Ever imagined the applications of textiles in areas other than normal clothing? Medical Textiles play an important role in wound healing and developing bio-compatible materials for medical implants that can be used safely inside the human body.

Chirag Gajjar, our next pathbreaker, Senior R&D Engineer at Cardinal Health, develops textile based medical products related to wound dressing, and applies his knowledge about fibers and polymers in the field of healthcare.

Chirag talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his Master’s research on Hemostatic wound dressing, a special kind of bandage, that prompted him to go deeper into the field of Medical Textiles with a PhD and carve a unique path in this field by transitioning to the industry.

For students who want to develop their career in the niche areas, the biggest advice is to never lose your focus. Become an expert on the interface of textile science and medical science to create a positive impact on the lives of millions of patients across the globe

Chirag, tell us about your background?

I was born and brought up in Surat, Gujarat. My grandfather, my father and my uncle are all Civil Engineers, so that seemed to be the logical career path. However, the field of Civil engineering didn’t interest me. Surat, being the textile city, Textile Engineering was an option that I thought was unique and would provide good opportunities for my career. Hence, I started my journey on the path of Textile Chemistry and Engineering.  

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I graduated with B.E. in Textile Processing from Sarvajanik College of Engineering and Technology (South Gujarat University), Surat, India in 2007. 

I completed a Post Graduate Diploma in Business Administration from Symbiosis Center of Distance Learning, Pune, India in 2009.

I did my MS in Textile Chemistry from North Carolina State University, Raleigh, USA in 2011.

I graduated with a Ph.D. in Fiber and Polymer Science from North Carolina State University, Raleigh, USA in 2016.  

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

My journey into the field of Textiles was initiated largely due to the fact that I was born and brought up in Surat – textile capital of India. I was exposed to textile manufacturing and processing units through many of my relatives, and that was the beginning. Once I started my graduation in the field of Textiles, I was constantly looking for ways where I can learn about new applications and innovations in this field. One of my favorite subjects was Technical Textiles, which revealed various applications of textiles beyond normal clothing, and one particular area was the field of Medical Textiles. This was the most appealing field to me, since I saw an opportunity to do something that directly serves the wellbeing of humankind. Medical Textiles is an area where I can apply my knowledge of fibers and textiles to alleviate pain, restore health and extend the life of people.

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.

I graduated with B.E. in Textile Processing from Sarvajanik College of Engineering and Technology, Surat in 2007, and was hired through campus placement as Research Engineer at Textile Research and Application Development Center (TRADC), Aditya Birla Group. As a Textile Engineer, my job at TRADC was to find innovative ways to convert Viscose Rayon from fiber to fabric. In general, fiber to fabric is an intricate process involving many steps like spinning the yarn, weaving the fabric, processing the fabric, dyeing, printing and finishing the fabric, and finally cutting and sewing to make garments. I was focused on textile chemistry which involved dyeing and printing the fabric followed by finishing with special chemicals like anti-static finish, moisture repellent finish, etc. The purpose of my job was to develop dyeing and finishing solutions for rayon fabric based on customer requests. I always wanted to do post-graduation, but at the same time wanted to gain some industry experience. That’s when I found out distance learning MBA option. While working at TRADC, I joined Symbiosis Center of Distance Learning and completed Post Graduate Diploma in Business Administration in 2009. This allowed me to work in the industry, and at the same time allowed me to learn the skills for business management. I also worked at Jay Krishna Prints, Surat for a year. This was a manufacturing job which was different than the research job at TRADC. This job helped me understand that my interest was in the field of research rather than actual manufacturing, and to be able to get into the field of research I needed to develop deeper knowledge in the field of Textiles. So, I started looking for higher education options in the field of textiles and learned about universities in the USA. I wanted to do my Masters in Textiles, with a focus on Medical Textiles. I was fortunate to get admission with full scholarship at North Carolina State University, which is ranked #1 for the field of Textiles. 

