When you are exposed to the practical side of science at a young age, those experiences play an integral role in developing your curiosity and attention to detail that are key attributes for research.

Ghata Nirmal, our next pathbreaker, Fluid Flow Researcher at Royal Dutch Shell, works as part of a team that focuses on projects pertaining to fluid flow and design of reactors.

Ghata talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking up a career in research to investigate interesting concepts, expanding on them to mimic the real research question, and focusing on applicability of the results, all associated with a big picture goal.

For students, if you enjoy being challenged, pushed to the edge, and consequently, growing and growing tremendously, a career in research is for you !

Ghata, what were your initial years like?

I was born in India and moved to the Gulf at a very young age. I always loved going to school. My mother often recalls instances where I would go around sticking out my tongue at children when they did not have school the days I got to go! Another cherished memory is that of playing Basketball – I looked forward to school recess to rush to play the sport. 

My father, a chemist by training, had instilled a sense of curiosity in me for chemicals. I remember multiple instances in my childhood when he used to make soap (from scratch!) at home. He has been working in the field of sales and marketing for a long time now. It is fascinating to hear him call and pitch the company’s products – he has impeccable persuasion skills! I wouldn’t say I have a knack for the same, but I have learned from him how to get my foot in the door. 

On the other hand, I vividly remember my mother testing me on multiplication tables (and cooking at the same time!) while I sat on the kitchen platform having breakfast. She also has a knack for detail – I think those genes have squirmed their way through to me. 

My foundation for the sciences were laid down fairly early with all the chemistry my father brought home. My curiosity and attention to detail were just the perfect mix for me to pursue a career in research. 

My parents’ support and the values they imparted to me are the fundamentals that took me to where I am today. 

In my free time, I enjoy going for a jog, listening to music, and reading. 

What did you do for your graduation/post graduation?

I completed my undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering at the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai and my doctoral studies in Chemical Engineering from the University of Toronto. During my PhD, my projects revolved around fluid mechanics.

Can you tell us how you ended up in such  an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

As mentioned earlier, initially, my parents helped me figure out the right career choice for me. 

Once I had started chemical engineering at the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai (ICT), I was fortunate to be surrounded by motivated individuals (friends, seniors and professors), who progressed into highly diverse career trajectories. 

I have always believed that an environment of healthy intellectual engagement and stimulating projects pushes one to be better and even the best. My professors were always asking the right questions and I knew they were right not only because of their relevance, but because at the end of the day, they left you in a muddle, wanting to tear your hair out but you simply cannot stop! – these were the challenges that invigorated and exhausted you. This is when I know I am at the right place – when I am being challenged, pushed to the edge, and consequently, growing and growing tremendously. 

Moreover, ICT is a research institute which means exposure to the latest developments in the field of chemical technology and engineering. All these factors influenced my decision to eventually pursue research-based postgraduate studies.

My postgraduate studies were the most valuable years in my academic career. At University of Toronto, I had access to top-notch resources and equipment for lab experiments. I have spent so many hours at the lab; it had become a second home. My mentor was extremely erudite. He would make us think outside the box, and at the same time stick to fundamentals to explain any and every finding that we observed, which preserved the spirit of true research! 

Can you explain your career trajectory from your undergrad?

After the 3rd year of my undergraduate studies, I started my first internship at BASF, Mangalore. Here, for the first time, I experienced the practical aspects of chemical engineering through training in BASF plants that manufactured construction chemicals for factories, coatings, dyes etc. Although the internship gave me a flavor of the real-world applications of chemical engineering, I was curious about what went behind designing the processes before they could be scaled up to an industrial level. 

Following this curiosity, I decided to pursue a masters (by research) at University of Toronto. 

At the University of Toronto, I worked as a research assistant in the Laboratory of Complex Fluids under the supervision of Prof. Arun Ramachandran. My research focused on investigating mixing in suspensions (particles suspended in a fluid) through experiments and simulations. Such studies with suspensions take a small step towards understanding the physics involved in blood flow. The big picture goal is to be able to predict the development of blood clots and genesis of diseases like atherosclerosis. 

This approach, to first study a simpler system, and then add complexities to mimic the real research question, is characteristic of any research project. I found the process extremely gratifying and hence, decided to upgrade my Masters program to a PhD. 

During the 6 years of my PhD, I was involved in multiple projects, within the umbrella of complex fluids. All these projects involved both simulations and experimental aspects to study mixing in multiphase flows (fluid mixtures with more than one phase; eg. Oil/water mixtures). Being at the interface of experiments as well as simulations allowed me to develop both practical as well as theoretical skills. 

However, academic research usually follows a bottom-up approach, meaning, one first investigates interesting concepts, and then focuses on the applicability of such results. As opposed to this, industrial research usually follows a top-down approach. This means, there is a clear application in mind for the research project. 

I received an opportunity during the last year of my PhD to work on a project as a consultant for a pharmaceutical company. One of the employees at this company had attended my talk at the annual AIChE conference [American Institute of Chemical Engineers] and was interested to collaborate based on the experimental setup I was working on. It was a unique experience for me as it helped me take a sneak-peek at industrial research. Eventually, I decided to join Royal Dutch Shell in June 2020.

