Methane (which is a greenhouse gas) is deadlier than CO2 because it has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere, and hence sets the pace for warming in the near term.

Pankaj Sadavarte (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Atmospheric Scientist at SRON (Netherlands Institute for Space Research), quantifies Methane emissions from various sources such as the oil & gas industry, coal mines, landfills, etc. based on different approaches.

Pankaj talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about how his research helps in closing the gap between on-the-ground data on methane sources/emissions and the national reporting on emissions, as well as communicating findings so action can be taken to mitigate very high emissions.

For students, our world needs more researchers who are passionate about solving the big problems of climate change, global warming and environmental pollution through factual and science backed approaches !

Pankaj, Your background?

I would like to start this interview by thanking Mr. Krishnamurthy for identifying me as a pathbreaker and giving me this wonderful opportunity to motivate students and career aspirants via this incredible platform “The Interview Portal”. 

I grew up in Ulhasnagar in Thane district of Maharashtra, where I did my secondary (class 10th in 2001) and higher secondary (class 12th in 2003) education. I come from a middle class family of four. My father was in service in a private company and is now retired while my mother is a home maker. I have a younger brother who is pursuing PhD in Canada. 

During my school days, I was above average in studies, decent in sports but excelled in arts. I recall I was always at the forefront when it came to drawing and painting. I also got an opportunity to design the first souvenir of our school, as we were the first batch of 10th standard. As an acknowledgment, the name and photo of me and my friend were printed on the first page of the souvenir. In addition, there were many events, especially during class 9th and 10th where I was always involved in artwork such as preparing greeting cards for school teachers, designing the background for annual functions as instructed by school teachers, and designing posters that used to be on the school notice board for weeks. During my under-graduation, I participated in Marathi plays which were performed during the annual cultural events in the college. With friends, I never missed an opportunity to go on a trek. 

At a very early age, my interest in drawings drove me to fantasize about pursuing Bachelors in Architecture (B.Arch.) from one of the best schools, i.e. Sir J. J. School of Arts. At that age, I knew about Sir J. J. School of Arts because a distant cousin graduated from that college. But, on the other hand, I was also aligned towards number crunching, solving mathematical problems especially calculus, not to mention my curiosity to understand the concepts in science. 

I always dreamed of having my education from the IIT’s, IIT Bombay in particular. Actually, my grandfather was an employee at IIT Bombay (in one of the labs). I do not recall when he joined there, but based on my father’s schooling from K.V. IIT Powai, I believe it was around 1960’s. He retired from his service just before I was born (1985). My mother used to say, “we lived in the employee quarters behind the Devi Temple inside IIT campus”. Unfortunately, after my grandfather’s retirement, the family moved to a small town in Ulhasnagar situated approximately 40 Kms away from Mumbai (Bombay then). I recall visiting IIT Bombay with my grandfather and father in my childhood days. In spite of living within the campus, neither my father nor my uncle went to the prestigious institute for their graduation studies. Realizing the significance of the place, the institute, my family background and unfortunate destiny, I always had a strong desire to study at IIT Bombay.  

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I joined a regular coaching class that prepares students for physics, chemistry, mathematics, and biology for state board exams. In Maharashtra state, during 2003, the marks of Physics-Chemistry-Maths (popularly known as PCM in 12th class) were crucial if you wanted to go ahead with Engineering. I would say, my batch was just lucky to enjoy the perks of no entrance exams and get selected based on PCM marks only. The following year, a common entrance examination (commonly known as MH-CET) was devised for the engineering admissions. 

I studied Chemical Engineering and completed my bachelor’s degree in the year 2007 from Pravara Rural Engineering College in Loni, Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, which is situated 30 kms away from Shirdi. In the final year of Engineering, I was placed in Gharda Chemicals Ltd. I took the job offer and joined the company in August 2007 as a Shift Production Officer (SPO) for a year. Since I always dreamt of having an education from IIT, I realised that i still had an opportunity to pursue M.Tech through the GATE examination. Therefore, as soon as I joined the company, I also filled the GATE examination form for master’s and started studying seriously.

