In order to address the global challenges of environmental remediation, climate change and sustainability, it is imperative to make sense of what nature is telling us, through data driven frameworks.

Afreen Aman, our next pathbreaker, Senior Consultant at Ernst and Young, works in the business consulting wing of the Enterprise Risk division, responsible for integrating data science and analytics solutions in the field of sustainable finance.

Afreen talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her work as a biotechnologist, an environmental engineer, and a data scientist keen on integrating digital solutions in the field of sustainable finance and ESG.

For students, if you are interested in applying AI based approaches to address real world problems, it doesn’t get any more complex than environmental data in terms of variety, velocity and volume !

Afreen, Your background?

I was born and brought up in Bangalore. Growing up, my favorite subjects in school were Maths, Science, and English. I love reading and occasionally writing. As a child, I had never thought of a career in STEM, and data science as a career path was unheard of. I was not fond of programming in school and was determined to steer away from computer science as a choice for higher education. My mother was a homemaker and Dad, a businessman. My mom got me hooked on books very early in life and dad was always supportive in all my decisions. I had all the freedom to fail and learn from my mistakes. 

I’m currently riding the waves of Machine learning and Artificial Intelligence and loving it. I’m a generalist at heart. I love learning and acquiring knowledge on various topics. I am a biotechnologist, an environmental engineer, a data scientist and now I’m keen on integrating digital solutions in the field of sustainable finance. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

Back then, Engineering wasn’t a choice, it was the only option to pursue if Medicine was ruled out, so I chose the one branch where computer science wasn’t used much.  I did my BE in Biotech from PES Institute of Technology (PESIT) and followed it up with a Masters in environmental engineering from BMS College of Engineering (BMSCE). I also pursued a PG diploma in Environmental Law from the National Law School of India University (NLSIU). I worked as a Research Assistant at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) before joining Arcadis as an Environmental Consultant.

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

It was only after I joined Arcadis, I realized the potential of integrating digital solutions in environmental projects and my digital journey started. I initially picked up Microsoft tools like Power BI, InfoPath, Power Apps, SharePoint, Visio, etc. My hunger for knowledge kept growing and I followed it up with something I dreaded the most, Programming! It wasn’t easy to learn how to code, especially with the mental block I had, and a voice at the back of my head telling me, ‘You can’t do it!’. I didn’t give up because I had a good network of people surrounding me who guided and helped me through my learning phase. I would like to highlight the power of networking. Networking to me is not being friends with someone because you need something, it is not about asking favors or exchange of sorts, for me it is a genuine interest in the work that people around me are doing. They inspire me to learn without even realizing it. 

How did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

In the words of Rumi, “As you start to walk out on the way, the way appears,” I did not plan my journey the way it turned out to be. I continue to not think too much into the future. Instead, I give my 100% to everything I do today. It was a slow transition and not an easy one, to grow my skills from research to environmental consulting and then to data science. 

After my Bachelors, I worked as Project Assistant at IISc, on projects involving bioremediation of lakes, greywater treatment, and algal cultivation for carbon mitigation. During this time, I participated in conferences and won best poster and paper presentation awards. I published a few papers and co-authored a chapter in Waste Valorisation and Recycling-Vol 2.

My research was mainly focused on finding sustainable algal cultivation techniques for carbon fixation and biofuel production. One of the studies involved using biogas slurry and CO2 from biogas as substrates reducing the potential carbon emissions. Large volumes of digested slurry/digestate liquid from Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) get discharged into sewers without recovering the large nutrient content within. Conversion of digestate nutrients to algal biofuel and its further conversion of residues to biogas resulted in three value-added by-products from MSW: biogas, algal biofuel, and nutrient-rich residue. Utilization of CO2 generated from biogas plant by algae as a carbon source helped in simultaneous carbon fixation and biogas improvement. I have worked on evaluating the lipid content of different species of algae in lab conditions and the external environment. I have also worked on evaluating algal-grazer interactions in an aquatic ecosystem.

My Masters was funded through the GATE scholarship. My M-Tech research was funded by Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology (KSCST). 

I did an internship at Britannia Industries on the sustainability and carbon footprint of the industry. My internship involved assessing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities and how they aligned with the company’s values, comparing CSR activities of Britannia with that of its competitors, designing a Carbon audit template to help them evaluate which activity leads to most of the CO2 emissions, and developing a strategy to reduce the emissions. As a part of this process, the carbon footprint of various activities was evaluated and the carbon footprint of the company due to energy consumption was determined. 

For my masters thesis, I developed a pilot-scale bioreactor for greywater treatment. Domestic wastewater/ Greywater constitutes more than 60% of urban wastewater. The municipal wastewater treatment plants find it hard to deal with such large quantities of sewage due to a lack of infrastructure and technology. Most of the sewage generated from urban areas are either partially treated or left untreated and directly released into the nearby water bodies. The pilot-scale reactor was an integrated system of greywater treatment with algal cultivation as an economical method for recovering the nutrients (Carbon, Nitrogen, and Phosphorous) from sewage with simultaneous energy generation. The greywater was subjected to both anaerobic and aerobic treatment and the extracted biomass was used for biofuel production. I won the ‘Project of the Year’ award by KSCST for this project.