Again, I was fortunate to be able to work on a project related to Hemostatic Wound dressings for my MS. Hemostatic wound dressing is a special bandage that can clot the blood quickly, thereby saving lives in case of major trauma or battlefield injury. As a part of my MS research, I worked with different chemicals that can be applied to textile materials like cotton, nylon, polyester, silk etc. and convert them into effective hemostatic materials. The goal was to produce low-cost, readily available hemostatic dressings. After graduating with my MS, I wanted to go deeper into the field of Medical Textiles. Thus, I started my Ph.D. journey, and worked on a project related to resorbable textiles for implantable medical devices. Resorbable fiber implant is a special material that is biocompatible (can be used safely inside the human body) and dissolves slowly over time. Major applications of such materials are in resorbable sutures. These sutures dissolve over time, thereby eliminating need for another hospital visit to remove them. These materials are also being studied for tissue/blood vessel regeneration. As a part of my Ph.D. project, I studied the process-property relationship of resorbable fibers. The goal was to develop an understanding about how the process parameters affect the end properties of resorbable fibers. After graduating with a Ph.D., I kept looking for job opportunities in this narrow field, and ultimately, found a job in this niche area. At each step, my focus was on Medical Textiles, and that helped me carve my unique journey into this field. 

How did you get your first break?

My first break in India was through campus placement. However, in the USA, I found that networking plays a key role in getting a foot in the door. I used every opportunity I got throughout my MS and Ph.D. to build my network. I connected with people in my field whenever I attended conferences or whenever I visited career fairs. This helped me with my first break after Ph.D.

What were the challenges you faced in your career? How did you address them?

There were many challenges on this journey. First of all, no one from my family had ever travelled outside India. So when I decided to go to the USA for higher education, it was a big decision. My next challenge was securing the funds, but given my good academic background and high GRE score, I got the admission with full scholarship. I faced a huge challenge in making a decision when I got admit from Cornell (Ivy League School) as well as from North Carolina State University. Eventually, I went for North Carolina State University because its a renowned school for Textiles (#1 rank), and I kept my focus on Medical Textiles. Adjusting to life in the USA was another challenge, but with good friends and roommates, the journey was fun. 

Where do you work now? What do you do?

I now work at a large medical device company, Cardinal Health, as a Senior R&D Engineer. I develop textile based medical devices related to wound care and adult incontinence. Some of the exciting products that I work on include antimicrobial wound dressings, foam dressings and non-adherent wound dressings. Two most important skills required for a career in the field of Medical Textiles are the knowledge about medical device regulations and the knowledge about fibers and polymers. While my academic background prepared me with the knowledge about fibers and polymers, I had to proactively work on acquiring skills about medical device regulations. I took some courses related to medical device regulations and interacted with people working in this industry to gather as much information as I could. My research experience during MS and Ph.D. prepared me for my role as an R & D Engineer.

While most of my time is spent working on new & innovative product ideas, I have to work on other projects to support the business needs as well. Some of the non-research oriented work includes supporting manufacturing issues, managing design files and documentations, working with suppliers and training lab technicians. This requires multi-tasking and time management skills. 

At the end of the day, the most satisfying aspect of my job is that the products that I develop directly improve the health and well-being of the patients. It gives me immense satisfaction that the medical devices I develop help alleviate pain, restore health, and prolong life of the people in hospitals and nursing care.

How does your work benefit society?

The medical device industry is one of the few industries where one gets the satisfaction of working on products that have a positive impact on the life of millions of patients across the globe. Medical devices help cure ailments, provide comfort, and enable healthy lifestyle for patients.  

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

While the whole journey of MS and Ph.D. at North Carolina State University is dear to my heart, my Ph.D. research work, and my MS research work, both are very memorable work for me.

During my Ph.D. work I got the opportunity to present my work at international conferences in Poland, Canada, China and across the USA. I was also able to publish my book as a first author, which was very special for me. My MS project on hemostatic textiles was featured by Popular Mechanics, and that too is a memorable experience.      

Your advice to students based on your experience?

To all those who want to develop their career in the niche areas, the biggest advice is to never lose your focus. There may be times when you come across situations where you would have to make decisions. You may have an easy path that is different from your interest and a difficult path that allows you to work in the field of your interest. If you really want to develop your career in the field of your interest, keep pursuing your interest, never lose the focus, and the right opportunities will come to you. 

Future plans?

I hope to continue working in the field of Medical Textiles and use my knowledge and expertise in this area to develop innovative medical devices that are safe and effective in curing ailments. In the future, I see myself as an expert on the interface of textile science and medical science.