How did you get your first break?

I had started thinking about the future during the last year of my PhD. Like all doctoral students, I was at cross-roads – do I go for a post-doc and aspire to be a professor? Or do I join the industry? Where would I grow and learn? Being a professor was an explored arena – I was naturally inclined to shoot for the latter.

To gain clarity, I went for multiple coffee chats with UofT PhD alumni. This helped me gain insight on the diverse opportunities out there. Given my part-time experience as a consultant, I realized I wanted to fully experience the industrial side of research. It took me some time (and a lot of conversations!) to realise that my choice won’t get me stuck; I could always switch back to academia down the line, if I wanted to. On the personal front, I wanted to move to India to be near my family.   

A myriad of these factors helped me short-list companies where my expertise would be appreciated. My ICT alumni network helped me come across the Fluid Flow and Reactor Engineering group at Shell’s technology center in Bengaluru. Given that I had no full-time work experience, I have joined Shell as a part of the Shell Graduate Program. As a fresh graduate, apart from my project targets, I undergo training programs that are helping me blend into the industrial setting.

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

The major challenge that I faced during my PhD was getting accustomed to multiple failures. 

Research (and I believe, life) is all about trying again and again till you succeed. Hence, a necessary skill for research is perseverance. Understanding this, I had developed a list of activities that would help me improve my mental state after a failed experiment. It could be take-out from my favorite Thai restaurant, a game of squash or a go-to movie. I would then attack the next day with a new approach, hoping for success!

It’s extremely important to have a good support system under mounting pressure and expectations which causes significant mental distress. These were intensive years, and I tried my best to not have everything – like hobbies, travelling, socialising – sidelined. At the end of the day, relaxing and happy moments keep you sane. 

My peers often viewed my coffee addiction as another challenge – I don’t know why it is something to be dealt with since there’s so much coffee in the world. 

Tell us, where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I am a researcher in the Fluid Flow and Reactor Engineering group at Royal Dutch Shell. 

As the name suggests, researchers in our team focus on projects pertaining to fluid flow (For example, Crude oil flow in a pipeline.) and design of reactors (For example, reactors to remove NOx). At a time, one is typically working on 4-5 projects. There is a need to be able to prioritize one’s focus according to business needs – something that I am still working on!

I have worked from home ever since I started my job at Shell. I am always communicating and collaborating with my colleagues through conference calls. Just the extent to which communication plays a role at my position is fascinating – one would expect work involving coding and designing to entail tasks to be carried out in isolation. On the contrary, I am, for the most part, always in touch with my superiors and colleagues and building upon the projects. I have been to the office a few times when the pandemic had eased. 

Even though the times have proved that people are perfectly capable of working from home (also, I am way more productive at home), the office atmosphere is certainly wanting. I would prefer going, say, thrice a week. 

In long-term research projects, there is little instant gratification in terms of significant results. The outcomes take years to come into fruition – till then, one engages in an ongoing process of additive efforts which is necessary for the grand stuff to happen. What I love about the job is not only those long-term aspirations of seeing the project take off and flourish – like a child you have tended for years and is turning 18 soon – but also the everyday troubleshooting tasks and time-consuming challenges that come along the way, in very parental terms – the care that goes into looking after a child. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Shell is playing an active role in promoting the energy transition. It is no longer an oil and gas company, but an energy industry. 

India is an energy-starved country with a precarious geopolitical situation. It must secure its energy future, lest the gap between the burgeoning demands of a growing population and a steady energy supply widens at an undesirable rate. 

Through my research, I hope to help the society fulfill its energy requirements, and at the same time be mindful of climate change. 

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

During my undergraduate studies, I volunteered as a tutor for an NGO in Mumbai where I taught written and spoken English to underprivileged children. It was an extremely warm experience because they were eager to learn and happy to be there. I have played a lot with those children. There were times where we would buy them ice cream – they looked adorable with those innocent eyes and sticky hands. 

During my graduate studies in Toronto, I was a tutor at the Working Women Community Center. Here I tutored four high school students in Mathematics and English for 2 years on a weekly basis. The children that I taught in Mumbai were in the primary school, so I had little experience with adolescents – it was a different challenge and a greatly humbling experience. A lot of their struggles reflected my own during the high school years. Their vitality and  open-mindedness recovered some of the flexibility in thought I had lost as I grew older. 

These experiences are very close to my heart as they kept me grounded and taught me a life skill – patience. Even now, I remember fondly how I looked forward to the weekly tutoring sessions.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Never say no to any opportunity, especially during the early stages of your career. I have come across multiple situations by now, where I took upon projects thinking that they wouldn’t be impactful, just to realize that they helped me develop fundamental skills that I can apply everywhere! You never know how one road leads to another 😊

Most importantly, be very sensitive to what is working and what isn’t. If you tread on a path that keeps hurting, recognise the causes and be very honest to yourself – is this something you are up for? Is this something you are willing to commit to doggedly and spend time in scouring research papers and studies pertaining to the subject? 

Future Plans?

I enjoy research and plan to stick to it for quite some time!