As electronic devices (such as transistors) become more and more diminutive in size, the water required for semiconductor chip manufacturing needs to be of ultrahigh purity grade !

Pranit Iyengar (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Innovation Engineer at Ovivo, Switzerland, works on trying to quantify impurities in ultrapure water that is used for semiconductor wafer fabrication.

Pranit talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about steering his academic research career towards Research & Development, with a focus on finding solutions to technical hurdles in everyday appliances and processes.

For students, though R&D is 90% frustration, the 10% reward when things work and make sense, more than makes up for it !

Pranit, Your background?

My name is Pranit Iyengar and I was born and brought up in Pune, Maharashtra. My father is a businessman and mother is a homemaker, and I have an elder brother. I grew up playing tennis since the age of 8 and started learning the guitar on and off from the age of 15. I was always interested in science and particularly energy resources related technologies.

I went to Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan from 1st to 10th std and then MMCS from 11th to 12th std. My JEE coaching was at Bakliwal Tutorials (All of it in Pune).

My elder brother is quite a passionate environmentalist and that sentiment did spill over to me as well. We preferred to use the cycle and public transport as much as possible while in school and college. The initial interest in energy and environment definitely shaped my career, or at least my studies. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my B.Tech in Energy Engineering & M.Tech in Energy Systems Engineering from IIT Bombay, and PhD in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering from EPFL

I was always fascinated by devices and machines, and enjoyed being in a state of curiosity. So by 9th or 10th standard I realized that engineering would be the most interesting field for me. Hence I decided to study for IIT JEE. I gave my first attempt in 2010, which I couldn’t clear. I was clear about the lapses in my preparation, and so I wanted to give it another shot. At this stage I faced resistance from my family as it seemed like a big risk. But I went ahead and took a drop anyway, and was able to clear JEE (AIR 846) in my second attempt.

I found the perfect course at IIT Bombay, B.Tech in Energy Engineering with M.Tech in Energy Systems Engineering. At the time (2011), it was only possible to do a dual degree in Energy Engineering at IIT Bombay. I think there is a B.Tech possibility now. If I had to do it over again, I think I would still pick the dual degree option, as for those who are actually interested in their field, the dual degree project (equivalent to a master’s thesis) is a great way to explore a topic and do some real research.

Internships during the IIT days were when I could explore and find what I would like to pursue later. After my 3rd year I got the opportunity to go to the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and started thinking about doing a PhD in materials science directed toward an energy application. During the 5th year (the dual degree project) I pursued this further while working on synthesizing materials for water-to-hydrogen conversion using solar energy.

Wanting to explore another country and travel a bit, I decided to go abroad for a PhD. I found a position at EPFL in Switzerland and did my PhD studying copper nanoparticles as electrocatalysts for the conversion of CO2 to fuels. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career? 

The primary reason for choosing engineering was my fascination for science and machines/devices coupled with an interest in contributing to the energy sector.

I was lucky to have a lot of great mentors and influencers within my family who were highly accomplished in their fields (business, consultancy, design, education, engineering and academics). Our school also had a great organization called the Bhavan’s Muktangan Exploratory Science Center, where we could learn more about science through experiments in laboratories. 

My thesis advisor at IIT Bombay, Professor Kavaipatti was the one who helped me land the internship position at EPFL. The advantage of going to IIT is that it is very likely that your professors would have spent some time working/studying abroad or in other premiere institutes in India, and would have contacts. Sometimes, knowing someone is what makes all the difference, and having done my thesis under Prof. Kavaipatti definitely helped. The DESE HOD at IIT, Prof Rangan Banerjee, was also a great mentor to all of us because of his industry wide insights. 

Senior students and batchmates at the university who are doing things that seem interesting to you also make for great mentors. Being on a residential campus makes it much easier to have multiple mentors that way.

In terms of events, it was more like a gradual buildup through studies and science projects. As a child, I also really liked watching tools being used. For example, if there was some renovation work at home (carpentry or masonry), I would sit and watch for hours. At the same time, renewable energy was also picking up media attention, and so it seemed like a pretty safe field as far as future employment is concerned. I would count internships as important events as well, where I learnt what I would like to explore further. 

The most important turning point for me was going against most people’s advice and deciding to take a drop to give IIT JEE another shot. In hindsight, it seems like an important instance where I learnt to gain some confidence in my decisions. Another turning point for me was reading the book ‘Range’ by David Epstein. It showed me that there is no need to restrict oneself to a field. Especially, as scientists and engineers, we enjoy a lot of freedom as the scientific process largely remains the same across fields. All we need is an opportunity to learn something new and figure out how to contribute.