I worked for one year in Gharda Chemicals Ltd. in Chiplun, Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra, after which I joined IIT Bombay for a PhD program in 2008. My research was on atmospheric sciences, which in simple terms, deals with air quality, emissions, and climate change. I defended my PhD thesis in September 2015. 

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

During my 12th coaching, there was a chemistry professor who had prior industrial experience and a physics professor who was also a mechanical engineer. I was intrigued by their teaching style along with their professional background and experience. I made up my mind then and there to either pursue mechanical or chemical engineering. After the 12th results were out, I learned that it won’t be easy for me to get into a Government college. But I never thought of myself as inferior or got disappointed, and always aimed for the best. I collated basic information about grade ‘A’ engineering colleges which offered mechanical and chemical engineering programs, through their prospectus. I did my homework to sort out good colleges which were established 20 years back and prioritized my preference for chemical engineering followed by mechanical engineering and other branches so on.

In addition to the people around me who acted as a catalyst for my decisions, I was also fascinated by old establishment colleges like UDCT Bombay, VJTI, and so on. Later, I also learned about the alumni that graduated from the same colleges and that skewed my interest towards chemical rather than mechanical engineering. By this time, I knew what I wanted and gathered a list of top-ranked chemical engineering colleges in Maharashtra which included UDCT, LIT Nagpur, and others. A similar approach was followed for mechanical engineering as well. By this time, I had brief knowledge about chemical engineering jobs and companies offering them. This was almost 20 years back, but today it is equally important to know about the campus placements opportunities in the colleges, the department faculty, their teaching experience and qualifications, and the extra-curricular activities offered for one’s personality development and growth.

As you approach the final year, you start to realize that just completing under-graduation isn’t enough, and one should pursue master’s degree as well. Although, it isn’t necessary and depends on the stream you choose for yourself. But as you come across seniors working in your stream, you will realize that doing masters will always be beneficial in the present and in the longer run for future growth. 

Back in 2007, I’d say there were very few options available for higher education. For example, to continue with technical mainstream, students would go for M.Tech or M.E. by preparing for the GATE examination and if not, they would go for management studies i.e. MBA by preparing for the CAT examination. Some would also prepare for the GRE examination and pursue MS (Master of science) degree abroad. Since my family background wasn’t strong economically, I never thought about it. However, I was always interested in studying at IIT, that’s why I chose to prepare for the GATE examination while working in Gharda Chemicals.

In my final year of chemical engineering, we were provided with two options to choose from for an elective course, first was Energy and second was Environmental Engineering. I chose Environmental Engineering as my interest has always been towards environment and the damage caused due to land, water or air pollution. In the course, I learned about sources of air pollution and got familiarized with aerosols, greenhouse gases, industrial emissions, and so on. Later, during the interview for the PhD program at IIT Bombay, I was asked to provide my preferences for available projects which I would like to take up for research if selected. I choose a project pertaining to atmospheric aerosols and its effects. I would consider this as the turning point in my career path.

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.

As I was campus placed for my first job, I didn’t have to worry about what to do next after completing engineering. I got placed in Gharda Chemicals Ltd. as a shift production officer. To chase my dream of pursuing a master’s degree from IITs, I filled up the GATE examination form as soon as I joined the company. I was also supported by a friend who encouraged me and guided me from time to time by sharing his preparation strategy to crack the exam. In addition to the GATE examination, I also appeared for the entrance test conducted by UDCT Bombay. After the results were out, I was amazed and proud that I cracked the GATE examination while working in a full-time job and through self-study. With my score, I knew I could easily get confirmed seat in NITs though there was a lesser chance of getting a call from IIT Bombay. However, I still made an attempt and applied for IIT Bombay too. I received an offer from NIT Surathkal and to my surprise also from IIT Bombay. But, the offer from IIT Bombay was for the PhD program and not the masters. I still went ahead and appeared for the interview. A valid GATE score card and one year of work experience, made me eligible to appear for that interview. After clearing that, I was offered admission to the PhD program directly after my bachelor’s. Since I prepared for GATE, it also helped me in the UDCT Bombay entrance test. I also cleared the UDCT Bombay entrance test and was selected for the master’s program. 

