Sustainability is not just a career, especially when you have witnessed your family practising the principles of a circular economy through recycling of non-biodegradable waste.
Desika Prabakar,our next pathbreaker, Sustainability Manager at IIT Madras, focuses on making cheaper, more affordable Bioplastics to enable their widespread adoption by making technology affordable
Desika talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being strongly influenced by her dad and uncle, through their sustainability initiatives, and pursuing a career focused on biodegradable technologies to come up with new products and processes that aid the circular economy.
For students, just think about all the waste that we dispose off on a daily basis and you will realise the magnitude of the environmental challenge that the world faces. Take up a career in sustainability to come up with innovative solutions !
Desika, tell us about Your background?
Basically, I grew up in a middle-class background, my parents had only done a basic degree and directly started working. They did not have any goals as such, but just wanted to make sure I got my education, food and shelter.
Suddenly, one day, almost everything changed. Exactly when I was in 8th , after over 10 years of working in sales and marketing, my dad finally landed a big promotion in his career. This changed things for our family. My dad comes from a farming background in a tiny village about 2 hours from Chennai, India. After a lot of struggle, he managed to grow in the plastic industry. His main inspiration is my uncle who is successfully running an eco-friendly business where he converts waste plastic bottles into cool t-shirts.
Sounds like magic, right?!
I thought so too and got interested in something called the “recycling” industry. My dad later started his own business of plastic recycling in 2011 with only his experience as investment.
From then on , I have been seeing his journey. There have been so many downs and few ups. However, one thing for sure was the “VISION”in my mind to do something good for the environment we live in.
At a point in life, we all need to figure out why we are in this world? What are we going to achieve?
Initially, during school days, I used to take part in many competitions like debate, skits and performances during school Annual day. I was also into sports and secured a State level silver medal in Javelin throwing and shotput. I was even part of the throw ball team. But one thing I always enjoyed was writing and creating new things. I used to make up stories and funny characters based on happenings in school and at my grandma’s house where I grew up.
It is like a separate world where you can create anything, bring anyone to life and convey your thoughts. Since then, writing has been my hobby and something that I do whenever I am upset or sad. It makes me so happy and energetic.
The two very important things that shaped my career are
- my father’s background in the environmental sector and
- my passion for writing.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
Fast forward to 17 years of age, I had to seriously decide what I was going to do after 12th standard. Honestly, I was really confused and did not have much of an idea about my career, but I always wanted to do something different.
I did not want to follow the footsteps of my school friends by taking up Electrical Engineering or IT. Something like that was too boring for me. To do something different and fun was my motto.
So, I made a list of all the courses and chose the most interesting one. It was a Biotechnology course but specifically focused on Industrial Biotechnology. I thought it would help me work closely with the environment, learn more about biology and apply technology to fix the problems in the environment, just as my dad and uncle were doing in plastic recycling.
I had got a seat in Anna University, a top government engineering college directly through merit. I must say I was a bit afraid when I took the new course, but to tell you in hindsight, it was the best decision I had made.
So, after 4 years of college, I completed B. Tech (Bachelors of technology in Industrial Biotechnology) and started working on environment friendly technologies and continue to do so till now.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
Definitely, my dad and uncle are my greatest influencers. They showed me the ill-effects of environmental pollution and the harm we are causing to our planet by not properly recycling plastics. So, I always wanted to work on environment-based issues.
I did not have many good friends or mentors, but I got along well with everyone in general and tried to show my individual nature. But there were two professors who are still my most favorite. One is my “HOD” ma’am who was also my professor, she is one of the coolest professors ever. She made classes fun and always used to make us talk about our future plans. She made us go to many workshops and events so we could listen to many international people talk about their stories and research. I got really inspired by many such talks.
Another person is a professor who I used to hate initially. He used to come to class and start doing calculations on the board. The subject was so tough and boring too. But he later turned out to be one of my favorite professors. He was old and reminded me a lot of my Grandpa. He encouraged us to go to many seminars and symposiums conducted by many colleges.
