Sustainability is no longer a buzz word ! However, solutions focused on sustainability are only as impactful as their technical and commercial feasibility on an industrial scale !

Ramendra Pandey, our next pathbreaker, Senior Scientist at Aditya Birla Group, analyzes new technologies focused on process sustainability, wastewater treatment, waste recovery and renewable energy for techno-commercial evaluation.

Ramendra talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about pivoting his career from Biotechnology to Chemical Engineering in order to gain a strong foundation in renewable energy technologies.

For students, no decision is right or wrong. You just have to take a decision, own up to it and make it right !

Ramendra, can you take us through your background?

I was born in Kanpur and raised in Jaipur and Delhi where I completed my primary and secondary school education respectively. As a North Indian, people often find it strange when they learn that I had studied in a government Tamil Education Association School in Delhi. At that time, learning Tamil made no sense to me. But through some magic of the universe, many years later that knowledge of Tamil would come in handy during my B.Tech and M.Tech in Tamil Nadu. 

I can proudly say that studying in a Tamil school inculcated good cultural adaptation skills in me from a very young age. As far as education was concerned, I was always a good student. My parents gave me enough independence to make my own choices when it came to choosing what to study and how. Part of the reason for that independence was their own limited awareness of the major education and in demand job trends. Hence even as a student, I took most decisions by myself irrespective of whether they were right or wrong. Decision making skills were indirectly being ingrained in me from an early age.

During school days, I didn’t have much clarity on what exactly I wanted to pursue as a career. Being good in science and mathematics, I knew I could explore careers in the medical or engineering field, which were the popular choices back in the day. Moreover, I didn’t have any inclination or much exposure towards sports or any other field. Hence, I as well as my family, were content with the only two options we were aware of. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

After having failed in the PMT (Pre-Medical Test) for MBBS directly after 12th, I was dejected. I dropped out one year after 12th and reappeared for both PMT and AIEEE the next year. This time I cleared both PMT and AIEEE, but chose to go for BTech in Industrial Biotechnology at SASTRA University in “Tamil Nadu” (at the time it was No.1 private university for  Biotechnology) instead of doing BDS (I had a psychological barrier towards dentistry as a profession) from a dental  college in Uttar Pradesh. I left Delhi (a major life changing decision in my life) to pursue my BTech. While making this decision, I had no idea what biotechnology was. All I knew was that there is a big scope for it in the coming years and I had some interest in biology.  

After BTech,  I wanted to go abroad for a MS and work in a foreign land, but it didn’t materialize due to lack of funds. Thereafter, I pursued my MTech in Renewable Energy from CSIR-Central Electrochemical Research Institute (Chennai, Tamil Nadu) and PhD in Chemical Engineering from CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory (Pune, Maharashtra).

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

My interest towards sustainability developed over the years starting from my BTech. It was while I was doing my BTech (around 4th semester) that I realized that Biotechnology was not something I wanted to make a career in. Instead, I found my interest veering towards analytical subjects, and especially chemical engineering. Still, I didn’t have much clarity on how I could transition into a career in chemical engineering. After I graduated from BTech, I had 4 options to choose from – MS in Bioprocess Engineering at Wageningen University in Netherlands, MS in Agriculture and Bioprocess Engineering at North Carolina State University, MTech in Chemical Engineering at NIT Jaipur, and an IT job at TCS. I always wanted to work in a core area and hence I was very sure about not going for an IT job. The study abroad options didn’t work out due to lack of finances. Hence, at the time, the only option that made sense to me was to go for MTech at NIT Jaipur.

I joined NIT Jaipur and started my journey towards becoming a chemical engineer. Three months into the MTech, I got an offer to pursue a 5 year Integrated MTech-PhD in Renewable Energy at CSIR-CECRI, Chennai. This was something I had casually applied for on the recommendation of one of my close friends. I had no plans to pursue a PhD up until this moment. I quit my MTech in the middle and joined CSIR. I must add that one major reason for this transition was also that I was offered a Trainee Scientist position and a good stipend. It was just a better techno-economic proposition for me than the MTech I was already pursuing.

Joining CSIR was another life changing decision for me which eventually brought me to where I am today. CSIR gave me the technical anchor I always needed to excel in my career. It was CSIR where I met great Scientists and Mentors who transformed me both personally and professionally. Dr. Bala Pesala, Dr. P. Sridhar and Dr. Balaji Rao were some of the Scientists at CSIR, Chennai who gave initial direction to my interest in renewable energy research, particularly in solar energy and fuel cells. As my supervisor Dr. P. Sridhar was superannuating around the completion of my MTech, my PhD was in jeopardy as I didn’t have clarity about who else to work with. I started applying for a PhD abroad and got an offer to pursue a PhD at Monash University, Australia. 

When I was about to finish my MTech, I met another great Scientist and a great mentor in Dr. Ashish Lele (Current Director at CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory), a hard core chemical engineer and an expert in polymer science. It was he who made me fall in love with scientific problem solving. He changed my outlook towards research and approach to picking problems worth solving. I was so inspired by him that I rejected the offer from Monash and got myself transferred to NCL Pune to pursue my PhD with Dr. Lele. He introduced me to the field of polymeric membranes and taught me how to approach an interdisciplinary research problem. Along the way, I met more such great mentors at CSIR-NCL. Dr. K. Guruswamy, Dr. V. Premnath and Dr. Magesh Nandagopal were few other scientists who had a big role to play in my transformation from a novice PhD student to a well-rounded professional.

