At a time when sustainability has become a primary concern for industries, “Waste to Fuel” conversion is beneficial not only from the perspective of waste management but generation of renewable energy as well.

Garima Chauhan, our next pathbreaker, Research Scientist at Steeper Energy (Calgary, Canada), works on the development of advanced biofuels from agricultural waste and forestry residues.

Garima talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her first book on the topic of solid waste management which was the core theme of her PhD at IIT Delhi, focused on extraction of metals from waste streams.

For students, the field of waste management entails multidisciplinary research, the work profile cannot be limited to a certain set of skills. You should be flexible enough to work on different technologies, concepts and sometimes be open to a completely new direction to explore. There is no short-cut to hone skills.

Garima, Your background?

I was born and brought up in Tonk, Rajasthan. Looking back at my childhood, our lifestyle has always been simple. My father worked in the Revenue department and my mother was a teacher. During my childhood, my parents always encouraged me to explore the fundamentals of science and mathematics in our daily routine, instead of rote learning. And that is how I took my first step in this field.  

In my school days, I have had an inclination towards solving mathematical problems. Even now, whenever I have free time, I enjoy working and resolving numerical algorithms and puzzles.  

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

After completing school, I moved out of Tonk city to pursue higher studies. I completed engineering (B.Tech.) in Biotechnology from University of Rajasthan, followed by Masters (M. Tech.) in the field of Chemical Engineering from Malviya National Institute of Technology, Jaipur. Later, I earned a doctorate (PhD) degree in Chemical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. 

I believe that constant learning is an ongoing expansion of knowledge and skill sets. After my graduation, I worked with WIPRO GE Medical Systems. While working in this company, I had barely any work during weekends, so in order to utilize my time efficiently, I enrolled in a post-graduate diploma program in “Intellectual property rights” from the Indira Gandhi National Open University. 

I also engaged myself in internships, workshops and short training during my graduation and post-graduation which helped me to gain hands-on experience on various instruments and technologies. 

Tell us, what were the drivers that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

In my opinion, there is no “set” direction to follow a career. A career path is all about trial and error. We learn where our heart belongs only when we explore what’s out there, identify our strengths and develop skills. 

I didn’t really have a plan to follow. For graduation, I chose Biotechnology (B.Tech  engineering program), not because I had an interest in immunology or in genetic engineering, but because I followed the advice of what others recommended about biotechnology. Frankly, I did not have any idea about what “engineering” truly meant in the real world. 

Even though I have always had good grades in my engineering program and secured the best internship(s), I was not enjoying the core biotechnology subjects. During my classes, there were a few chemical engineering topics & that’s when I realized that, I enjoy working on Mc-Cabe Thiele plot rather than Michaelis-menten enzyme kinetics 😊. I was so interested in chemical engineering that I devoted most of my time to troubleshooting and fixing the lab instruments and working/solving engineering problems. During this time, I also took an initiative to share my knowledge on the concepts of mass transfer and heat transfer with my classmates. As it is said, that when you teach someone, you learn more. I learnt in-depth concepts of chemical engineering during the discussion sessions with my classmates. 

After completing my graduation, I worked at WIPRO-GE Medical Systems and explored the field of biotechnology. Even though this stream offers many great career opportunities, I was not motivated to pursue this path. Finally, I decided to pursue Chemical Engineering and enrolled myself for the MTech program at Malaviya National Institute of Technology, Jaipur. That’s how I started my journey in the field I wanted to pursue. 

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 mentioned before, I didn’t really plan my career. I would say, the choices I made throughout the journey, define my career. 

I had two choices after completing MTech in chemical engineering: – 

  1. A job offer from a renowned company working in the field of computer programming, and
  2. Doctoral position at one of India’s best institutions (IIT Delhi) in the field of chemical engineering. 

Both options were promising from my career perspective, however, I chose a doctoral position at IIT Delhi. I am a lab-oriented person and would like to spend more time dealing with the instruments instead of working on computer-programs. I knew I would be happier and motivated to work in IIT Delhi labs than working on computer simulation and therefore opted for the PhD program. Here’s what I would suggest to young fellows is to remember while choosing a career, first, what will keep you motivated in this career profile and secondly, what are your strengths that will help you accomplish your career goals? 

