Water and Land are not only the world’s scarcest natural resources, but also the basic need of humans. Hence, lets not underestimate the significance of ensuring the availability of clean soil and groundwater for development and sustenance.
Vidya Wagh, our next pathbreaker, Environmental Consultant & Engineer, works with large clients in the Power, Chemical, Oil & Gas and Pharmaceutical sector to support them in solving complex land contamination issues.
Vidya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the contrasting approaches to environmental issues in the United States and India, and adapting to the situation by leveraging her global experience and understanding the local environment.
For students, if you thrive on the challenges of field work and have the ability to provide practical solutions to environmental problems on-the-ground, this is the career for you !
Vidya, Your background?
I am an Environmental Engineer by profession. I specialize in remediation of contaminated land – soil and groundwater (explained below in other sections). I was born and brought up in Mumbai, Maharashtra. As stereotypical as it may sound, my favorite food is Vada Pav.
I come from a south Indian family. My parents hail from Tamil Nādu, but my father moved to Mumbai for work, and my family has been here since. My father was working with the Mumbai Port Trust and my mother is a housewife. My father passed away when I was 8 and so I have been raised by my mother (continue to be raised :)).
My earlier education was from Mumbai University. I was strongly inclined towards Mathematics, Chemistry and Biology. My one extracurricular activity which is also my passion is Bharatanatyam which I started learning at the age of 9 against the strong objection of my mother since she thought learning Carnatic music was more beneficial. But I have always been a rebel and wanted to follow my own path rather than following the herd mentality. Though my ambition was to become a classical dancer, we did not have knowledge and information about various professions during the times we grew up in.
So, I pursued the most common route of Engineering since I was good at Mathematics and Chemistry. My family always believed that I should be financially independent and always have a career to support me. This really helped me focus and persevere at the later stages of my career.
My brother and my cousins in my extended family are all in the IT industry, so it was obvious that I would pursue Computer Engineering and eventually join the family tradition. But that did not happen.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
So, this is where I diverged from the family tradition. I could not get into Computer Engineering due to lesser percentage and my next choice was Civil or Construction Engineering. The choice leaned towards construction engineering since it had more of the project management aspect as well. Hence my graduation was in construction engineering from Mumbai University
I have been blessed with a family, especially my brother and my mother, who pushed me to pursue higher education which definitely helped in my career. At that time, I did not see the benefit, however, I did later and now even more. My post-graduation is in MS in Environmental Engineering from Syracuse University in NY, USA.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
The goal after construction engineering was to get placed in an IT company during campus placement since at that time, there was an IT boom and any engineering student hired from campus would be trained by the company with no discrimination with respect to the type of engineering he/she graduated from.
However, during my 3rd year of Engineering, we had a course in Environmental Engineering, and I realized I was pretty good at the course. Our professor was also very good at explaining the concepts as he was very passionate about it. My interest grew primarily because of the passion shown by the professor, and he used to have after class conversations about it. I was also very good at Structural Engineering, primarily due to the professor.
The turning point in my career was my final year project which our team did in a Wastewater treatment plant, and we were lucky to get a tour of one of the wastewater plants in a leading industrial facility. The project was completed successfully and steered my interest in pursuing environmental engineering.
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
This one was a bit tricky since Environmental Engineering was not a profession that was common or even heard of in India. The Masters in the US was a huge stepping stone in my career. When I landed in the US for my Masters, I was very naïve, and I only followed procedure and advice from family and peers. I was able to pursue Masters in the US because I received a 50% scholarship on my fees which later got converted to a 100% scholarship in my second year. But this only covered my fees. For my living expenses, I worked at the University food court. When you pursue Masters, you are allowed to work for 20 hours a week since you only had classes 3 to 4 days a week. That was my first job in my life.
In India, I would have never imagined working in a food court (then in my time. Now it is different and is required). It involved everything from cooking, cutting vegetables/meat, supervising food counters, cleaning tables, floors, cleaning utensils and helping out with anything in the kitchen. I met some amazing people and learnt some very important lessons. I learnt hard work, punctuality, survival, and fun at this job. This will always be my first job.