Every person you meet and network with is a potential contact that can help you in your career. I have been lucky to have very helpful people around me. Professors, colleagues, family and friends are all very important assets in this respect.

I would recommend giving yourself a decent chance once you decide to try something. Find what interests you to the level of daily tasks that you will have to perform, not just the job title and the perception that accompanies it.

In general, apart from that, I had a very low pressure upbringing. My parents always gave me and my elder brother freedom to pick our interests and career according to what we enjoyed. I think that not being pressured by parents makes for a much happier childhood and teaches students/kids to take ownership of their decisions. Guidance is always available if asked for. I feel some parents are not able to let their children make decisions under the fear that they will get “left behind”, whatever that means.

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

All my career related decisions have been led by fascination and curiosity. Thankfully in this decade/century, being an engineer assures you of a certain ease of finding employment as well. 

As I move forward in my career, I believe I will apply for jobs based on two criteria: 1. Is it an essential Industry? and 2. Do the day to day tasks in the job require me to be curious and ask questions? From what I understand about myself (at least so far), I don’t care much for job titles or climbing up the corporate ladder.

My 1st Internship was in the winter of 2nd Year at IITB at Enelek Power, SINE IIT Bombay.

I went to Coimbatore to conduct workshops on solar photovoltaics, covering the basics of the working of semiconductors and the technical aspects of solar PV plants. The workshop was for engineering students and working professionals who wanted to learn about the field. Here I learnt that communicating science is something I enjoy doing, and this always helped with presenting my work. Breaking down complex concepts into understandable parcels was a skill I started to learn during this internship.

My 2nd Internship (Summer of the second year at IITB) was at SELCO Foundation, Ujire, Karnataka

The internship at SELCO gave me some exposure to on-field work and also the opportunity to meet some great people and learn from them. The project was to study the feasibility of using solar concentrators for community scale cooking (universities, hostels or even temples). I learnt that logistics and personal preferences of the users (within reason) should always be considered while assessing a technology for commercial use. The science making sense and economics seeming viable are necessary, but not sufficient conditions.

My 3rd Internship (Summer of the third year at IITB) was at Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel

During the 2 and a half months at Weizmann, I worked on (mostly learnt) concepts related to high temperature electrolysis of CO2 and water in a solid oxide electrolytic cell. The main project was to design a reactor (to be used with a technique called FTIR) to study the materials while they were being used to convert CO2 to fuels. My interest in materials science was born during this internship. This is a topic which I would eventually return to for my PhD. The stay in Israel was as important for traveling and exploring a foreign place as it was for scientific learning. 

My 4th Internship (After graduating from IITB, June to Dec 2016) was at LMSC, EPFL, Switzerland

This internship started with a possible lead-up to a PhD position in the Laboratory of Semiconductor Materials in the Materials Science department at EPFL. I worked on yet another technique to study catalysts, called SECM (Scanning Electrochemical Microscopy). Basically, it can be imagined as a very fine stethoscope that works on electrochemical signals, rather than sound waves. My job was to figure out how to use this very sensitive instrument and prepare a protocol for whoever wanted to use it later. It was a great experience in sensor development and instrumentation. During this internship I was able to find another lab that was more interesting for me for a PhD, also at EPFL.

This was also when I decided to continue in Switzerland and not apply for positions in the US. The place was too beautiful to move away from and the university facilities were nothing short of world class. 

I did my PhD from Jan 2017 to July 2021 at LNCE, EPFL, Switzerland

Here I worked on the synthesis and testing of Copper nanoparticles as electrocatalysts for the conversion of CO2 into fuels. In this concept called solar fuels generation, solar energy is stored by converting CO2 and water to a fuel, and this process uses a catalyst (a material that makes the reaction easier, or sometimes, even possible). Solar fuels are fuels made from common substances like water and carbon dioxide using the energy of sunlight. There is vast energy in sunlight striking the earth, but it is time-varying and dispersed, making it challenging to harness sunlight for practical use. We have successfully tapped solar energy to make electricity but aren’t yet able to efficiently make liquid fuels from it. Solar fuels could be an abundant supply of sustainable, storable, and portable energy.

To simplify it for young readers, if you think of CO2 and water as the ingredients of dosa, and methane as a type of dosa, the catalyst is the pan on which they get made. My PhD work basically examined different pans (different shapes of copper nanoparticles as catalysts), and we showed that the different pans make different kinds of dosa even though the starting ingredients are the same. More specifically, one copper nanoparticle shape made CH4 from CO2, another made C2H4 and when combined with Silver, one made more C2H5OH than the other. Eventually the generated fuels can be reused in engines or fuel cells just like you would use a battery to power appliances.

