Whether it is treating contaminated water or converting biomass into biofuel or transforming waste into value-added products, the applications of chemical engineering are enormous !

Bhanupriya Boruah, our next pathbreaker, Postdoctoral Researcher at Archer Daniel Midland (ADM), Kansas (United States), works on solutions to convert biomass into fuel and food related products.

Bhanupriya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her research on various applications of photo(electro)catalysis as a joint PhD between Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and IISc that was a turning point in her research career.

For students, chemical engineering gives you the tools to look for solutions to the depleting fossil fuel reserves by researching cheap, non-toxic and sustainable ways to develop clean fuel.

Bhanupriya, can you take us through your background? 

I was brought up in Haflong, Dima Hasao District, a small hill station in Assam. I did my schooling at St. Agnes Convent School upto 10th standard in Haflong. Then I moved to Jorhat town, where I did my Class 11 and 12 along with IIT-JEE coaching at Pragjyotika Academy, Jorhat, Assam 

As a child, I was interested in Science and Math. I remember taking part in various science projects both at the state and national level. I have also enjoyed cooking at home since my 1st standard. I easily make friends which I believe remains my best quality. 

My father and mother are both Assam State Government employees in the Agricultural division. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation? 

I did my undergraduate in National Institute of Technology, Surathkal, Karnataka. I did my masters in Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. Later I did my PhD from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. My field of study is Chemical Engineering 

Tell us, how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career? 

I had no clue about IIT-JEE until 8th standard. Then one fine day, one of my friends brought a magazine to the class which had some pages dedicated to engineering and IITs were advertised as the best engineering colleges in the country. I read the magazine and tried to gather more information about IITs and NITs. In those days, the internet was not very common, so we had to rely on newspapers and magazines. That’s how I took up IIT-JEE coaching and landed in NITK for my undergraduate studies. Since my state Assam is known for oil industries, I took up Chemical Engineering. 

I was an average student in NITK as people were very intelligent and it was very difficult to even get an average score. Well, I must say I was also more interested in travelling and hanging around with friends instead of studying. As a result, my grades decreased, and I could not compete to get a good placement from the college. At that time, I was advised by my senior, Sowmya, to go for higher studies instead of trying to get a job. I did a very good final year project in NITK under Prof. Vidya Shetty. I worked very hard for the research project, which was about making a photocatalyst for water decontamination, as a result of which we got a publication. 

Tell us about your career path

At the same time, I started preparing for GATE. My friend Dhruba, who was also our gold medalist, helped me with the preparation and I could secure a seat in IIT Madras for M.Tech. I made very good friends in IITM and tried not to make the mistakes that I made in NITK. I studied hard for my courses, did good research work for my master’s project, and secured better grades. I worked in photocatalysis as a part of my undergraduate honors thesis at NITK, Surathkal. During my masters at IIT Madras, I worked on conversion of lignin to value-added products by photocatalysis. 

At that time, I wanted to switch my field of study. I got a campus placement offer from Verity Knowledge Solutions, an investment banking company. After my masters, I worked in that company for around 5 months, learning about various industries and their revenue. I learnt a lot about making good presentations. But I also realized that I am not suited to become an investment banker as I enjoy doing research in the science field. 

I left the job at Verity Knowledge Solutions which was paying me 50,000 Rs per month for a research job of a project officer job at IIT Madras, which paid me 18,000 Rs.  per month. At IITM, I realised my passion for research. My mentor, Prof R Vinu encouraged and supported me to pursue this career. As a project officer I worked on microwave-assisted co-pyrolysis of biomasses with synthetic polymers for high-quality bio-oil production. Publication from this work motivated me to pursue PhD. 

I would have loved to do PhD with Prof. R Vinu, unfortunately he had no vacancy that time. Also, I believed staying at one place can make your life stagnant, so I wanted to move to a different place for my PhD. Since the best place to do research in India is Indian Institute of Science (IISc), I started preparing to get into this very renowned institute. Getting into IISc is really tough compared to IITs. I studied hard to secure a position there. I joined the institute (IISc) in July 2016 to pursue my PhD. Both in Master’s and PhD, I was given a stipend of 12,000 Rs and 35,000 Rs per month from the government respectively, which basically comes from the Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD).

At IISc, I worked on synthesizing mixed metal oxide photocatalysts and characterizing them by techniques such as XRD, XPS, UPS, SEM, and TEM. These photocatalysts were then applied for treating contaminated water with simulated pathogens and phenolic recalcitrant. I also delved into the realms of separation sciences while developing catalysts strongly coupled with polymer substrates serving as ultrafiltration membranes to remove pathogenic bacteria, colloidal impurities, and foulant proteins from water sources. I enjoy science when it solves real-world problems and do not limit myself only to the ideal systems, which led me to investigate the efficacy of the prepared photocatalysts on secondary treated wastewater collected from the IISc sewage water treatment plant. Since the real-world polluted water sample contains different kinds of pathogens, dealing with it is not as trivial as dealing with the ideal lab system where E.coli is used as a model bacterium. In the process, I learned that collaboration is important, and therefore, strived to get researchers from different fields to team up and develop a modified catalyst, which showed excellent activity for treating such wastewater.

In 2019, I was nominated by IISc to do joint PhD research at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. I believe getting to work at IISc and NTU as a joint student was the turning point in my career. As a PhD student, one of my mentors Prof. Jayant Modak often said that I am very resourceful. Other than that I always looked for new opportunities and was able to talk freely to professors/ students/ seniors and discuss my projects or any other related things. 