My PhD thesis was based on an industry relevant interdisciplinary research problem where the concept of chelation technology (organo-metallic complexes) was explored to extract heavy metals from multi-metallic spent catalyst. In current perspective, when sustainability has become the primary concern for process industries, heavy metals are one of the major natural resources which are of deep concern. The impossibility of having economic and industrial development without a concomitant increase in resource consumption has now stepped up the necessity of metals, which are considered as ‘keys of industrialization’. Heavy metals are extensively used in the preparation of various catalysts in the petrochemical and fertilizer industries. After few years of use, catalysts starts to lose activity and cannot be used further in the industries. These spent catalysts, if discarded in cavalier manner, may affect the soil-water-air continuum due to the bio-accumulative nature of metals. The idea of working on recovery of metals from spent catalyst and reusing them in other applications caught my attention immediately since it covers an industry relevant engineering problem as well as helps to mitigate the industrial waste management issue. 

Having received technical wisdom from my mentors and gained hands-on work experience in research since the inception of my thesis problem, I now feel comfortable and confident about identifying the possible approaches to solve problems, perform experiments, explore new research ideas and communicate the research findings in the form of technical articles. The experience I gained during my PhD cannot be phrased in a few lines. In brief, the PhD experience instilled the value of research in me, and I kept exploring this career path. 

Also, during the PhD program, I was offered a guest scientist position at Max Planck Institute for Dynamics of Complex Technical Systems, Germany to work on a dynamic simulation of a complex metal-organic framework. This was one of the opportunities for me to explore a new research direction and to experience a research environment outside India. As computer simulation was not my research interest, I was reluctant to take up this opportunity. After several conversations with the German counterparts about the research work, I chose to take-up the position and I can now say that this was one of the best learning opportunities in my career. My work was to carry out molecular modeling to investigate the structural and thermodynamics properties of metal–ligand complexes and to identify degradation pathways of various organic complexes.

During the final days of my doctoral degree, I was working on my first book which included the topic of the extraction of metals from waste streams, the core theme of my PhD thesis. After I completed the PhD program, I decided to apply for an academic position, where I could be involved more in writing articles/books, and working on research advancements along with mentoring research projects. Along with my job-hunt, I devoted my time to completing my book. I was offered an Assistant Professor position at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi, which I accepted with both hands. It was a learning experience in terms of developing a research lab, mentoring research projects, interacting with graduate and post-graduate students and more importantly, my professional development. During this tenure, I got the opportunity to supervise research projects of B.Tech. and M. Tech. students. Here, I applied my combined knowledge of biotechnology and chemical engineering to work on the bioleaching of metals from electronic waste. We (Project student and I) worked on a two-stage bio-recovery process followed by electrochemical treatment to extract copper in its reusable form from waste printed circuit boards. Also, I explored the concept of chelation technology for electronic waste management to remove metals from printed circuit board and mobile batteries. The research outcomes were quite encouraging in these projects. 

In August 2017, I moved to Canada and started working as Postdoctoral Scientist at University of Alberta in the Department of Chemical Engineering. I was appointed to work on a very interesting research area that I had never explored before. In this project, I started exploring different processes namely “ionic liquid assisted extraction”, “photo-irradiation assisted extraction”, “electrochemical processes and adsorption” to develop an efficient demetalation process for the extraction of vanadium and nickel from bitumen. There was a lot to explore and to learn that kept me motivated throughout the project. Later, I worked on another research project related to aviation fuel production from waste biomass. Here, I was working on the concept of ‘waste to fuel’ by evaluating the deep chemistry associated with the biomass. In this project, I worked on different chemical process such as hydrotreating, hydro-isomerization and hydrocracking. Although all of these are known oil conversion technologies, none of these technologies have been developed enough to convert oil from renewable materials, which include oxygen-containing compounds. In the processes, chemical reactions take place, which can be influenced by oxygen- containing compounds as well as the equilibrium between chemicals in the vapor phase and the liquid phase. It was interesting to understand the complex network of chemical reactions and to make the petroleum refining technologies adaptable for use with renewable biomass.