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

My career has not been a well-planned one. There have been many occasions when a decision other than what I actually decided could have changed things for the better or for the worse. My approach was never to get stuck in paralysis by analysis. My decisions were always mine and I took full responsibility for them. The best thing about such an approach to decision making is that you have no one to blame or praise but yourself. I love a quote by Mr. Ratan Tata about decisions wherein he says “I don’t believe in taking right decisions. I take decisions and then make them right.” This is one of the mantras that I still follow in my life. 

Due to my dying interest in biotechnology and increasing interest in chemical engineering during my BTech, it was important for me to make a transition. In our Industrial Biotechnology curriculum, we had subjects from biotechnology as well as from chemical engineering. I used this to my advantage to make a transition and applied for MS and MTech in Chemical Engineering as well. I joined MTech in Renewable Energy, as it was a good opportunity to transition and work closely on technologies like batteries and fuel cells which required knowledge of fundamentals in chemical engineering.  

When I first got into CSIR, I got introduced to the field of renewable energy generation and storage. There I learnt about solar, wind, hydrogen, and battery technologies and why these technologies are critical for preventing a global climate catastrophe. The knowledge about these technologies was necessary to sensitize myself and to envision the impact of these technologies. My interest only grew with time and especially during my PhD as I got opportunities to interact with some of the finest brains in our country. By the time I finished my PhD, I was very sure that renewable energy and sustainability is what I want to build a professional career in. 

During my MTech, I got good exposure to solar based technologies (Photovoltaics (PV) and thermal) and hydrogen based fuel cells. The idea of the program was to cover all aspects of energy, related to generation (solar, wind, bioenergy and fuel cells) and storage (batteries). Of course, there are other generation and storage technologies as well, but these technologies were the focus of the course. Solar PV and solar thermal technologies convert the energy from sunlight directly to electricity and heat respectively. I did short term projects on developing solar lanterns and solar cookers along with other team members to gain a hands-on experience on the fundamentals of the technology. 

For my MTech thesis, I worked on hydrogen fuel cells which are electrochemical devices that combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and heat simultaneously. These fuel cells required hydrogen and oxygen (from air) to be humidified. Through my work, I was able to develop novel humidification methods for fuel cells which later got patented in Europe and the work also got published in a reputed international journal.  

I extended my work on fuel cell humidification to my PhD wherein I developed indigenous and novel membrane humidifiers which found its application in fuel cells and gas humidification. Fuel cell technology is being looked at as an alternative to battery based electric vehicles (EVs). The major advantages of fuel cell based electric vehicles include quick refueling (<5 – 10 min) and longer mileage (distance/kg H2). Battery EVs typically take >>1 h to charge due to large battery banks and have relatively lesser mileage. However, while battery EVs have gained commercial momentum (thanks to Teslas of the world), fuel cell technology is still struggling due to high cost. The cost of fuel cell technology is affected at least as much by the balance of plant (BOP: humidification, thermal management, compressors etc.) as much as it is affected by the fuel cell itself (fuel cell contains platinum catalyst, metallic plates, proton exchange membranes etc.). Hence, our aim was to contribute towards reducing the cost of BOP by developing cost-effective humidification solutions to contribute towards economic viability of the technology in India. The objective of my PhD was to develop low cost humidifiers by first understanding the science at nano and macro scales behind already available commercial humidifiers and then use that understanding to develop alternative membrane humidifiers to achieve similar or superior performance at ~1/10th the cost. Through my work, we were able to meet both these objectives at a lab scale. 

How did you get your first break?

It was during my PhD that I learned about the importance of networking. I used to observe my advisor and other scientists at NCL and identify the reasons for their success. I realized that most scientists who had a good network with the industry were able to bring in good projects and do meaningful research which had an impact on society. 

I started networking with people in key positions across industries. Since there is typically no placement hiring done for PhDs, the post PhD career path is often not very clear to students. Many students go for post-docs to further their career into hard-core research. I didn’t want to do a post-doc as I didn’t want to be in a situation where I asked myself, “What do I do now?” yet again. Moreover, the idea of working in the industry and solving problems that directly impact society made much more sense to me. Hence, I started discussing the need for student-industry networking seminars with my mentors. Leveraging their network, we started conducting student seminars where we would invite delegates from relevant industries to attend and get to know the kind of expertise the student has. The industry then could directly contact the student if they were interested in hiring him/her. This was a “career-maker” event for many students who got offers from industry including me. I got an offer from Aditya Birla Group and Thermax Ltd. even before I had submitted my thesis. I had two very good options to choose from. I chose Aditya Birla Group as the job profile was much closer to what I really wanted.     