That was the best day of my life and the biggest take away from this experience was to never judge your marks, rank or score in advance because that might cause you to miss out on that chance to get admission in your dream college. I had three offers in my hand, from NIT Surathkal for M.Tech, UDCT Bombay for Masters in Chemical Engineering (M.Chem.) and IIT Bombay for PhD. Of course, I went ahead with the PhD program offer at IIT Bombay (my dream college). Since I was enrolled directly into a PhD program after bachelor’s, it took me about 6.5-7 years to complete it. This is equivalent to 2 years of Masters and 4.5-5 years of PhD, which is also an average time taken in India to complete it. 

My PhD research on technology-linked emissions and their atmospheric effects led me to discover a whole new field of air pollution and atmospheric sciences. Broadly speaking, atmospheric science can be studied either by doing on-ground measurements, estimating emissions using fuel consumption data and emission rates, and further using them in air quality models (computational model) or by using remote sensing instruments i.e. through flight measurements, balloon measurements or satellites. In a PhD, you have to perform your research by developing a hypothesis, performing lab experiments or computational modeling around it. After you analyze the results and if the results validate your hypothesis or you have some major discovery or novel findings from it, you document everything in the thesis and later defend your work. During defense, you have to give a presentation on your research work in front of the committee members who will assess your research findings and quality of work. So you can see how I transitioned from being a chemical engineer to becoming a researcher in the field of Atmospheric Sciences. 

How did you get your first break?

After completing PhD, usually, researchers take up academic jobs or go for post-doctoral positions. Some researchers also take up jobs in a company’s research and development (R&D) department either in a related field or in a completely new research area, and a few join consultancy firms. The hierarchy in academia is, first you become an Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor, and finally a Professor. What is a post-doctoral researcher position? After you complete your PhD (doctorate), if you are hired for any short-term research position, you are designated as a postdoctoral researcher or postdoctoral fellow (PDF). This position can be anywhere between 1-4 years. Frankly speaking, you can work in many areas after completing a doctorate.

I was looking forward to working as a Scientist in a government organization/lab/institution in India, on problems related to air pollution. At the same time, post PhD, I was also working as a Researcher in IIT Bombay for a few months. It was during this time that I applied for a postdoctoral position in IASS (Institute For Advanced Sustainability Studies )Potsdam, Germany, to develop emission inventories over Nepal. In simple language, developing an emission inventory means to estimate the amount of emissions that would be released from different polluting sources in Nepal. It was a perfect fit for this position based on my previous research experience and expertise in developing emission inventory for India. It was also quite an interesting opportunity for me to demonstrate my capability and scrutinize myself to see if I could do good quality research independently. That’s how I got my first break to work abroad and also to team-up with researchers globally. 

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

After passing 10th standard, I was sure that if I took up science stream further, I would excel in it. The elders in the family also supported my decision saying there would be ample opportunities such as Engineering, Architecture, Medical, and Pharmacy to choose from and pursue a career later. Like many, I also wished to study from IIT’s which could have been possible only if I opted for Science after 10th. My mother is a housewife with education till 10th grade, and my dad wasn’t able to complete his graduation (BSc in Science) due to some family situations. In spite of all this, the only thing that kept me going was the awareness about my family’s situation and the urge to change it. 

During my first job after my bachelors, It was extremely difficult to manage both physical on-site work and prepare for the GATE examination. Since I used to work in shifts, I prepared my study schedule that i would follow after working hours. One of the most important things I learned during this phase is, in order to study for the exam, first “study your exam”. Understand your syllabus, what is important, and what is not. How are the marks distributed among the topics, check previous year’s examination papers, identify your strengths and weaknesses and then start your preparation.

