The construction industry, being one of the major contributors of greenhouse gases, is in need of so much more improvement to reduce its impact on the environment.

Surya Maruthupandian, our next pathbreaker, Marie Curie Fellowship Researcher at University of Hertfordshire, studies the properties of hazardous/non-hazardous industrial waste to identify its potential to be used as cementitious binder or any other construction materials.

Surya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the significance of her work not only in reusing waste materials and reducing emissions, but also in conservation of natural resources. 

For students, the next time you see an advertisement for high strength cements, structural glass, high performance bricks, or TMT bars, remember there is a team of people working in the lab to make it happen. And if you wish, you can be one of those people !

Surya, your background?

I am from Tamil Nadu. My father worked as a draughtsman and mother is a homemaker. During my schooling I was more interested in science, especially biology as it involved studying the things I see in everyday life. I still like reading about flora and fauna and the effect of human activities on them. Sketching, craft work and reading were my hobbies. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my bachelor’s in Civil Engineering at Thiagarajar College of Engineering, Madurai and my Post Graduation in Engineering of Infrastructure and Disaster Mitigation from Academy of Scientific and Industrial Research – Central Road Research Institute (AcSIR-CRRI), New Delhi. 

What were the drivers that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

I always preferred to study something which I could see or feel and would make an impact in the society. When my higher secondary score wasn’t good enough to secure a position in Medicine from a good institute, I decided to take up Civil Engineering. 

From the beginning of my undergraduate course, I was fascinated by construction and building materials. So, during my final year, I applied for and got an opportunity to do a summer fellowship in the Building Technology and Construction Materials Department of IIT Madras. There, I was able to see and learn about the ongoing research projects. This opportunity introduced me to the possible research in this field and inspired me to take up research in building materials. 

Accordingly, I chose my post-graduation. It was a postgraduate research program in engineering (PGRPE). This course experience in CRRI equipped me with the tools needed for research.     

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

Though I always knew I liked Construction and Building Materials, to be sure of it, I also tried internships with Design Engineers and Construction Site Engineers in my pre-final year. And I did a summer fellowship in the Building Technology and Construction Materials Department of IIT Madras in my final year. 

After my final year, I had applied to NITs, IITs and other Universities for MTech and MS courses relevant to building materials. I also applied for the two years PGRPE program from AcSIR. Joining AcSIR – CRRI was the beginning of my transition into research.

During this period, I worked on Experimental Investigation on Structural Properties of Recycled Aggregate Concrete. As a part of curriculum, we were also taught theories and concepts with real time case studies by the scientists who were working in that particular field. 

Being trained by scientists who work on societal and industrial problems gave us hands-on training in every step in research, from how to approach a problem to how to write a report. Then I started my PhD in the same institute where I did my post-graduation. However, due to some personal reasons I couldn’t continue it. 

After that, I went to Madurai and worked as an Asst. Professor in Thiagarajar College of Engineering. I worked there for 13 months. That experience greatly improved my presentation skills where I learnt to present a topic based on the level of the audience. When working there, I got interviewed for the position of Scientist in Central Building Research Institute (CBRI). Once I joined CBRI my work focus was completely on research.

In CBRI, I worked on research and development projects where waste from paper industries and steel industries were used in development of building products such as bricks, blocks, cement/ binders and aggregates. Other than that, I was also involved in repair and rehabilitation of certain existing structures as requested by the clients. 

In order to continue a career in research, it is essential to have a PhD. So, I kept applying for PhD positions in various institutions by contacting potential supervisors. And I applied to pursue PhD as a Marie Curie Fellow in University of Hertfordshire under MSCA-COFUND Fellowship.

It was a specific case where the project topic was already chosen, and the candidates will have to prove their suitability for this particular work through their application and in their interview. The application involved writing essays detailing my skills and how it will be a match the project

How did you get your first break? 

My first break was through one of the many applications I submitted for post-graduation. Taking up that PGRPE helped me be sure of a career in research. 

When I returned to Madurai after my post-graduation, I had been looking for research related positions in various government research organizations such as CSIR, ISRO, DRDO and NIRM, and applied to many of their advertised positions (most of these advertisements can be found in their websites and are advertised in newspapers). The CBRI interview happened first, and I was fortunate to get selected there. In general, these processes take more than 6 months, in my case it was 18 months from the date of application to the date of joining. And I happened to work in Madurai at that time. 

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

I have had many setbacks throughout my career. I had to leave my PhD the first time, the first research job I secured was kept in abeyance, I had to give up PhD opportunities I secured in Japan, Australia, and China for some reasons. Though it was hard at that moment, finding little happy moments from the present job and hoping things will get better eventually, kept me motivated. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role

I presently hold the position of researcher at University of Hertfordshire and a scientist in CBRI. I am on leave from CBRI responsibilities till I finish my PhD, so I am focusing only on my work at University of Hertfordshire now. Both of my works have a similar work routine except for some administrative aspects. It involves studying the properties of a hazardous/non-hazardous industrial waste and identifying its potential to be used as cementitious binder or any other construction materials. This addresses the problems of the waste directly and helps in reduction of greenhouse gases and emissions indirectly during cement production. 

The skills involve reviewing literature, design, planning and performing the experiments, as well as project ,resource management, and communication skills, involving reading and writing. Most of these skills were attained through regular practice and feedback from supervisors. 

The work can be categorized in three parts (i) the review of literature (reading) is done to identify research gaps, to understand the results or to learn new experiments. (ii) performing experiments in the lab to study or test the materials (iii) Analysis of the results. Depending on the phase of work, on some days we perform all three while on other days we perform just one of these.

I love the days I spend in the lab. It is exciting to perform different experiments and obtain the results. Besides that, knowing that through these small steps I am addressing real world problems and what I do matters is something that always keeps me motivated. I enjoy reading, and the job demands that we are up to date with the latest developments in the field. It always helps me when I catch up with my research reading.

How does your work benefit society?

We are in an era where environmental impact and sustainability are highly sensitized. The construction industry, being one of the major contributors of greenhouse gas, is still in need of so much improvement to reduce its impact on the environment. My work not only helps in reusing waste materials and reducing emissions, but also helps in conservation of natural resources. 

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

My post-graduation thesis will always be close to my heart because that is where it all started, and it feels like the beginning of this journey in baby steps. And besides that, I always enjoy microscopic studies. 

Every time I analyze my samples under a scanning and transmission electron microscope, it feels like peeking into a whole new world. No matter how many times I do it, I am always thrilled to do it. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Be resilient. Things may not always go as per plan. And more often than not, there will be multiple rejections or other factors preventing you from your goals. At that moment it might feel like the end of the world. But if you keep a positive outlook and continue with your efforts, it will definitely pay off. 

Play to your strengths. For example, you may be introverted or have stage fright. Don’t let that feel like a disadvantage, being an introvert comes with its own perks like having better observation skills or written communication skills. Identify them and hone them. Once you are confident about yourself, you will be in a better position to improve other skills which need more effort. 

Future Plans?

To be a part of an organization and continue research in materials, especially addressing the sustainable development goals. 

To anyone who is interested in this field, I would like to remind building materials research is something we often come across everyday but never pay attention to. So next time you see an advertisement for weatherproof paints or high strength cements, structural glass, high performance bricks, or TMT bars, remember there is a team of people working in the lab to make it happen. And if you wish, you can be one of those people