When you are in your teens and early adulthood, you tend to rebel against everything and do not easily agree to being pushed in a certain direction. But now when I look back, the advice and the support from my family, professors, my co-workers in my first job, helped me tremendously and I am who I am purely because of the support my family provided and my perseverance towards my career.
During my Masters, my guide was my inspiration. She is a strong woman professor and helped me in a lot of ways. She is my motivator and mentor that I follow and am in touch with even now. She is a person who made a difference in the society through her profession and an incredibly smart, confident, and inspirational human being. Her approach and dedication to her work continues to inspire me in my career.
My career path became a little clear while working as a Research Associate (unpaid) with my guide. She would discuss what was going on in the industry, the various options available and would advise us about academic progression and industry experience. For me, industry experience looked more attractive. My course in Bioremediation, Toxicology and Environmental Risk perception was the last push for me to pursue this career path. I have never known these when I was in India and my curiosity and enthusiasm was piqued by these learnings.
In the US, after Masters, you get a 1-year grace period to look for a job or else you must return to India. Following my Masters, my brother (who was in the US at the time), helped me with my resume and worked me through mock interviews and supported me in applying through various job portals online.
When applying to your first job, always remember that persistent effort is very fruitful. It is hard to have confidence when you are right out of college, but no one does and I did not either. But you build confidence by being persistent and facing more interviews. Interviews are a way of learning as well and you only do better in consequent ones. Once you are done with an interview, learn from it by increasing your knowledge base and tweaking your resume.
I started working as an Environmental Engineer and to date I am in the same role but with more experience. I specialize in contaminated land. Contaminated land means land in which chemicals were not handled properly and they spilled on the ground and spread widely. The soil and the water between the pores of the soil gets impacted with harmful chemicals and the land cannot be used for construction or any other purpose and the water cannot be used for any domestic or industrial purpose. My job is to investigate this land (soil and groundwater), identify the harmful chemicals present and design and implement processes to clean the soil and groundwater to bring it back to its original condition.
My career path has been very challenging, demanding, and full of learnings and unique experiences. To date, I have 17 years of experience as an Environmental Engineer/Consultant. I spent 7 years of my experience in the US building my foundation and the rest has been in India, using my US experience to navigate the complex environment industry in India. There is a huge difference in the Environmental industry in the US and in India. The US is highly advanced and technical with stringent laws whereas in India, the laws are vague or do not exist.
Being an Environmental Engineer in the US is very exciting. US is the most advanced country when it comes to Environmental work, especially in my specialization of remediation of soil and groundwater. US has well-defined Environmental regulations and since they are enforced well, there are lot of consulting firms offering job opportunities. There are also lots of varying projects within various sectors that you can work on. You also get the opportunity to work with Federal government (similar to central pollution control board in India) and State government (similar to state pollution control board in India) projects. US regulations are much more advanced, and they continue to research new contaminants that affect human health and Environment. The regulations are defined for air quality, groundwater quality, soil quality, surface water quality, sediment quality and indoor air quality. There are heavy fines for violating the laws and the enforcement is very strict.
Because every sector must invest in addressing environmental related issues, there are lots of technologically advanced techniques in the market that you can implement for every soil and groundwater issue. It was exciting for me to learn about many such technologies – to list a few – Soil Vapor Extraction, Air-Sparging, Groundwater Pump & Treat, In-situ Chemical Oxidation, Thermal Remediation, Bioremediation, sub-slab vapor extraction system (for vapors that may enter in the building due to soil contamination below it) and many others. Each of these can be used singularly for a particular project or can be combined with other technologies depending on the type of contaminant you identify in your assessment. As an environmental consultant, my job is to advise the client on the project, conduct preliminary assessment and suggest remedy. Once the remedy is approved by the client, then I design the remediation system, send the design to various vendors so they can build it for me and then my team oversees the installation of it at the project site. Following installation, my team continues to monitor and collect data to ensure the system is working efficiently and effectively and it is cleaning the soil and groundwater to regulatory defined levels. The project can go into remedy not only if it affects human health but also any species in the water or land. Local regulations in the US take into consideration all that affect environment and its preservation. In the US, I worked with top Oil & Gas industries, Government projects and Power sector industries. These clients would have portfolios of projects across US. So, with a single client, I would be working on 300 to 400 projects across one region and each of them would have a new challenge. My primary work was in New York State and New York City (NYC). NYC projects were lot more fun and extremely complex, and each project would come with a new challenge.
