Steel manufacturing is a researcher’s dream because it offers fascinating glimpses into how new developments in the laboratory are transformed into breakthrough technologies.

Mohua Sinhababu, our next pathbreaker, R&D Professional at Tata Pigments, conducts research on Pigments and Paints for household and industrial applications with a focus on durability in terms of UV resistance, weathering, light-fastness, stain resistance and washability.

Mohua talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about applying her interest in chemistry to address diverse challenges related to agriculture, rust prevention, Lithium extraction, pigments/coatings etc., and deciding to pursue an industrial PhD in applied chemistry.

For students, chemistry might not be your absolute favourite subject, but it provides solutions to the biggest problems in the industrial world.

Mohua, Your background?

I grew up in a small town in Jharkhand, and studied at St. Joseph’s Convent High School which was the best English medium school in town. Extra curricular activities included playing basketball, cricket, singing, dancing etc. From my childhood I had interest in science and technology, olympiad and extempore. My dad has done his BHMS and owns a medical license in pharmacy and my mother is a political science graduate. My mother is a state level winner in long jump and racing. My mother was my childhood teacher at home. Hence, I didn’t go for any private tuition.

When I was in 7th standard, I had a strong inclination towards chemistry and used to score high in that subject. I liked the practical classes wherein I used to repeat the brown ring test in laboratories multiple times. The tests used to thrill me and I used to vary the dosage of different chemicals in the test tubes which was fun for me.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my bachelors in Chemistry (honors) and post-graduation with Inorganic Chemistry as a specialization. I’m on the verge of completing my PhD in Applied Chemistry from Indian Institute of Technology (Indian School of Mines), Dhanbad.

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

My uncle who studied from Presidency College and did his post graduation from IIT Kanpur in Chemistry was my key influencer. He did his PhD from abroad.

My mother, Mrs Lakhshmi Priya Sinhababu is my friend, philosopher and guide who has always inspired me in spite of being a homemaker. She quit her government job to raise me well and have a good career.

I scored high marks in the science olympiads organised by our school.

When I was in class 11th, I used to score full marks in Chemistry in my unit tests and always got a lot of appreciation from my teachers who were one of my key influencers for my interest in this subject.

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

When I was pursuing my MSc Chemistry and was giving my practical exams, I got an opportunity from one of the business units of Tata Chemicals to appear for an interview for which I got selected. I happily joined the organization. I learned punctuality, job discipline, as well as gained technical knowledge about products. 

In the Tata Chemicals Agro Services division, we had to deal with crop related issues faced by farmers, like varying yield of paddy crop, insecticides in crops, problems of weeds in crops, fertility of the land, etc. Tata Chemicals has a wide range of agro based fertilizers and pesticides. We used to educate the farmers, dealers and distributors of Tata Chemicals about the advantages of the products and also the methods and dosages for application.

But I soon realized that this job is not my cup of tea. I appeared for another interview with a strong panel of scientists at the National Metallurgical Laboratory (CSIR). After my selection, I joined CSIR NML. I did extensive research in metal extraction through solvent extraction methods at CSIR NML.

The National Metallurgical Laboratory located at Jamshedpur does a lot of research activities in metal extraction, corrosion protection coatings, etc. I have done extensive research on extraction of Lithium ion batteries and successfully extracted Cobalt, Copper and Lithium from the spent mobile phone batteries. Lithium is a rare metal that is found in many rocks, but in very low concentration, and is gradually getting extinct from the earth’s crust. Hence, extraction of this metal from dead & waste mobile batteries was a remarkable research that i did.

Subsequently, I got selected in the research department of Tata Steel wherein I worked extensively on polymer coatings over steel substrates for a year. I got a good research platform in Tata Steel R&D wherein I got an opportunity to learn many aspects of corrosion over steel as well as galvanized steel. I have published several international journals during this short stint at Tata Steel.

I got to know about “red rust” and “white rust” corrosion over steel substrates and did extensive research in these areas. I worked in the surface coating laboratory wherein I came across some latest instruments and also learnt about phosphating technology. When I saw new developments in the laboratory getting transformed into breakthrough technologies, I got inspired to continue working in this area.

