Sustainable Materials hold the key to unlocking a future driven by renewable energy and clean technologies that promote the “Green” revolution !

Pranati Sahoo, our next pathbreaker, Materials Application Engineer at 3M, gathers consumer insights to address pain points in the industrial world through sustainable material solutions in the areas of Automotives (Green Vehicles / EVs) and Consumer Electronics.

Pranati talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her PhD in Material Sciences that added a whole new dimension to experimental research in “thermoelectric” materials that have a wide spectrum of pathbreaking applications due to their energy replenishment potential.

For students, as India gears up to implement its “Made in India” strategy, we need young minds with cross functional background in chemistry, physics, engineering and nanotechnology who can synthesize new materials that can pave the way for cleaner energy !

Pranati, tell us about Your background?

I hail from a city which is not only one of the only steel cities in India, but also nurtures few of the premium technological institutes. This fueled a curious mind in me which taught me to ask more questions to unravel the beauty of science and technology. I am from a middle class and liberal family where education was given utmost importance. My father worked in Steel Authority of India (SAIL) in the manufacturing and operation division, while my mother was the spine of our house. My siblings are also well-placed (being literature and science enthusiasts) and a constant source of support throughout my journey.

Throughout my childhood, I was quite fascinated about medical sciences. Maybe due to my inadequate approach or call it destiny, i could not make it in the traditional way. However, it is rightly said that “Failure is a detour, not a dead-end”. Hence my quest for learning never ceased. I went ahead and focused on my graduation in science, majoring in Chemistry.

Meanwhile, I was pretty much interested in various aspects of poetry, public speaking as well as innovation. I could recall myself penning down various political satires in standard 8 as well as building a bench top model for wastewater recycling.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

After my graduation, I joined National Institute of technology (NIT, Rourkela) to pursue my masters in inorganic & environmental Chemistry. Although it was one of the premier institutes in India which offered me a great exposure and shaped my career choices, my initial days were pretty much muddled.

The quest was “What is next?

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

That was the point when I had to make choices which would partly decide what I want to be.

Voilà! There came an excellent opportunity to intern in Indira Gandhi Center for atomic Research (IGCAR) under a few of the prominent scientists of India.

I must say, the experience was really a turning point in my life which solved my quest “What is Next?” By closely working on a few cutting-edge innovations, I had the realization that research is my forte. And that very thought brought back the same curiosity I had nurtured in my childhood. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path

After returning from the internship, I was a “new” person, who had a better clarity on my future and on the approaches to make it happen. So I started collating inputs from my predecessors from relevant fields to understand if my approach is in the right direction.

I started preparing for various international level exams (GRE, TOEFL) and started learning from other experiences. As these efforts do come with a good amount of financial investment, I joined as a faculty in an academic institute to reduce the burden on my family.

Luckily, I was able to secure a Global Outreach Scholarship and an admit in MS (Chemistry) in one of the universities in the United States. There I started my journey for higher studies. The scholarship was based on my test scores as well as the overall academia grade of my graduation and postgraduation studies.

After joining the university, there were a few more challenges. I was initially a bit overwhelmed in choosing the right research field which would feed my passion. Finally, after a lot of thought, I recognized Materials science to be the field which was really fascinating and I started my masters research in Advanced Material Research Institute, University of New Orleans. There I got a good amount of exposure in experimental science,  where I could synthesize a few novel materials which had the potential for path breaking applications.

Then I went ahead to do my PhD and postdoctoral studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. That experience added a whole new dimension to my perspective and enhanced my capability of working in diversified areas. 

My PhD research was quite intriguing as I was involved in making some rare earth metal alloys with lots of compositional trials and errors.  It involved a plethora of cross functional background in chemistry, physics, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering and of course vast techniques in nanotechnology, completing a life cycle of material science.

These new materials were called “Thermoelectric materials” which can turn waste heat into electricity. Due to an ever replenishing source of renewable energy, the search of alternative energy sources has been attracting researchers since decades. And I was the part of that effort too. I was working on making them from scratch, by characterizing them and understanding their efficiency to meet the need. These materials have a wide spectrum of applications; from tiny wearables for soldiers to automotive drives to humongous space crafts, which all need energy to thrive.

How did you get your first break?

After my PhD and post-doctoral stint, I was quite passionate about utilizing my learnings to solve real world problems. Normal PhD research gives us two major options, pursing further core research academically or in relevant core industries. Most of the PhD scholars can relate to that dilemma we face after finishing PhD.