My research at IISC and NTU:

Even though my parent institute was IISc, I was working at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore under Prof. Soo Han Sen for the last 1.5 years of my PhD, having received a prestigious scholarship for a Joint Supervision program between IISc and NTU. There, I was developing unique heterogeneous catalysts for H2 generation from seawater, CO2 reduction, and biomass conversion to fuels by photo(electro)catalysis. In addition to finding new electrode materials, I worked on improving the performance of known materials by optimizing electrode ink formulation, direct hydrothermal growth of electrode over electrolyte, electrodeposition duration and plasma treatment. This period at NTU was challenging for me because within a limited period of just 1.5 years, I had to quickly inculcate a sense of time management and proper planning to produce impactful results. I had the opportunity to work hands-on with analytical instruments such as HPLC, NMR, LC-MS, GC-MS, GC (TCD, FID), UV-Visible spectroscopy for product identification and quantification. I enjoyed working in a team with interdisciplinary cross-talks and learned to communicate well with people from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

My research experiences from all these universities helped me in becoming an avid self-learner and critical thinker. I like to take the initiative and connect with people, which helps in setting up the pace for high quality and collaborative research.

How did you get your first break? 

During my time at IISc, I participated in various workshops, poster and oral presentations, and made sure that I gave my very best. I had this thought that professors are generally very busy and hence we do not get the chance to meet them often. However, in conferences, we get to meet many notable professors and research scholars, and this is the perfect time to demonstrate your skills and make a good impression. This attitude helped me to win the best presentation awards in almost all the competitions I took part in. Later in the middle of my PhD, I received the Kris Gopalakrishnan fellowship (Rs 10 lakh for 1 year) for a Joint PhD Supervision Program between IISc, Bangalore and NTU, Singapore.

I would say getting into Nanyang Technological University as a joint PhD student was my 1st break. I was always opportunistic. I would look into the  websites of the International Relations program of IISc and would never miss any email that is broadcasted at IISc. Most students don’t care about broadcasted  emails. They would only care about the emails related to their advisor or only  related to their project. But I like to keep all options open and that’s why my  professor calls me resourceful. Being informative about many things helped me to  get the extra fellowship to carry out research in Singapore from June 2019 to June  2020. And then I also managed to get a scholarship named International  Internship Program Scholarship in Singapore to extend my research from July  2020 to Jan 2021 in Singapore. 

In Singapore too, I was opportunistic and took part in various workshops and science competitions. In Jan 2021, I returned to IISc, India and started working on my thesis. During that time, I also started looking for postdoctoral programs in the US and UK. I wrote to 20 Professors and applied to about 10 advertised positions. I followed “Indeed” for this job hunt.  I managed to get two interview requests. I got both the offers, one university was in the UK and the other was in the US and I chose to join the one in the US. I believe this was my second 1st break. 

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

Challenge 1: Clearing AIEEE (which is now called JEE mains) to get into  NIT Surathkal for bachelors was a challenge. For this, I took IIT-JEE coaching in my 11th and 12th standard from Pragjyotika Academy, Jorhat, Assam. I studied hard to get through.

Challenge 2: Getting into IISc was another big challenge. I prepared really hard to crack the PhD interview all by myself without coaching. I brushed through all my Chemical  Engineering concepts and reached out to seniors at IISc, to get some information and tips to crack the interview

Challenge 3: Getting into NTU Singapore was the next challenge. I was being opportunistic in looking for different sources for doing collaborative research outside India.

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

Currently, I work as a Postdoctoral Researcher for a company named Archer Daniel Midland (ADM), which has its research and development division affiliated with the University of Kansas, USA. I work on biomass conversion to fuel and food related products. The job requires chemistry and chemical engineering skills. I learnt handling various analytical instruments during my PhD, which helps me in my current job. My typical job day would start at 8:30 am and end at 4:30 pm. 

I have a weekly 1-hour meeting with some of the senior scientists from ADM on updates regarding progress of my work or if a problem requires any technical discussion. I also have a general safety meeting once a week. I love this work because it’s industrial postdoctoral research, which involves getting a product into the market. This kind of work is very different from fundamental research which is limited to only the academic community. 

How does your work benefit society? 

My current work is a solution to the depleting fossil fuel reserves. I work on biomass which is renewable, and which can be converted to fuel such as hydrogen which is considered a clean fuel. For my PhD, I worked on developing catalysts which utilized solar energy to treat polluted water from bacteria and dissolved chemicals. This catalyst is cheap and non-toxic and can be directly used to treat real wastewater. 

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

There are two works that are very close to me. 1st work is about developing an engineered catalyst to treat real wastewater from bacteria and dissolved chemicals. And the other work is also about a catalyst which can convert seawater to hydrogen. 

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

Be hardworking, but at the same time enjoy your life journey and make friends along the way; don’t be over serious. Remember if one door closes, some other door opens, so don’t get depressed or worried over any failure. However, be careful not to hurt anyone intentionally or unintentionally in your journey; being righteous in every step of life is very important. If someone seeks for help, be generous enough to help if it’s within your reach. 

I have always been careful in watching my actions or words so that I should not end up hurting anyone. Apart from that I think we should be hardworking and be aware of the recent things going around us. Most importantly, make friends and understand the importance of helping one another and growing together. 

Future Plans? 

I might go into an industry related job focused on sustainable technology.