The reality of climate change is undeniable, and we must act with immediate cognizance of the severity of the climate crisis 

Vishnu Vardhan, our next pathbreaker, Research Associate at the Centre for Advanced Research in Building Science and Energy (CARBSE), works towards energy efficiency in buildings from the aspects of occupant thermal comfort, passive design and alternative air conditioning methods.

Vishnu talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the interdisciplinary, applied aspects (involving physics, psychology, and data science) combined with the climate-action-centric approach which is something that drives him everyday.

For students, choose the one path which is in rhyme with your calling – make it your purpose – and persist on it unabashedly with the sole intent of self-betterment.

Vishnu Vardhan, your background?

I grew up in a modest semi-conservative Lucknowi upbringing for the first 18 years of my life. As a teacher of Mathematics and Science, my mother helped consolidate my scientific rudiments, while my father, as a linguist, helped polish my written and oral comprehension skills (in Hindi, Urdu, and English).

Around the time I was 16, I was certain of my uncertainty vis-à-vis my career choices – I was equally inclined and prepared to be a scientist, a classical composer/singer, a psychologist, and a chef. To resolve this crucial conflict, I drew from the principles of Ikigai to choose the first among the four future pathways – the path of science. However, I still passionately partake and upskill myself in the remaining three inclinations.

Presently, my responsibilities as a Research Associate in Building Energy Efficiency at the CARBSE, CEPT University, essentially involve (physical and simulation-based) experimentation and scientific documentation. In tandem with the ‘bigger-picture’ perspective, the confidence in my rudiments helps me achieve my personal and professional goals.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

In line with my “scientist” inclination, I resolved to contribute to the betterment of the planet from a research-based standpoint. In the process, I enrolled for B.Tech in Mechanical with specialization in Energy Engineering at VIT University, Vellore (2013-2017). I was a merit scholarship awardee for the four years and graduated with a CGPA of 9.1/10 with three international publications.

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

Deep introspections in line with the principles of Ikigai molded me irreversibly. Ikigai primarily entails an introspection on four facets: 1. What do I like to do? 2. What am I good at? 3. What can provide me with financial stability? 4. What does the world/community need from me?

My parents, Mrs. Anjali Dwivedi and Mr. Rajeev Dwivedi, had a substantial (and often conflicting) influence on me during my formative years. At VIT, Dr. Satyajit Ghosh was my Academic Mentor, while at Auroville, Architects Poppo Pingel and Mona Doctor-Pingel were my Personal and Professional Mentors. At CARBSE, my Research Supervisor, Dr. Rajan Rawal, has also been a strong pillar of support.

In addition to learning from the above (real) influencers, I sat through several introspective sessions involving SWOT analysis, meditation, and research on relevant online forums (ResearchGate, Reddit, Twitter).

I believe that my presence in Auroville facilitated innumerable personal interactions with global sustainability practitioners from a holistic standpoint. These meaningful interactions helped me root my personal and professional values in minimalism and inculcate a holistic appreciation of a sustainable lifestyle.

Can you take us through your career path?

After graduation, I was appointed as a Building Energy Analyst for the U.S. India CBERD Project in Auroville. My appointment was facilitated through my prior understanding of the research context as a part of my final-year B. Tech. Thesis titled “Heat and Mass Transfer across Organic Facades.” As a part of the CBERD project, my responsibilities included yearlong thermal monitoring of several naturally ventilated buildings. I conducted this year-long research in coordination with experts from UC Berkeley and CEPT University.

My association with CEPT University led to my appointment as a Research Assistant at CARBSE (Center for Advanced Research in Building Science & Energy), wherein I was subsequently promoted to my present-day role as a Research Associate. While I presently address the broad themes of Building Energy Efficiency and Occupant Thermal Comfort, it is interesting to note that I have not been involved in any thematically relevant internships during my undergraduate studies. My undergraduate-level internships were at ISRO, Sriharikota, and Suzlon, Pune, which were relevant to my then-interests in astrophysics and renewables, respectively.

To summarize, I narrowed down the choice of my career based on my academic inclinations (applied physics, data science, and psychology) and the desire to work in close liaison with a human-centric domain. As my academic goal in the near future, I aim to integrate personalized thermal comfort systems with interdisciplinary insights from the domains of psychology and economics from a data-science perspective. I firmly believe that absorbing and contributing to the broader understanding of domain-specific research – through peer-reviewed publications – is one of the key takeaways from my journey thus far.  

