The three R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) are really important when it comes to plastics, as addressing environmental issues is of paramount concern for the whole world !

Priyanka Main, our next pathbreaker, PhD researcher in the Department of Polymer Engineering and Science, Montanuniversitaet Leoben (MUL), Austria, aims to make Circular Economy possible by exploring mechanical recycling as a viable option for Bioplastics.

Priyanka talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about enjoying the twin opportunities of working on an interesting topic, bioplastics and tackling the world’s most pressing challenge, recycling.

For students, you are going to inherit the planet and so you should play a critical role in protecting it. Make it your aim to work on sustainable solutions for plastics.

Priyanka, can you tell us a bit about Your background?

Hello to the next generation! My name is Priyanka Main and I am a PhD Researcher in Montanuniversität Leoben (MUL), Austria, working in the field of biopolymer recycling. I was born in Kerala, India and brought up in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman, as both my parents were working there. I spent my childhood in this beautiful paradise and went to Indian School Muscat, Oman. In 11th Grade, I chose the Science stream (PCMB). I was interested in psychology and linguistics and briefly considered the Humanities stream as well, but my love for Science trumped all, and PCMB it was!

I used to also take part in quiz competitions and was a Spelling Bee champion for a few years in a row. I read voraciously, nothing comes close to the joy I get while holding a book in my hand (and more recently on my Kindle/iPad). Other than pleasure and as a stress reliever (especially during the Board exams), reading expanded my vocabulary and helped me win the Spelling Bee competitions. Apart from reading, I also took piano and Odissi lessons for a few years.

I am very fortunate to have an incredibly cool family to support and back me. My mother was a school teacher in the same school, so yes, I am the proud daughter of an educator. She taught Mathematics and Science. My father was in the Indian Navy and then joined the Royal Yacht Squadron, Oman, and was mostly sailing and on land for short periods. He then decided to come onshore and worked for Dahra Logistics and Marketing LLC. They both retired last year during the pandemic and moved back to Kerala. My brother is an architect based in Kerala.  My husband Geevarghese George, holds a PhD in Polymer Physics from the University of Strasbourg and is currently exploring the data science domain.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I did my bachelors in Polymer Science and Engineering from the Dept. of Polymer Science and Rubber Technology, Cochin University of Science and Technology. Immediately after that, I went for my Master’s in Polymer Science and Technology from the Centre for Polymer Science and Engineering (now called DMSE Dept. of Materials Science and Engineering), Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.

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

My plans after 12th Grade were still hazy compared to those of my classmates who were sure about their progression to the medical field. But I wasn’t interested in that. In my 12th Grade Chemistry, we had a small chapter on Polymers. Though It was just a few pages, something about them piqued my interest. At that time nobody had heard much about polymers and my mother and I had to google if there were any disciplines connected to it. The decision to continue my studies in India was made because of the quality of higher education in India. I was also excited about coming to India since I could experience and explore my native place. During my bachelors, I came to realize the different prospects and scope of polymer science, which naturally led to my masters.

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

In the sixth semester of my bachelor studies, I was assigned a research project to study the effectiveness of residual latex as a rubber formulation filler. (In hindsight, this was my first foray into the world of recycling!)

I also got the opportunity to work with various institutions, small and big, during my bachelors. I am most proud about being selected for my final year project at the VSSC-ISRO (Vikram Sarabhai Space Center, Trivandrum). Before our batch, only 1 senior student was chosen to go to VSSC. My thesis topic was to study the effect of different curing agents on BIIR compounds (used to make oil seals for space vehicles) in terms of their curing characteristics, mechanical properties, crosslink density and compatibility with Hydrazine.

My mindset since childhood was to be consistent and do my best in all exams, no matter what. I came to college with the same thought process. There were of course some setbacks here and there. Some of the biggest challenges were to manage when there were no notes provided, or when the lectures got cancelled. Together with some of my friends, we made the best of what was available.

