of the day is spent on writing my dissertation, preparing responses for editors, working on proposals. I use the “Pomodoro technique” to make my writing the most efficient. During breaks, I watch lectures and sometimes watch TED talks or read things on completely unrelated topics. I wrap up around 17:00 and spend the next few hours (until 21:00) with family and completely shut off my work-brain. At night, I open my laptop for an hour or so, to do things that demands the least amount of concentration like answering emails, beautifying figures, etc. In pursuit of a healthy lifestyle, I avoid pulling all-nighters (though it used to be my forte until a few years ago). I wrap up my day by 23:00 and try to not work on weekends unless there are deadlines to be met.

What is it you love about this job? 

I love the fact that I learn something new every single day. I love that, what I do can actually make the world a much safer (and healthier) place to live in. 

How does your work benefit society? 

We all know that clean water is scarce and the problem is growing with every passing day. In a few years, the use of alternative sources of water like treated wastewater or desalinated ocean water is going to a much sought after solution globally. Therefore, there is a need to find sustainable techniques to help in optimizing the quality of these future resources while also protecting the quality of the available resources currently in use. And that is basically my area of research.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

It is okay to not have a complete full-proof plan from day one. But it is important to know what subjects or what kind of work interests you. Be passionate and sincere in whatever you do, because that’s the only way to do things right.

Future Plans?

I love research and I am fascinated by topics that are ahead of time. Right now, I am at a crossroad between academia and industry. I am still deciding if I want to continue working in a university set up or move to R&D in the industry. Only time will say. I believe in going with the flow.