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

Challenge 1: Getting over a break-up

This was a major setback in my PhD journey, that too in the very first year. I had a broken heart and nothing else mattered. I needed healing and soon, as my work started getting affected and the clock was ticking. I found my healing and closure through a lot of struggle and pain. Meditation and open communication with my free therapist (my sister who is a content writer and not a professional therapist) helped immensely. I almost lost one year to it, being sloppy and less productive at work. I realized that if I had to finish my PhD in the time frame that I had earlier planned, I would have to work twice as hard now. I pulled myself together, got my focus back and was able to finish my PhD in less than 4 years.

Challenge 2: Developing a good network

This was especially important to get the right job that I wanted after PhD. My network at the beginning was small and largely inactive. I started becoming more active on LinkedIn by connecting with key influencers. I started interacting with my mentors about potential opportunities and understanding how to prepare to grab a good job offer. By the end of my PhD, I had developed a good network in industry, as well as with researchers across industries. It was not just a task for me to grow my network, but more of a skill I needed to learn, to collaborate, to learn from others and to explore symbiotic professional relationships. 

Challenge 3: Be ready when the opportunity strikes

I believe that luck is when opportunity meets preparation. I worked on my presentation skills, my communication skills and remained actively engaged with my network. I kept the focus on completing my PhD as soon as possible. I didn’t know how or when I would get a job, but I knew that I had to be ready if an opportunity presented itself. I believe this preparedness is why I had two job offers even before I finished my PhD.  

Where do you work now? What is your role as Scientist at Aditya Birla Group?

I am currently working as a Senior Scientist at Aditya Birla Group. A major part of my work revolves around evaluating new technologies for process sustainability, wastewater treatment, recovery from waste, and renewable energy. After technical evaluation, we perform an economic evaluation before we give recommendations to our group businesses to adopt a particular technology. We also develop in-house technologies for problems specific to our manufacturing units to help them achieve operational excellence and improve process efficiencies. The technologies are scaled from lab to commercial scale through rigorous experimental and theoretical investigations. Furthermore, a key area we work on is developing scientific understanding of the existing processes. This helps us give recommendations to manufacturing units for process optimization. 

To do a good job in the techno-economic evaluation or technology development in an industrial R&D setup, one needs to work with speed and accuracy. A sound knowledge of the general scientific fundamentals and your specific subject knowledge are the basic prerequisites. An ability to ask good questions goes a big way in understanding things better. A PhD degree definitely works in your favor as it imparts that training (at least if you have worked with a good advisor). My PhD advisor used to tell me that “if you just formulate the problem well, 50% of your job is done”. That is what I try to do at my job as well. 

My typical day at the office is filled with mostly scientific and sometimes non-scientific problem solving. If I were to apply the Pareto principle (80:20 principle) to my work, I would say that 80% of my days at office are really exciting and filled with brainstorming, technology scouting, conducting proof-of-concept studies in the laboratory, and giving technical presentations to the management to make them see eye to eye. For a person like me who gets easily bored of the routine stuff, the dynamism and variegated nature of the job is what I love the most.  

How does your work benefit society? 

Ever since I got into research, I always felt a disconnect when I would work on a problem that would contribute to science but not create any meaningful impact on society. I didn’t enjoy publishing my scientific work when I very well knew that this work would never find any use in society. I wanted to work on real world problems that would have a direct impact on society or industry. 

As a part of my job at ABG on sustainability, I get to create that impact by developing technological solutions for a persistent problem which would enhance process sustainability, minimize environmental impact of our business, and plug process inefficiencies. The technological solutions that we develop or introduce directly affects the air and water quality in the vicinity of our manufacturing units. We also help reduce the water footprint of our processes by developing solutions for water and chemical recovery from waste. It gives me great satisfaction, when through my work I know that “X” amount of pollutant is now not going into the nearby sea or river or air. I also get to apply my knowledge on renewable energy and give technical inputs on specific projects on solar and hydrogen. 

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

I believe that the “memorable work” that I wish to do is yet to come. However, in the small span of my career I am especially proud of the work that I have done to enable water conservation for a couple of our fiber manufacturing units. Through an ion-exchange technology developed by my team, our manufacturing unit now can save 7 lakh liters of water per day. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My 2-cents for students 

  • Everyone needs a mentor and so do you. They may be your parents or siblings as well. He/She may save you from a bad decision. 
  • Once you decide on something, take full responsibility for its success or failure.
  • Don’t be rigid on your dreams. If your dreams didn’t come true, dream some more.  
  • Develop a habit of reading sooner than later.
  • Never stop learning. Focus on developing a growth mindset. 
  • Good soft skills are at least as important as technical skills if not more. 
  • Network with people who you want to become like. You will be surprised to learn that more people want to help.
  • Choose your 5 people (you hang out with most often) wisely.
  • Studying or working in India can be a better option than studying abroad. You just need to find the right people to work with.    

Future Plans?

Professionally, I aim to continue my exploration of technologies to help businesses achieve process sustainability. In the process, I wish to keep developing technology solutions to contribute to India’s energy security and environmental impact.

On a personal level, I enjoy helping students and professionals who struggle with acquiring soft skills and in general on professional development. This is something that gives me immense pleasure and I wish to keep doing this for more and more people.