Anti-Corrosive technologies that are used across the world today prevent corrosion, but at a huge cost, due to their toxic nature and the threat they pose to the environment in the form of soil, air and water pollution.

Saheli Bera, our next pathbreaker, Scientist at an international speciality chemicals and equipment company, develops wear resistant and corrosion resistant coatings for the automotive, sanitary, electronics, medical and construction industries with a focus on developing sustainable and environmentally friendly technologies.

Saheli talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about deciding to pursue a PhD in Green Anti-Corrosive Technologies after realising that pigments that are used in paints/coatings are not only hazardous to the environment but also induce carcinogenic effects in the human body. 

For students, we need more researchers who can identify problems that they are passionate about and work on sustainable solutions to heal the planet. The road will be tough, but the journey will be worth it !

Saheli, tell us where you come from and about your initial years?

I was born and brought up in Kolkata. My father started his career as an R&D chemist in an Indian paint company and ended his industrial journey as senior vice president in that same organization. My mother was from an academic background and taught history in high school. So quite naturally, I was raised in a perfectly blended environment of art and science. Apart from my parents, my extended family (on both mother’s and father’s side) offered me a wide range of intellectual career paths on the table. My childhood days were spent amidst scientists, professors, doctors, teachers from my family and it automatically rooted the idea of being ‘Well Read’ in my young mind. 

I did my schooling from Brahmo Balika Sikhshalaya. I’d definitely like to mention a few lines about my school as well. Because my school has made a huge contribution in shaping me into whoever I’m today.  In the early 90’s when most of the parents were desperate to admit their kids to fancy English medium schools, my parents unapologetically admitted me to a Bengali medium school from West Bengal board. My school was founded by the famous educationist Shivanath Shastri who was also one of the founders of Brahma Samaj along with Raja Rammohan Roy. As a consequence, from a very early age, my foundation was based on the principles of Brahma Samaj like religious openness, honesty, integrity, discipline and most importantly women’s education and empowerment. All these values and principles have always followed me like my own shadow throughout my journey.   

Although my family is full of intellectual minds, I’d always give the majority of the credit to my father for developing my deep love for science and research, more specifically for physics and chemistry. It may sound very unrealistic, but I made up my mind during my school days that I was going to pursue scientific research as my career. I  still remember how unacceptable it was to my friends and family when I boldly announced my decision of not appearing in the entrance test for Engineering and Medical and opt for B.Sc. in Chemistry Honours after XII standard. My father was one of the very few people who welcomed my decision of not wanting to be an engineer or a doctor open heartedly and I did stick to my decision strongly amid all kinds of demotivation, discouragement and criticism from the society for not following their stereotypical career paths. 

Being born and brought up in a Bengali family, a strong inclination towards art and literature is inevitable. Both my mother and father were avid readers. Being a history teacher, my mother aced the skill of story-telling. So unknowingly, I developed an interest in listening to history rather than reading history. Additionally, as my school attained a landmark achievement not only in the area of Women’s education but also in freedom fighting and social reformation in Indian history, we were fortunate enough to know many historical stories from our school teachers that were untold and unwritten in History textbooks. Getting educated in a Bengali medium school intensified my immense love for Bengali literature. My father made sure that the in-house library had enough of  famous English fictions by Harper Lee, Agatha Christie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Paulo Coelho, J. R. Tolkien, John Green and many more so that both my English vocabulary and vision towards life always remained robust. The daily practice of reading instilled a naïve love for writing as well inside me. Classical dancing and swimming always carried fresh breeze in my daily routine. And last but not the least, the bi-annual trips to different destinations in summer and during Durgapuja vacation with my parents created my deep interest in nature photography and seeing this world through fresh eyes and perspectives. Today I always see myself as someone whose life revolves around research, reading, writing and travelling. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

After XII, I did B.Sc. in Chemistry (Hons.) from University of Calcutta and then M.Sc. in Chemistry from IIT (ISM) Dhanbad. I have also bagged a Gold Medal in M.Sc. for securing first rank in the university.

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

Well, as I mentioned, my father occupied every nook and corner of my existence throughout my journey. Even after being a very successful and well known researcher in the paint industry, he always used to regret one thing about his work, which was lack of eco-friendly nature and sustainability. When I enrolled into my PhD program, I strongly conveyed my message to my PhD Guide that I wanted to work on something that could be a potential green replacement to the widely accepted, existing technologies. My research supervisor was from a corrosion science background. Naturally, my PhD topic was focused on eco-friendly methods to prevent metal corrosion. As I started going deeper and deeper, I realized how the commercially available, conventional paints/coatings were highly toxic and hazardous to health, safety and environment. The widely used volatile organic component (VOC), Hexavalent Chromium and several pigments that are used in paints/coatings can pollute water, soil and air and also induce carcinogenic effects in the human body. 