There was always a divulging question, not only about what I wanted to do but also about what opportunity I would be getting. I was fortunate enough to get associated with a great start up “Axiom” which helped build my foundations as a creative thinker. Sometimes we know the things, we know the end applications, but we don’t know how to put it all in a smart way to get maximum benefit out of our knowledge. That thought process is indeed a skill, and this platform was given to me by my first venture. I was into predictive modelling of material properties to resolve various real world problems.

For anyone who would like to venture into industries, I would say that be different in your thought process and own it.  You would surely be valued !

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

“A challenge only becomes an obstacle when you bow to it.”

Sometimes overcoming a challenge is easier when we think about it in a different way. I also had a great share of challenges throughout my journey.

Fitting In: During my journey, I have switched universities and travelled to different countries for better prospects. Although it was a great learning experience, “being accepted” in different cultures was quite petrifying. I was too timid to ask for help and support.

But what helps is “to talk”. Talk about the common interests and build the trust. But of course, you should also be vigilant about who wants to really help.

Am I good enough: Most of the time, self-doubt is one of the stumbling blocks for any kind of life curve, be it personal or professional. The question that always popped in my mind was if I am on the right track, If I am perceived well and If I am good enough for being heard.

What helped me is communication, which helped me avoid being “Pigeon-Holed”.

Once we have more transparency in our communications and come out of our self-made shells, we can realize what we are capable of. This also builds enough self confidence as well as trust among others.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

With all these learning experiences, I joined a start-up which has given me an immersive experience in building myself from scratch with enough freedom to think and explore. Currently I am working in 3M India, a materials innovation company, as an application engineer in electronics materials solutions.

In my current role, I gather consumer insights which help us dive into the real pain points and think about how we can help them through new material innovation.

Real innovation is in solving the problems, not merely having ideas. In nutshell, that’s what I do.

This role gives me enough liberty to engage and communicate with all kinds of people and problems. It has helped me to develop professionally and personally. Every day I face new challenges, new problem statements which double up the speed of my neurons 😊.

At 3M, I use my previous experience in completely different kind of fields, automotive as well as consumer electronics. As green energy is “The Future”, I am a part of this sustainability revolution by providing solutions for green vehicles and electric vehicles.

The concept and the technology of electric vehicles is revolutionary. So I am fortunate enough to learn and provide solutions to enhance the efficiency of this technology. A part of my responsibility is also to help the manufacturers in electronic industries to deliver better gadgets with better functionality which can touch every corner of our country. It also involves creating awareness on more cutting -edge technologies along with emphasizing on “Made in India” efforts ,to make young minds believe that we are good enough !

How does your work benefit society? 

In my current role, I come close to solving real-world technological problems. I use my learnings and expertise to solve them or at least pave the way for more thoughts.

I also love to be part of various outreach programs to support students and career aspirants to guide them from personal experiences in science and technology.

Hence, I feel my efforts paid off.

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

During my PhD, I worked on different research projects. I came across a few pressing technical issues which were acting as major roadblocks with respect to their properties. The material properties were quite critical in terms of the efficiency of devices in which they were intended to be used. Those devices were pretty much sensitive as they had to function in extreme conditions with higher accuracy. But somehow the functionality was not translated from theoretical values to the real practical values. It made the synthesized material unusable in the field. The tight timeline and the cost created an emergency in terms of having a successful deliverable. I had different variables to tune, like type of material, type of process as well as the experimental accuracy in a crunch timeline.

Hence, I had to take a call or first guess the process technique to start with. Luckily, adding a small experimental step got me through to better and reproducible results. Even though that was a simple step, but that small step made a revolutionary change in my approach to enhance the efficiency in our materials

Your advice to students based on your experience.

Be strategic! It would help you to sort through the clutter and find the best way out. It is not a skill that can be taught. It is a distinct way of thinking, a special perspective on the world at large. This perspective allows you to see patterns where others simply see complexity.

Be a learner not just a knower! Sometimes the process of learning is much more productive than the result itself. Be curious and wonder about new things. It always helps to see the unseen.

Future Plans?

The issue of under representation of women in science is being seen with a great deal of concern all over the world. I would like to be a part of this movement by encouraging more women to join science and create a better world to live in.

Professionally, I would like to be still a learner and apply the learnings to enrich my curious soul as well as the society.