When I moved to India, I started working with Environmental Resource Management (ERM), India and it was completely different. In India, the Environmental laws are not well defined for soil and groundwater or even surface water. The regulation does not include a lot of contaminants and hence the law cannot be enforced. The laws are based on the industries that were established then, however, they need to be updated to include contaminants that continue to affect the quality of our land. In addition, these are not enforced strictly. There is not much awareness as well for these laws. Those of us who work in the industry are aware, however, a common person would not even know that he has the right to demand clean soil and water quality. This is very different from the US where the common person in the society is aware of his rights and can file a case if he feels someone is polluting his land.
Because the laws are not defined, there is not much opportunity to work on contaminated land project. In India, my sectors were a bit different like manufacturing, pharmaceutical and chemical industries and these were all multinational companies. These opportunities were also because ERM is a global consultant and hence the clients who were working with the US office would source the work to India office for their companies in India. Even with the current work that I do with Arcadis, my clients are global companies. But the advantage is these are large projects and would keep us busy for a long time. Unlike the US, we have less projects, but they are big ones, and we work on them for 2 to 3 years. The environmental laws are very vague and are interpreted as per each project. They are also not enforced strictly and hence it sometimes becomes difficult to convince the local team (with a global corporate) on why a remediation is important. Also, if a project goes into remediation, its are an expensive affair – a remediation system installation and operation by itself can cost between 50 lakhs to upward of 20 crores or more, depending on the complexity of the project, which is why there is hesitation from the local team. So, the question from the local team would be, if there is no push on the regulatory front, why do anything to clean up. But India also has the polluter’s pay principle, so when the laws do get enforced, the polluter has to pay for it then and by that time, the situation would have gotten worse and would cost more.
In addition, resources for a remediation system are not available easily in India. In the US, once the design is complete, there are vendors who would custom build the system including equipment, plumbing and electrical and deliver it to the project site. Whereas, in India, you must source individual equipment and find a vendor who would put together everything according to your requirement and the vendor would need supervision. Although this work comes with a challenge in India, it has the same excitement and complexity as that in the US. There are other logistical challenges you face, nevertheless, the adrenaline rush of completing a project in India is lot higher than the one in the US. It took me a good year to get used to the culture of working in India. I also worked on Government projects in India, and you need a lot of patience to work with these, but you end up becoming more patient and realize that getting work done is primarily about gaining trust and maintaining relationships.
We are not far from the day when we will have stricter environmental regulations since the world is moving in that direction. Other countries went through the industrial revolution where they exploited the environment and now, they can restore it. Unfortunately for India, we do not have that luxury, we must be in industrial and sustainable revolution at the same time and one of the most important aspect of that is having stricter laws, and even more important is its enforcement without any prejudice. I think the covid times have made us realize how damaged our environment is and when everyone was at home, nature healed itself and we saw clear air, clear skies, view of the Himalayas from far away locations.
How did you get your first break?
After multiple applications and interviews and 3 months of rigorous hard work, I got my first job as an Associate Environmental Engineer in my first company, Groundwater & Environmental Services, Inc (GES).
In our education system, you learn basics and theories and concepts but your job gives you that first insight into practical applications. I was an environmental engineer as a professional and my goal was to absorb every ounce of learning, working knowledge while I was at it.
In the field of Environment, your core learning comes from doing field work. That is how you convert your theories into practical solutions. This is hardcore field work and involves driving heavy duty vehicles, using tools to open manhole like covers, physical exertion and working more than 12 hours and sometimes weekends too. My field work would be anywhere from a gas station to remote barren lands to industrial locations and the work could be in hot summers or in icy winters. But it was all worth it and it built a long-lasting foundation to my career. One important part of being an environmental engineer is that you should learn how to drive 😊.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: An Indian woman in a male dominated profession and in the US.