At Arcadis, I initially worked on data analytics and visualization using Power BI. I have prepared Power BI reports for climate change, contaminated sites, Environment Health and Safety, project management, etc. I got into automation through projects like groundwater report automation to generate multiple reports from unstructured data from a variety of sources[Scanned field logs and Lab reports] using python. Based on field and lab data, the code generated individual reports in .docx format with Detect/Non-Detect information using pre-defined templates. Databox Automation project involved producing databoxes containing information about the concentration of Contaminants of Concern which are inserted in AutoCAD generated analytical figures for incorporation in groundwater monitoring reports. This was hosted on an R-Shiny web app to ease the process for the end-users to upload the analytical table and obtain the databox. I started learning data science and implemented my knowledge on a Natural Language Processing (NLP) project using deep learning models to prepare bidding proposals by extracting relevant information from historical documents. 

I pursued a lot of courses on Data Camp, Coursera, LinkedIn, and Udemy in the field of sustainability, data science, data analytics, and leadership which helped me bring a wide range of skill sets to the table and provide clients with advanced solutions.

How did you get your first break?

My first break was at the Indian Institute of Science where I worked as a Research Assistant. I had a friend who was working in my field of interest and I got the job through his referral. I would like to emphasize the power of networking and reaching out to friends. A lot of organizations give preference to referrals, so it is important to make the best use of social media platforms to reach out and seek help from your professional network. All the leads may not translate to jobs but these platforms aid in understanding the kind of skill set needed for the coveted dream job. 

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

Challenge 1: Overcoming Mental Block. The hardest battle is the one against our own beliefs. I thought I couldn’t learn to program. The world around us is changing and we must adapt to change and nothing is impossible to achieve. I believe that it is imperative now to learn at least one programming language. Rome was not built in a day; it took a lot of hard work and consistency to acquire new skills. I love to code and make my models work now!

Challenge 2: Convincing Business of AI use cases. Communication is the most underrated but the most important skill of a data scientist. AI is complex to understand, and the implementation is difficult, so it is quite challenging to convince the management to change an existing business process. For me, it took a lot of presentations and interactions to get everyone on board for an AI use case at my previous organization.

Challenge 3: Having a good manager. A good manager will be a mentor, a cheerleader for innovative ideas and will help in navigating the career path in the organization. Surrounding myself with positive and encouraging people has made the journey easier. In the words of Jim Rohn: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” The people around me have shaped my thinking, my outlook and refined my personality.

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

I am currently employed at Ernst and Young in the business consulting wing of the Enterprise Risk division. I work towards integrating data science and analytics solutions in the field of sustainable finance. 

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?

Programming skills and expertise in AI and ML algorithms, Identifying AI use cases and coming up with innovative solutions, Strong knowledge in the area of sustainability and ESG, Effective communication with all stakeholders are some of the most important skills.

Most skills were acquired on the job during projects. I also took up courses on MOOC to improve my knowledge. 

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day involves collaborating with co-workers, brainstorming, coding, interpreting results, and preparing presentations. 

What is it you love about this job? 

Learning something new every day, identifying use cases for AI integration, and providing out-of-the-box solutions. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Sustainable finance is getting a lot of traction lately. It helps organizations in mitigating their risks by taking into consideration non-financial factors like environment, social, and governance and helps investors in making sustainable investments. ESG investing is based on the idea that companies are more likely to deliver strong returns and succeed if they create value not just for the company owners but for all their stakeholders like customers, suppliers, employees, and society in general including the environment. Using AI for ESG data analysis helps in scraping unstructured data from a variety of sources and processing voluminous data. NLP analysis can capture the tone and sentiment of the processed data by analyzing the semantic and contextual factors present in the data. They can help in providing timely indicators about the company’s performance thereby helping investors make sustainable investment decisions. I have developed an app using data science as a step in the direction of using AI for sustainable finance. 

This is the link for the YouTube video describing the app:  and the link to the app:

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

My first AI project will always be my most memorable one. It involved training NLP models (ELMO, BERT) which use deep learning language architecture to extract relevant paragraphs from historical documents aiding in the preparation of standardized environmental remediation proposals. 

This project involved collaborating with people from different backgrounds and different expertise to create an innovative product. There were various challenges of working across different time zones, incorporating everyone’s point of view, challenges of testing the accuracy of the model’s output, etc. By using AI, we were able to bring a 90% reduction in time needed when compared to the traditional manual process.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

It is important to know when to let go. Letting go is not always bad. Sometimes despite following our heart, giving our 100 percent, burning the midnight oil, things might not turn out the way we expect. It is important to see things objectively and decide if we are flogging a dead horse or if we need a different approach or if we have to change direction. I’m not encouraging folks to give up too soon but it is essential to know when to move on. Einstein said that no problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it. If you find Maths difficult, try learning from a different teacher or learn from a friend or try youtube. The solutions are almost always in front of us, looking at them from a different perspective helps.

I would also like to encourage students to take up careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). There are a lot of opportunities in this field and STEM careers are being referred to as the in-demand jobs of the future.  According to the UNESCO report, ‘Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in STEM’, only 35% of STEM students in higher education globally are women. It would be great if more women embrace careers in this field and take a step in the direction of closing the STEM gender gap.

Future Plans?

I would like to build and integrate more digital solutions in the stream of finance, environmental remediation, climate change, and sustainability and play a part in building a better world by raising the right questions with the help of data science, data analytics, and visualization.