Eventually, I got selected in Tata Pigments in their Research & Development function. I pursued an executive MBA program in Operations Management from ISBM Kolkata soon after joining Tata Pigments. But i still had an urge to do some extensive research in the applied chemistry domain. So, I wanted to study further and subsequently got selected in IIT Dhanbad for the doctoral (PhD) program.

I got selected in IIT Dhanbad as a PhD research scholar after presenting my research synopsis and my research publications at Tata Steel. This is an industrial PhD. At my organization, we were getting continuous queries from customers regarding some specialized pigments for high temperature coating application. Since my PhD topic was related to these product requirements from customers, it helped the organization in delivering some of those products to customers.

I am still pursuing my PhD and am on the verge of completing it this year. I have published some good international journals in Pigments during my PhD program for my organization. I have presented my research in many conferences including CORCON (Asia’s largest corrosion conference) and have received lot of appreciation.

How did you get your first break? 

I was selected through campus placement in many multinational companies (TCS, Wipro, HDFC Bank, Infosys etc.) in my college during graduation. But I opted to continue my studies and did my post graduation in Chemistry. While completing my post graduation, I got a call from Tata Chemicals to promote their new product offerings in the market. I joined the organization and gained a lot of knowledge regarding agro based products and services.

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

Challenge 1: When I joined Tata Pigments, there were no female employees managing the technical department. Initially I was a bit uncomfortable, but with time I learnt how to manage colleagues with empathy. 

Challenge 2: I had to also manage colleagues who were reporting to me and were elder to me, with a humble approach.

Challenge 3: When I stepped into the manufacturing unit initially, which was of course not a white collar job, I thought I wouldn’t be able to sustain here for a long time. The dust, fumes of iron oxide, steel toe shoes, safety visits, formal official uniform etc. were the office mandates. But with time, I found all this very interesting and relatable with my studies at school and college. I soon started enjoying all this.

Where do you work now? What do you do as an industrial researcher?

I presently work in the R&D and technical services department in Tata Pigments Ltd.

Since I am doing my research in the area of Pigments and Paints, I have worked in the synthesis and process control of Inorganic Iron Oxide Pigments at Tata Pigments. I have also developed some premium quality of pigments and paints used for household and industrial applications. They have durability in terms of UV resistance, weathering, light fastness, stain resistance and washability. 

I am mainly responsible for new product development, plant process control, quality control & quality assurance and complaint management.

A core level of dedication and the right functional knowledge in chemistry is required for understanding the product attributes and controlling the process of manufacturing. For the administrative function, strong leadership skills and soft skills are required. For managing the administration, Masters in Business Administration is the appropriate qualification. 

How does your work benefit society? 

My work is focused on research and development activities which can bring in new products for the consumers. In my job, I always experience an urge for innovation in products which can provide end to end customer satisfaction. I could see products developed by me getting customer’s acceptance in the market which brings revenue for the organization I work for. This gives me immense satisfaction and enthusiasm to work very hard.

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

I have developed an entire range of Premium paints for Tata Pigments which has given good volume and revenue to the organization. I feel proud when I see my developed products are being loved by the consumers. I have painted my house with the products solely formulated by me.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Since we have to survive in this competition, my advice to all the students is to have a focused approach towards studies at school to build a solid foundation of knowledge. This helps in sustaining ourselves throughout your lives. Specifically, students above 8th standard must be extremely focused and must dedicate an ample amount of time and energy into their studies. There is absolutely no substitute to hard work.

The basics learnt during this tenure would help you throughout your entire life. Your IQ shapes up very well during this period if you dedicate yourselves to studies. 

Future Plans?

Since I am on the verge of completion of my doctorate degree I would love to get connected with the young students and try to inspire them in shaping their career. As it is very important for all the youngsters of India to understand and value true knowledge in order to create a beautiful and a developed India. We all must unite together to make our country rich in knowledge and wealth.