To cut a long story short, developing eco-friendly technologies and maintaining a high level of sustainability were the key factors that influenced me to take this research path. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career that you wanted? 

I always had a strong aspiration to take up a career in scientific research. So after completion of M.Sc., aiming for a PhD. was an obvious choice. Being a rank holder, apart from National Eligibility Test (NET) and General Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE), I also applied for the prestigious Inspire Fellowship offered by the Government of India. My application was selected for Inspire Fellowship and I got full funding for a five year PhD Program. One unique feature of this Inspire Fellowship was that, under this fellowship, PhD Scholars could opt for collaborative projects with other institutes, industries in India as well as abroad. 

As I started my research career with the aim to replace environmentally hazardous technologies that have been adopted by industry, it was very crucial for me to develop a deeper level understanding of how the industry works. So my first collaboration was with Tata Steel R&D, Jamshedpur. My industrial supervisor was Dr. Tapan Kumar Rout who was working as a principal scientist in Tata Steel R&D, Jamshedpur. He’s the person who facilitated my first step into industrial R&D. Working closely with him helped me broaden my idea on how to craft my research work so that it could be suitable to be implemented on a large scale. 

My second collaboration was with CSIR Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT), Hyderabad. I worked there in the dept of Polymer & Functional Materials where I further strengthened my knowledge in corrosion and material science. The scientists and colleagues of  IICT helped and supported me a lot during my PhD. work. 

I set my PhD goal as developing an eco-friendly, water-based (solvent free), anti-corrosive coating system for galvanized steel and aluminum substrate. Additionally, I tried to give utmost importance to low cost, naturally occurring, biodegradable and sustainable resources by re-utilization of industrial waste material to establish zero waste technology. That way, my formulated products would meet regulatory requirements of health and safety and would have adequate potential to be implemented on an industrial scale.

After successful completion of my PhD. It was time for transition from academic research to industrial research. That was a tough time. Once again, I had to wage a war against the old age taboo that  ‘After PhD., one has to be a professor or lecturer in college or university’. 

My PhD work was highly industry oriented which helped me to stand out in the highly competitive industrial job market. Also, more than 80% of PhD scholars run (sometimes they run blindly) behind academic Post-Doctoral Programs with fancy scholarships. I put a leash on this temptation and started searching for industrial post-doctoral programs, even if it paid a much lower amount of scholarship. This was simply because this plan was aligned with my future vision. I was clear that I wanted to see my research work being upscaled for a safer and greener world rather than lying dormant in research articles. After a lot of searching and networking, I got an offer for a one year Post-Doctoral program in a leading silicon manufacturing company. My role was to work on eco-friendly coating formulations for automotive parts. This opportunity opened up a whole new horizon of industrial research in front of me. I extensively utilized the skills that I had developed during my PhD. days in this project, actively participated in brain-storming discussion and idea exchange with foreign counterparts, went through rigorous learnings on high quality safety practices and worked for some big names in the automotive world in the current era.      

This is how I strategically prepared myself for a strong foundation in the industrial research and development sector. 

How did you get your first break? 

After completion of my one year post-doctoral program I actively started searching for a full time position in relevant industries when I came across the vacancy for a scientist position on my LinkedIn feed. I applied for this position and my industry oriented work experience helped me to make it through. 

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

Frankly speaking, there were many and I don’t know how to summarize them briefly. 

Challenge 1: 

After finishing my B.Sc, when I entered IIT, I was surrounded with very smart minds. Slowly I realized I need to do something about my introvert and shy nature. I realised that talent, good scores and brilliance are not going to save me always. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with being an introvert, but it’s also very important to learn the skill of selling yourself, your ideas and your opinion. Even if we are introverted, we must make sure that we’re seen and heard. I struggled to change this aspect of my personality. I started reading books and watching videos on initiating conversations with new people, presenting my views to people and convincing others with my opinion. Slowly I started taking small steps like asking questions and getting into meaningful discussions with professors in classroom lectures, participating in random debates in the canteen or approaching students from other departments for insightful discussions. A highly competitive and dynamic life at IIT literally changed me into a new person with a more outspoken and proactive nature.