From the different prospects of polymer science which I was exposed to during the bachelors, I got motivated to pursue a masters. This time I wanted to study at India’s topmost research institutions, the IITs. I started my preparations for GATE and secured an All India Rank (AIR) of 90. Only one IIT offered a masters in polymer engineering – IIT Delhi, and that’s the only IIT I sent my application to. For the interview, I still remember the interviewer asking me to draw the structure of Chloroprene! It was such a basic question at this level, but a reminder of how strong the fundamentals are required to be.

During my master’s thesis, I got the opportunity to conduct a collaborative project with JNU, Delhi in soft matter/biopolymers. My Master’s supervisor Prof. B.K. Satapathy introduced me to Prof. H. B. Bohidar, School of Physical Sciences (SPS), JNU and I got a chance to study the complexation of Pectin and Gelatin A and to later continue with nanocomposite study of Gelatin A, SDS and Laponite. This was my introduction to biopolymers. I also interacted with a lot of researchers in SPS who were doing state of the art research in soft matter science. During my time at SPS, I  realized my inner calling to go after a PhD. In the final semester of my masters, I gave my TOEFL (114/120) and GRE (317/340) exams and had started sending out my applications to several prestigious universities for polymer science in the US. But things didn’t go as planned. I simply couldn’t get in even after getting shortlisted. I realised that an immediate entry to a PhD program might be difficult. But I kept applying to other universities and research institutes. After my masters, I came back to Kerala. In the meantime, I got into Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala as a Project Assistant under the leadership of Prof. Sabu Thomas. I was part of a broad project entitled XLPE nanocomposites and I was able to contribute to a review article and co-edit a book during my time there.

How did you get your first break?

From a job portal, I found a vacancy in Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Bengaluru for the post of Assistant Scientific Officer in the Foundry and Forge Division. I appeared for the written exam based on my preparation for GATE. But on seeing the number of people that had appeared (120, which I later came to know), among which my seniors and juniors from IIT were present as well, I was a bit taken aback but decided to give it my best shot. Then a few weeks later, I got the mail, I was in! After an extensive medical check-up (which ended up in me having to undergo LASIK eye surgery, nerd glasses off!) and police verification, I finally got my offer letter. I moved to Bengaluru in 2017 and started as a freshly minted Grade I Officer in the Chemical Organic Section of Central Materials and Processes Laboratory, Foundry and Forge Division. Some of the tasks were testing of rubber, plastics, adhesives, oil, fuel, lubricants, paints and organic solvents; indigenization as well as defect investigation activities. I learned a lot about the corporate culture in a PSU which was so different from the academic world which I was used to inhabiting. My public speaking skills improved as I was asked to anchor all the official programs conducted by CMPL. I also got the opportunity to mentor the trainees assigned to my section. I was even involved in an R&D project about recycling plastic waste and testing paver tiles. My transferable skills had greatly improved after my time at HAL. But after three years at HAL, I decided to quit my job and “apply full-time” to PhD positions. Just before leaving India to join my husband in France, I gave one last PhD interview. After reaching France, I got an email stating I have been selected. This was the break I had been waiting for.

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

Challenge 1 (current): The biggest challenge so far has been the pandemic. I had to move to France and subsequently to Austria for my PhD in the middle of the pandemic. My PhD which is inherently experimental has been challenging to work on, as everyone is forced to work remotely during this period. 

Hence, I had to learn to use a lot of new collaborative software on the fly. Also, unfortunately, the 1st three NTEs (Network Training Events) which are an integral part of my PhD have had to be conducted virtually, thereby resulting in the loss of a lot of networking opportunities. But NTE 4 is slated to be a hybrid version, in which I can meet all my other fellow ESRs in person. As the vaccination rollout has been successful so far in Austria, I am looking forward to working full time in the Lab soon.

Challenge 2 (during graduation): My bachelors, masters, project assistantship and then my job made me move a total of 4 times in 10 years. I had to adapt to each new place quickly. But I found having an open mind and being ready to experience each new opportunity is the key. Do not be afraid, but be brave and take the leap of faith when it is time.