Growing up, I was brought up by my mother who is a strong and independent woman with worldly knowledge and insights. Seeing her everyday helped me navigate this challenge. I was the only Indian woman in the company and I did face discrimination not only as a woman but also as a minority immigrant. The only way to beat this was persistent effort and continuous performance at work and sometimes ignoring the comments. You can only beat them by rising above them. You also have to learn acceptance of the situation and embrace it rather than fight it. An eye on the goal of what you need to achieve is what helped me through this. I had the fastest growth in the company. In the span of 7 years in the US, I rose from being an associate environmental engineer to a lead engineer. Hard work and upskilling pays you in the long run.
Challenge 2: Cultural Shock & Field work in India
When I moved from the US to India, it was a complete change in work culture. I had never worked in India before and hence it was like I was starting all over again. In the US, the environmental industry is very methodical, defined and bound by stringent laws. Also, in the US, the attitude of working is based on task completion and performance. However, in India, it is purely based on building trust and relationships at work. Relationships hold a higher value in India and whether it is the client or a government agency, the way to navigate through them is a challenge when you come from the US. There were not very many consultancies in India that worked on the kind of projects that I specialize in.
I had to start from the bottom again, but my experience from working in the US helped a lot. I was not afraid to start from the bottom and make my way up. It’s a new experience and you only end up learning from them. I learnt by working in the field with others who had more experience in India. I spent my time studying the local laws, discussions with colleagues and taking up large, challenging projects that would give me experience in all aspects of environmental work in a single project.
When you do field work in India, I work with local industries and most of them are surprised to see a woman in the field in the heat and standing and working for 12 hours straight. Sometimes the clients are rude and ask us to look for another profession or stay at home and take care of the family. But ignorance is bliss and it is better that you ignore them and move along to achieve your goal. For me, I took it as a challenge and laughed it off since I had a lot of people who appreciated and supported what I did.
Challenge 3: Stagnation
With my niche specialization and opportunities for my work only outside of India, I was worried that it would be a while before India would strengthen their laws and there would be projects that would need my expertise. In India, the soil and groundwater laws are vague and, in some cases, do not exist. I started to look for opportunities that would enable working on US projects or with US teams on projects in India. I also looked at upskilling myself by doing courses that would help me technically as well as moving up in a leadership role. So during these covid times, I utilized the opportunity to complete a PG diploma in Environmental Law, became a Chartered Engineer in India and successfully aced in Executive MBA program from Indian Institute of Management – Kozhikode (IIM-K).
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I work as an independent consultant and hold a contractual position as Principal Consultant with Arcadis India Private Limited (Arcadis).
I work with large clients in the Power, Chemical, Oil & Gas and Pharmaceutical sector and help them navigate through their contaminated land issues, help them understand the local environmental laws, advise them on environmental liability issues and coach and mentor the team working with me in my projects. I also work with the team in the US on my projects and seek their support in solving complex contaminated land issues. My team and I conduct assessments through field visits and based on the data we collect by using various technical methods, we design and implement processes for cleaning the contaminated land.
I also work with the central pollution control board (CPCB) and state pollution control boards (SPCBs) who are the regulatory bodies in India for our Environment. I meet with them for project progression and ensuring that the project is moving within the boundaries of the law.
What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?
For my job, I need to know local environmental laws. I also need to possess the ability to design a processing system which will include understanding chemical processes, applying engineering concepts for design of the process, customizing the design to suit Indian conditions, practical experience to implementing the installation of the process on the ground and ability to operate the processing system by conducting maintenance and troubleshooting the issues. It is very important to also keep up to date with the current laws in the country, technological advances in the global environmental industry and digital tools used in the industry.
I acquired these skills through various projects at my work, attending conferences and webinars, navigating through government websites and keeping up to date with the new laws and guidelines and upskilling via courses. I also seek out my mentors and ex-colleagues and pick their brain for complex issues. Social media has been awesome at keeping in touch and reaching out.
What is a typical day like?