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

​Currently, I work at SRON (Netherlands Institute for Space Research) in Netherlands as Scientist-C, a position hired at a post-doctorate level. I work on understanding sources of Methane emissions (which is a greenhouse gas) such as the oil & gas industry, coal mines, landfills, etc., using bottom-up and top-down approaches. A bottom-up approach is the method where you compile and collate the details of various methane sources, the emission rates, and understand the reason behind those emissions which can be either combustion of fuel or due to process activities. In the top-down method, use of remote sensing instruments such as satellites that provide daily global coverage of Methane concentrations is done and later emissions are quantified using literature-reviewed methodologies. 

The objective here is to identify the methane sources, quantify their emission rates, validate the emissions using two different methods (bottom-up and top-down) and if possible, communicate the findings to the operators/companies to fix these high emissions. It is crucial to reduce methane emissions because it is a greenhouse gas that has a lifetime of a decade in the atmosphere, and causes global warming through the greenhouse gas effect. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to mitigate methane emission as much as possible.

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

In my research field, one should be well acquainted with programming skills such as Python, Fortran and should have worked on a Linux operating system. One should also have basic knowledge about atmospheric sciences, greenhouse gases and should have a research background with a component on the use of satellite data. Analytical and good communication skills are a must to understand the final results. It is also equally important to communicate the research to your team members and the larger scientific community. I acquired programming skills in due course by working with small scripts that do basic operations. Developing algorithms is equally important in programming. For any problems or errors encountered, even the minor ones such as to identify the correct syntaxes to be written for executing what I actually wanted the code to do, I used the internet search engine. That’s how I learned and picked up the skills in due course of time.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day involves working around satellite observations, trying to figure out different ways to improve the readability of large methane signals, and improve methods to identify methane leakages. It also involves collecting on-the-ground information on methane sources, national reporting of their emissions and to verify if they are correct or underestimated. We discuss results with our supervisors for their feedback and publish new findings in a journal. We also have group meetings where each one presents their work in presence of other team members, so that everyone can provide you their feedback and it helps to improve your research. I also collaborate with different researchers within the institute and also across other research organizations.

 How does your work benefit society? 

The research I do enhances our understanding of different sources of emissions (methane) either using bottom-up or top-down methods, which can be communicated to the operators/owners so that, action can be taken on it if we find very high emissions. Another part of my research involves developing emission inventories that can be used in air quality modeling and generating concentration of pollutants which can help to understand how meteorology plays a role in spreading the emissions and which source can be attributed as the main source of air pollution. These emission inventories can also be used to develop mitigation policies which when put into action can help reduce air pollution. One of the aspects of my PhD research was used to study the health effects of different sources of pollution in India. 

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

My PhD research work was used in the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, a special report on India. It is a study that estimates the number of deaths caused due to air pollution. Air pollution is considered to be responsible for cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases. 

In my first post-doctoral position in Germany, my research was one of its kind which detailed the energy and technology use among different sectors in Nepal, and how these were used to estimate emissions for a period of 2001-2016. The research improved our understanding on changing fuel and combustion technology within Nepal over a period of 16 years.

In my current position at SRON, using satellite observations, I quantified higher methane emissions from coal mines in Australia than what the Australian government reports annually. When the research findings were published in the peer reviewed journal, I was interviewed by the journalists and further contacted by many to cover this research work in public media.  

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Dream big. Aim high. One should believe in one’s potential and have self-confidence. It doesn’t matter if you are not among the top 10 in your class, you can still make a difference and contribute to the betterment of society. Chase your dreams, it won’t be true unless you work on them. Put your efforts in that direction. The most important thing is not to compare yourself with others. 

Future Plans?

​I plan to continue research in the field of atmospheric sciences and want to make considerable contributions towards reducing air pollution and climate change.