Challenge 3 (after school): As my family was back in Muscat, I had only myself to rely on after leaving Muscat for my higher education. Only in such a situation do you realise your true capabilities and make effective decisions. Another important factor is the people you surround yourself with, the ones who are your family away from home. I have been fortunate in every step of my way to have a great set of friends and support system wherever I have been. 

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

I am doing my PhD in the Chair of Polymer Processing, Dept. Polymer Engineering and Science, Montanuniversitaet Leoben (MUL), Austria (in collaboration with UGent, Belgium). My topic is on Biobased Plastics for a Circular Economy and it is part of a broad project, C-PlaNeT (Circular Plastics Network for Training), which is a project funded by the European Union (EU) in the framework of the H2020 Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions (H2020 MSCA ITN).

In this project, we are trying to make Circular Economy possible for plastics by bringing them back into the loop. I am trying to solve the problem of making mechanical recycling a viable option for bioplastics for the circular economy, in particular PHAs. The technical skills needed are, in general, knowledge of polymer science, polymer processing, polymer testing and characterization. These are skills that I have developed through my experience over more than 10 years.

A typical week involves discussions with the supervisor and team, keeping abreast with reference papers, attending lectures, conducting lectures (spreading the word about bioplastics!), working on the machines in the lab, testing the specimens made. I also try to keep myself updated with the latest news in plastics and policies that impact my research. Out of interest, I also attend German language classes.

Research has been my passion for a long time. There is nothing more enjoyable than tackling an interesting topic like this which involves my twin interests, bioplastics and recycling. Moreover, the chance to work with a multidisciplinary team of ESRs and coming at it from different angles is very exciting indeed. We are currently working on a children’s book, as science has to be “told” to young children as well.

How does your work benefit society? 

The need of the hour is to make plastics more sustainable. We can’t imagine a world without plastics. It is one of the most versatile and useful materials, but because of the lack of proper End of Life (EoL) options, plastics have ended up in the oceans, in landfills or on roads due to littering, none of which are acceptable options. 

The three R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) are really important when it comes to plastics. In my project, we are focusing on the R for Recycle. Due to the potential for carbon neutrality, to have independence from crude oil reserves, bioplastics are the more sustainable option. Right now only the drop-in bioplastics (bio-PE, bio-PET) have the option for mechanical recycling as their properties are the same as that of their conventional counterparts. But the biobased and biodegradable bioplastics like PLA, PHA still have only composting or incineration as their end of life option. This leads to the requirement of mechanical recycling to also be a viable option, since this method allows the polymer structure to be preserved, hence making it a sustainable EoL option in the long run. 

As this issue is of paramount concern for the whole world, as is seen by the European Union’s Green Deal and Circular Economy Action Plan, we need more participation from the next generation, involving polymer engineers and other actors in the value chain. They are going to inherit the planet and will be instrumental in protecting it. Polymers/plastics are not the problem, but the way WE deal with them is. And WE need to find a long-term solution.

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

This is not specifically from my work, but I think this was a learning experience: In my search for a PhD, I got selected for an interview by the Center for Materials Physics (CFM) in San Sebastián, Spain. The interview was to be held in person and so they flew me in with all the travel and accommodation costs being covered by CFM. I was surprised to find out that I was the only Indian present and impressed by the fact that the institute really wanted me there. I gave it my best and was hopeful of getting the scholarship. The interview results came after a few days and I was placed on the waiting list. I didn’t get in.

But I did not stop applying after this rejection, and after another year of applications, I was selected for the current MSCA project at MUL/UGent. Every time I think of this, I believe this was God’s plan to give me a free 5-day trip to Spain (+my first trip to the EU). Also, it taught me that even if we give it all, some things are not in our hands, and we can only keep trying till the right one comes along.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice is to work hard and keep trying in whichever situation you are in. Be curious and eager to learn as you can never know everything. Keep an open mind.

If you have a plan, stick to it. If you don’t, you will figure it out. 

Future Plans?

The aim is to continue working on sustainable solutions for plastics.