We used to prepare a lot and go present at competitions and we actually won in many. He really inspired me by saying that if we have a steady goal and focus on it, nothing is impossible.
Any turning points that led you to where you are today?
I had just completed my undergraduate degree. One Sunday morning, me and my dad were returning from the beach.
We saw a big garbage truck (which was causing a stinking smell) standing next to our car in the signal. When I asked my dad where all these wastes went, he said “COME LET’S FOLLOW IT!”.
It seemed super fun when we started chasing the garbage truck. I saw this big truck collecting waste from garbage bins kept on the road.
As we kept following it for a while, we reached a place called “KODUNGAIYUR” in Chennai. It is one of the largest dumpsites for waste. This is called a LANDFILL. All the wastes that come here are sorted.
As we just went inside slowly, I saw something like a HIMALAYA OF WASTES. The place was stinking so much that I could not breathe. These are all the wastes that we throw every day. The worst thing was, a few rag pickers were searching to see if they could get something that they could sell to recyclers like my uncle.
I realized how the waste itself is a big industry that needs to be organized and really needs some technology which can help to fix this.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path
During my second year of college, I did my first internship at MS SWAMINATHAN RESEARCH FOUNDATION. The project I worked on gave me a whole new view of environmental technologies.
We were working with a group of BACTERIA which can make PLASTIC! Yes, they can actually eat the food we give and make PLASTIC for us. These are called BIOPLASTICS.
They do not cause any pollution to the environment and can naturally degrade. So, I had worked on growing these bacteria and identifying how we could make them produce more of these plastics.
Another one of my most treasured experiences is my time at the National University of Singapore during my final year project. I had the chance to work in one of the top universities in the world. The level of exposure to ongoing research and the highly advanced instruments and equipment used for analysis just blew my mind. My project was based on converting natural wastes into adsorbents to remove toxic pollutants from wastewater. The project was a proposal of my own based on the wastes we were given and it underlies the concept of circular economy. Such natural adsorbents are now being used in several industries for water purification.
I got to interact with many PhD students in the lab and students from various countries. Each one of them taught me several aspects of both research and life. I would strongly encourage students to do their final year projects somewhere outside your own college as this will really help you shape your career path.
All it takes is just sending some constant emails and follow ups.
I had to sent over a hundred mails just to get reply from three of them but it gave me a whole lot of learning.
Both these experiences of working on technologies based on uplifting the environment really helped me plan my career. Eventually, I decided that a mix of biotechnology and plastic recycling was going to be my career. Moreover, I could seek support from my dad and uncle and also add my own ideas for new technologies.
On the other hand, I also wanted to start earning to meet my personal expenses. So, I started to slowly write some articles which helped me make a decent amount of money.
Eventually, I started writing scientific articles for top journals and science magazines. This helped me earn as well as supported my career in science before I could get a job in the field.
Within six months after completing college and after applying for many jobs, I finally got my dream job in Pune, India. I was going to work in the research division of a company, working with enzymes from bacteria used to degrade plastics.
Simply put, I was working on a technology which can break the plastics which cause pollution. Developing this really gave me a lot of experience, enhancing my technical knowledge and personal development.
Since this was a startup environment, we used to do a lot of different things. Though I mainly worked in research and reporting results, I also learnt about marketing and sales. Only if we sell our technology/product, we can grow the company, right?
I also learnt about procurement/purchase, related to buying the things needed for the company. I also learnt about working together as a team which is really the most important thing one must learn.
All these experiences have landed me in my current job, as a PROJECT MANAGER at IIT Madras, one of the top research institutions in the world.
Initially, when I started off in IIT Madras I joined as a Project Associate, where the pay was lower than my previous job. But it did help me stay close to home and I believed that my exposure would be great. Hence, I gladly accepted the offer. For about 8 months I had worked on “Biodegradable sanitary napkins from wastes”. It was a project that was very close to me being a woman.