My typical day involves following up on ongoing projects with my team, analyzing data from the various field investigations and organizing them in a visually pleasing manner for the client, travel for field visit, if required, client communication, project management, communication with local regulatory bodies and identifying ways to move a project in the right direction. Sometimes, an entire day is spent in just writing technical reports or solving client issues.
What is it you love about this job?
I love the challenge in my job. Every project is different, every team is different, every client is different and every government regulatory body is different. Each brings a different perspective and sometimes they all throw a wrench in your work. Navigating through these challenges and coming up with a unique solution every time is what I enjoy and love about this job. It is very different from every other profession. I enjoy the shocked faces of people when I explain to them what I do and that I still do field work.
It’s an adrenaline rush when I do field work, I get to travel to different places. It is not always work, when we do field work for long periods of time, you also get breaks to explore the place around you and I have had the opportunity to travel not only in the US but in India too. You get to visit remote places where you would typically not go for a vacation, but you get to meet different people and experience their cultures and their food.
How does your work benefit society?
My job is to ensure clean soil and groundwater is available at all times. Although I work as a consultant, when I am done, there is the guarantee of clean soil and water. The land is used for agricultural or construction purposes and I ensure that the soil on the land is clean so as to not contaminate the fields growing on them and protects human health from harmful chemicals.
The groundwater is used for drinking purposes and other domestic, agricultural and industrial use. By ensuring clean groundwater, I help protect human health, ensure that industrial processes use clean water for their manufacturing processes and agriculture fields are producing cleaner products.
Water and soil are basic needs for humans and I think that my little contribution helps in providing a clean and safe means for that.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
Two projects come to mind –
- One in the US, where I had to design a groundwater cleaning system in such a way that some of the components would be underneath a building foundation. So this industrial land was purchased by a real estate company and they were constructing a commercial building on it. They did not want the piping for the processes to be seen above ground. And hence, we worked through Christmas and New Year’s, to complete our piping installation through their foundation. The other challenge was to design the piping such that they can be cleaned and accessed at a later time, and they also had to be sturdy enough to take the load of a 4-storey building. So imagine an elephant sitting on a plastic pipe and ensuring that the pipe does not break due to the permanent weight of the elephant.
- The second project was in India where the project was to cover a hazardous waste landfill so it could become a garden. The waste was stored in a large concrete container – approximately 2 acres (1 acre is 60% of a football field) and we had to design and implement the cover. The cover had to be designed such that water would drain off it and would not penetrate the waste in the concrete container. But it also has to be removable after a few years, if they decide to dispose of the waste to a disposal location. The cover included various layers and the work had to be completed before the monsoons hit. If the monsoons start, the waste will be filled with water which would then overflow on the ground and hence contaminate the soil and groundwater. I was in the field for 10 months straight and worked with a team of about 15 professionals, 40 subcontractors and a local and international client team. We also had local government regulators visit the site for inspections. I was one of the two leads for this project and this was one of my challenging projects that I am proud of. I was also leading the design and implementation of the groundwater remediation program for the same project. I learnt all aspects of navigating different scenarios in a project in India and it was one of the most challenging times of my career.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
My advice to students is that every profession is unique and requires the same amount of hard work and dedication. In my time, this was not a very acceptable profession, but now the awareness is growing and for us to be a sustainable country, protecting the environment should be our first priority. Whatever you pursue in life, enjoy it. You can start at any point in life and everyone has a different potential they bring to the table. Give yourself a chance and don’t give up.
Learning continues for a lifetime, do not stop upskilling or learning from new experiences. You can always start from the beginning and become successful. Make sure that you have passion and satisfaction in your career and do not hesitate to take a break. Sometimes a break can give you insights that you wouldn’t have in your busy schedule. Hard work and dedication are always fruitful. Take time to travel and know other cultures, this builds character and makes you humble. Make time for family and your hobbies, they are the only ones that will stay with you forever.
I am enjoying being an independent consultant and working on my own schedule. I am taking it one day at a time. My goal is to eventually work on the environmental corporate side of a business or manage a region or environmental business unit or move out of India to work on environmental projects in other countries. I would also like to have an opportunity to work with the government in India to strengthen our existing environmental laws.