I worked for four years at University of Alberta on different research projects before moving to my new and current job position as Research Scientist at Steeper Energy. The experience I gained while working on different research areas, not only helped me to upskill myself in the field of chemical/ biochemical/ chemistry/ biotechnology, but also gives me the confidence to dive into anything new that sounds exciting enough to explore further. 

Looking back, the most consistent thing in my career path is a constant willingness to learn and to put in efforts to upskill myself.  Whenever I saw a learning opportunity, I never hesitated to explore. Thankfully, my family always supported me in my career choices irrespective how difficult it seemed to achieve. 

Again, as I said before, unless we explore what’s out there, we cannot realize what we are really looking for !!! 

How did you get your first break?

My first job was through an online job portal where I applied for the job position at Wipro GE medical systems. I was invited for a panel interview and later, I received the offer letter. 

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

There were many challenges and setbacks throughout my journey. The first challenge I experienced was the lack of proficiency in the English language. My schooling was mainly in the Hindi language where all the subjects were in Hindi and only one class was in English. Initially, in the engineering program, it was difficult to keep up with the pace in the classroom and I took longer to complete my assignments. Reading books, watching English movies/ documentaries, and communicating with friends in English helped me learn faster. 

I am an introverted person. Years of technical education and work experiences certainly helped me to gain knowledge and technical skills, however there are no formal courses available to develop soft skills. Being an introvert, in my opinion, sometimes becomes quite challenging to break the ice and start communication. Attending various conferences, participating in panel discussions and joining professional groups helped me to interact with professionals and to learn and develop my networking skills. I am still learning and developing my skills by reflecting on my experiences. 

Where do you work nowWhat problems do you solve?

Currently, I work as a Research Scientist at Steeper Energy, Calgary, Canada. In the present scenario, when the emerging requirement of alternative fuels and increasing rate of organic waste generation are major concerns, we, at Steeper Energy, are working on the development of advanced biofuels from agricultural waste and forestry residues that will eventually assist in solid waste management and production of renewable transportation fuels. 

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

Since this is multidisciplinary research, the work profile cannot be limited to a certain set of skills. We should be flexible enough to work on different technologies, concepts and sometimes even a completely new direction to explore. To acquire skills, conceptual knowledge is the most important. In addition, willingness to work, practice and explore are the key components to develop any new skills. I love to spend time in labs whether to perform an experiment, to develop a methodology, to troubleshoot an instrument or to analyze the data and that’s how I acquire technical skills. There is no short-cut to hone skills. 

We can never learn anything new by being told, we have to explore it ourselves. No matter how much knowledge has been gained, there is always something new to experience in the lab. I learn something new everyday and that is the beauty of ‘Research’ and my constant motivation too. Besides that, knowing that our research does address real world problems makes me feel accomplished. 

How does your work benefit society?

My interests are focused on performing research in the field of ‘waste to fuel conversion’ that is beneficial from the perspective of waste management and renewable energy as well. 

Different research problems that I face quite often in the lab encourage my mind to think, read more articles and keep myself updated with the recent research advancements. 

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

Publishing my first authored-book is something I am really proud of. Writing a book is not just a one-time process; it is a journey I’ll cherish throughout my life. I feel accomplished every time when I know someone read my book, I feel gratified when I hear that someone gained knowledge from my book, I feel honored every time when people contact me to appreciate my work.  

Apart from my work, I volunteer at a non-profit organization that supports young girls to provide resources for better education and to guide them about career choices. On every alternate weekend, I interact with students, listen to their career objectives and guide them based on my experience. I feel fortunate that I get an opportunity to share my experiences with them, at the same time there are so many qualities to learn from them too. I always look forward to these interactive sessions.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Be Inquisitive. If anyone is interested in research, working in a lab and willingness to learn are the key drivers to gain technical experience. Reach out to seek guidance from those who are working in this field, apply for internships to gain hands-on training. Keep reading, keep exploring. 

Define your career choices, but do not just stick to them. Sometimes, things do not go as per plan. Without experiencing the bitter taste of failures, success will not taste sweet enough. Be open to experiencing new things and keep a positive outlook. Focus on the journey that can offer several learning opportunities. You will make your own way. 

Future Plans?

Honestly, I just ‘go with the flow.’ For now, I am focusing on my current research and writing my next book on solid waste management. My future plans will take shape based on my research interests at that moment.