A lot of chemical sanitary napkins which are known to be very toxic to women are being sold in huge quantities. There are few natural napkins which are entering into the market but they seem to be very expensive. So, we tried to make a napkin that is natural and affordable.
We had used natural biomass wastes and converted it into absorbents which can be kept inside the sanitary napkins. These were 100% biodegradable and eco-friendly. I was extremely glad that we got to complete the project and even get the product certified.
It is being commercially taken up by another company now.
Working with passion and the will to learn is what helped me land the next project with my professor at IIT Madras. If you can work hard and show them your abilities the work will definitely pay off.
How did you get your first break?
I got my first job through networking. I used to approach people through LINKEDIN, the one and only top business and career app. Everyone must create a profile once you immediately enter college. This only got me my first job.
What were the challenges? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Shifting jobs
After my first job in Pune, I was at a point where I did not have anything else to learn. It felt like I was stuck and the job did not bring me much enthusiasm and happiness.
I did not like being at a place without any growth. It was very difficult to make the choice of leaving the job. But when you want to grow, you need to make big decisions. I had clearly given them a three-month prior notice. But they did not treat me well since I was leaving. However, I tried to fully complete my tasks and handover the project successfully. They understood me and appreciated my work towards the end when I left. So, if i hadn’t been patient i would have really got a bad name. Patience is an important quality I developed during this time.
Challenge 2: Changing career from research to business
This is a challenge that I am still working on. My family background being a business one, I eventually planned to take it up too. But it’s not easy to shift from lab to business.
Both are different worlds. Different skills are needed for each of them, so it is not so easy transitioning to this field, though it is very exciting and I get to learn a lot of skills. So, I hope to eventually learn and pursue my own business.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I currently work as Project Manager at IIT Madras. My work is focused on making cheaper, more affordable BIOPLASTICS. So the main problem is to make technology affordable. If we use very costly materials to make the product, then we can’t sell it in the market. Hence, we need to always keep in mind the “commercial viability” (if we can sell it and make money or not). This is what I mainly address.
Main skills needed are management and soft skills. People management, Project Management, Presentation and Communication skills are the most important.
Other than this, another important skill is problem solving. As something might suddenly go wrong, we must think of a solution immediately and try to solve it. This is the main part of my work.
What is a typical day like?
My work involves mostly lab work and experiments. But I am more of an extrovert, so I like it when we go for trials to factories. Currently, we are travelling to various places to take trials of our samples. I get to meet many people and learn more about the industry. This really helps me develop my contacts and networks for the future. I also work on reporting the results which I also love.
What is it you love about this job?
I love that I am independent and get to do a job according to my preference. My professor gives me a lot of freedom and hence I try to be really true to her. I inform her about decisions I take and we discuss my progress thoroughly in a more practical way. I love the flexibility of work timings and working from home sometimes as well.
How does your work benefit society?
The main benefit of my work is to reduce environmental pollution. All those plastic carry bags you see in the market do not decompose. They stay on our planet for billions of years. The new bioplastic carry bags that we have developed will decompose within 6 months to 1 year. This reduces the greenhouse gases which pollute the environment and the soil.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
One of my most memorable moments was an opportunity to do a webinar with my dad.
As part of a creating awareness drive for college students and business people, my dad was invited to give a webinar on PLASTIC RECYCLING TRENDS and TECHNOLOGIES. I was also asked to join since my work was similar. So, I worked with my dad and we both presented the technologies used for recycling and the process. I later presented the specifics of how we need to dispose off used masks during this COVID-19 time and how we can recycle and reuse it. It was greatly appreciated by many top people in the industry and even at international level.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Simple and straight advice is
FIND YOUR GOAL!
- It should make you happy
- It should be useful to people around you
- It should fulfil your purpose in life
- It should definitely help you make money
- It should never make you lose interest
My future plan is to join my dad and uncle in business and take my knowledge of technologies to help them with new innovative products and processes.
I also plan to start my own venture in writing services for magazines, scientific articles, storybooks etc. which I am currently doing as a freelancer.