How did you get your first break? 

As a part of my final year undergraduate thesis, I examined the cooling effect of green facades through a simulation and experimentation-driven approach. I based my study on an under-construction building located in Pondicherry and collaborated with its principal architect based in Auroville. My study culminated in a peer-reviewed international conference publication and demonstrated my research abilities to my potential employers – Centre for Scientific Research Auroville and Studio Naqshbandi – for the U.S.-India CBERD project.

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

Challenge 1: A problem of plenty.
As a naturally inquisitive person, exploration and experimentation are my dominant instincts. I have always prioritized my professional goals and day-to-day lifestyle in line with the principles of Ikigai.

Challenge 2: Money matters.
Hailing from a modest economic background, financing my higher education (without an exorbitant loan) was a significant challenge. Instead of availing an education loan for an international MSc, I decided to expand upon my research skills in line with the broader vision for my career. Having published over 20 peer-reviewed studies and having contributed to over ten projects of national and international relevance, I have been selected for a fully-funded PhD position at Loughborough University, UK, starting October 2022.

Challenge 3: Learning to say NO
While humility and politeness are noble virtues, in modern professional/personal parlance, it is crucial to define healthy boundaries and say NO to seemingly worthwhile ventures based on our rational judgment. Frequent SWOT analyses (self-critique) and meditations help inculcate rationality.

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

I work as a Research Associate at the Centre for Advanced Research in Building Science and Energy (CARBSE), CEPT University.

I work towards energy efficiency in buildings from the aspects of occupant thermal comfort, passive design, alternative air conditioning methods, and more, with an emphasis on experimentation, documentation, and policy-level integration. 

Additionally, I also serve as a pro-bono sustainability consultant for a Swedish think-tank – Nordic Asia Impact; as its part, I aim to help acquaint early-stage professionals and researchers with the nuances of international-grade research and domain-specific industrial practices.

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

In order to have a holistic appreciation of building energy efficiency and thermal comfort in applied parlance, one must have the following skills:

1. Appreciation of the physical heat and mass-transfer phenomenon in the indoor and outdoor environment through theory and simulation.

2. Overarching insight on the building systems and their integration.

3. Tangible understanding of the allied domains of architecture, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, human thermophysiology, psychology (for occupant behavior analysis), and statistical modeling.

4. Superior technical communication skills and grounding in the scientific method.

What’s a typical day like?

Typically, I focus on one to three simultaneous research projects per day. I may set up an experiment in the Thermal Comfort Chamber for stabilization while simultaneously performing technical documentation, data analysis, and visualization for another project. While I prefer to keep my work hours confined to the office hours (10:00-18:00), my tasks can occupy >10 hours/day for ~10% of the days subject to pressing deadlines posed by high-stake international projects.

What is it you love about this job? 

The interdisciplinary, applied approach (involving physics, psychology, and data science) combined with the climate-action-centric theme is something that I love.

How does your work benefit society? 

The reality of climate change is undeniable, and as the youth, it is our responsibility to do more than just protest. We must act with immediate cognizance of the severity of the climate crisis – this action should emanate from both personal and professional fronts. My role (of ensuring climate action through buildings) is one of the many roles which can catalyze climate action; we must choose one which is in rhyme with our calling – make it our purpose – and persist on it unabashedly with the sole intent of self-betterment.

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

Presently, I have been working on devising the India Model for Adaptive Thermal Comfort for Residences (IMAC-R), which proposes nationally applicable indoor temperature limits for optimizing comfort and energy efficiency in Indian residences. The year-long nationwide residential survey (of about 300 buildings), conducted during the challenging pandemic-affected period, was a remarkable feat by our dedicated team at CARBSE and epitomizes our commitment to the cause of climate action.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

No one but you have lived or will live your life – take any advice with a grain of salt, including this one.

Future Plans?

Professionally – a PhD to continue partaking in climate action from my unique, interdisciplinary standpoint. Personally – continue upskilling my understanding of psychology and Indian classical music while maintaining the highest regard for physical and mental health.