Challenge 2: 

My PhD program triggered the next metamorphosis in my life. Just like any other PhD scholar, I too went through a stormy journey. A journey with depression, insecurity and sleepless nights. It was all about encountering one failure after the other. The  chemical reactions failed, the submitted research manuscripts got rejected. When Plan A failed, Plan B was made and eventually Plan B also failed. During that time I was standing far away from the so-called comfort zone and with time I realized that life begins where the comfort zone ends. This journey helped me a lot in learning how to deal with failures and still emerge as a winner. When Plan B failed I was determined enough to go for Plan C, Plan D, Plan E and so on. I just didn’t give up. With every failure I made sure I must continue to do the same thing but next time with more experience and wisdom.

Challenge 3: 

Maintaining a perfect work life balance sometimes seems difficult especially if you work in highly challenging projects. But slowly I’m learning to attain that. I strictly try not to continue my office jobs after working hours or on weekends. Smart planning and time management helps me in finishing my work within office timings. Outside working hours, I give all of my time to my family and hobbies. 

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

Right now I’m working as a scientist and team manager in a leading multinational company in the surface finishing and electroplating sector. I lead a group of five development engineers.

I work in the functional chrome division and our job is to develop wear resistant and corrosion resistant coatings for the automotive, sanitary, electronics, medical and construction industries. Right now, Hex Chrome technology is very much popular worldwide in the electroplating industry because of its high anti-corrosive properties and cost effective nature. But Hex Chrome is highly hazardous for human health and the environment. It is toxic, flammable, as well as a skin irritant with carcinogenic effects and can highly contaminate water, soil and air. As a consequence, the Hex Chrome based technology could be banned worldwide within the next few years. So, coming up with green alternatives in this competitive market is of prime importance. So, as R&D researchers, we all are focused on developing sustainable, new technologies that can compete with existing technologies. 

An innovative mind with strong background and research experience in coating technology, corrosion science, metal surfaces and sustainability is very much needed for this role. My past profile fits the bill perfectly. 

As we are working on some very high priority projects to develop sustainable products for the future market, usual days are mostly hectic. Also, since we closely work with the scientists of our European counterpart, the journey till now is full of new learnings. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, but working on something to make this world a better place always keeps me encouraged and enthusiastic. 

How does your work benefit society? 

I’m trying to pave the path towards a greener, safer and better world through my research work. This one single factor always triggers me to work harder. As a scientist, I always try to remind the younger generation of one famous quote; ‘We do not inherit this earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.’ We have seen a massive growth in science and technology over the past few decades. This exponential growth has caused us to forget that ‘A thin line exists between what we want and what we need.’ It’s a high time that we focus on what we actually need, otherwise we have to pay a huge cost for creating this imbalance under the veil of advancement. We need more researchers, engineers and scientists to take a strong stand to protect our earth and nature from the damage that has been already created, so that this earth can heal and the entire mankind can heal. As the next generation, this responsibility would be on your shoulder.

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

The project I have recently started working on in my organization with the objective of replacing environmentally hazardous Hex Chrome systems with eco-friendly chemistry is the most memorable for me. The project is still at a nascent stage, but I’m hoping that one day we can see it successfully launched in the global market. 

Your advice to students based on your experience

Always try to recognize what it is that gives you the kick and how you’re going to make a difference by pursuing it for this society and mankind. Just being happy with your profession is not enough. Try to make a powerful impact on a larger scale through pursuing your passion. 

Always be flexible and open to change. Please don’t be rigid. Life is all about dismantling your old self and creating a new one. Go for something you really want to achieve and give your best shot. If it works then well and good. If it doesn’t, it’s okay. Most of us have more than one passion or preferences. Try something else and pursue it with the same zeal. Just don’t stop believing in yourself.  If you have pure intentions, everything would eventually work out in your favour. Be open to receive it. 

Don’t be afraid of failure. I know it’s difficult to accept this in this era of rat race. But with time you’d realize that life really doesn’t work out like a MCQ question paper with four options. We all are human beings, we’re imperfect, we all make mistakes and fail. It doesn’t matter how many times you have failed. What is important is, with every failure, you have learned your lessons and try not to repeat them next time. 

Future Plans?

For the next few years of my life I want to continue with meaningful research. But if at any point of time I realize I have done enough of science and research, then my next plan would be to backpack across the world, visiting new places, meeting new people and understanding their life and culture. Once I come back home I’d like to share my experience with this world through my published travel stories.