The PhD experience was very enriching in terms of project management, long term planning, developing patience and gaining scientific experience. But it also taught me that I did not want to pursue academics. A research position in Industry made more sense to me as I wanted to be closer to products that people are using. 

Interestingly, after being in the energy field for the past 10 years (all part of my education), I transitioned to the field of water purification for my first job. I was willing to make this switch because it met the two criteria I mentioned in point 4. (essential industry and job that needs me to be curious). It is an R&D job in an extremely critical industry, and hence I knew I would like it. 

How did you get your first break?

I wouldn’t consider any specific incident as a break. All my engagements shaped whatever came after that. If I were to pick, however, I would say going to IIT. It gave me access to a lot of resources and contacts, and where I eventually went from there was up to my interests and motivation.

A few of my other breaks were

  1. The transition to industry is actually what most PhD graduates need to make, as there are simply not enough academic positions available for the number of PhDs being handed out. Since I never had professorship plans, accepting that wasn’t a hurdle for me. So in the same way that I didn’t apply for a single job while graduating from IITB, I didn’t find myself applying for any postdoc positions while finishing the PhD. I would say being able to make the switch is a combination of keeping an open mind, applying to whatever seems interesting (having a broad field of interest helped me here), and lastly (probably the most crucial yet least controllable) getting lucky. The luck aspect can be maximized by being more thorough.
  2. Transitions like these can be made if, firstly, there is a common thread between your experience and the job requirements, and secondly, if a recruiter who can see the common thread comes across your CV (customizing the CV towards job applications helps here). In my view,  experience with nanoparticles and characterization tools along with some problem solving/engineering background was what helped me.
  3. The Swiss job market is indeed notoriously difficult to break into for a foreigner (non European). There are special provisions for graduates from the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology, which were crucial in my case.

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

Challenge 1: Dealing with frustration. Research brings a lot of failure and frustration with it. I learnt that the best way for me to navigate through frustration is deciding what to try next, and then delaying the frustration until the result of the next trial.

Challenge 2: The feeling of sunk costs. Not being weighed down by past experiences and looking at every new day as a fresh start is a sentiment that has helped me in all situations

Challenge 3: Dealing with work stress. Having hobbies and interests (sports and music in my case) help me feel fresh and take my mind off of work.

Challenge 4: Convincing your boss/supervisor to allow you to do something that they think wont work. Here it helps to have a good relationship and put your ideas forward politely and clearly. Of course, you must also take responsibility for things when you are wrong.

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

Currently (Since Nov 2021), I work for Ovivo Switzerland AG. Ovivo is a worldwide expert in water treatment solutions for industrial, municipal and electronics makets.

I work on trying to quantify impurities in ultrapure water that is used for semiconductor wafer fabrication.

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

Skills required are design & execution of experiments, project  planning, research & data analysis and the use of scientific characterization equipment. These skills were accumulated over time right from my B.Tech.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day starts with setting up experiments that will run for a few hours or even a day or two. This could also involve the analysis of the previous test results, communicating the results to the rest of the team, developing the product (further details are confidential). There are a lot of meetings to keep everyone up to date and involve the key members in decision making for the next steps.

What is it you love about this job? 

What I love is the process of generating ideas, designing experiments to validating or rejecting them, and being in a state of curiosity all the time, which is very similar to my PhD. What is different is that we have to operate on much shorter time scales than what we have in academic research, and that successful execution can lead to a real commercial product. I find this very exciting.

How does your work benefit society? 

The scientific work I have done related to improving renewable energy technologies during my academic experiences have contributed towards a knowledge pool rather than bringing about a direct immediate benefit. A concept going from fundamental understanding to commercial product launch could take a decade or two. That is just how research works.

Semiconductor chip manufacturing needs extremely clean water. And as devices (transistors) are getting more and more compact, the purity requirements from water are getting tighter. And we know how important these chips are given that electronics are integrated into everything we do. Hence the work I am currently doing contributes to the future of semiconductor chip manufacturing.

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

The second project during my PhD is very close to me (open access https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acscatal.1c00420 ). 

I was basically stuck for a long time trying to make a certain concept work. It was then that I realized that asking the right questions (or rephrasing questions in the right manner) is the key to solving problems. If something can be achieved by letting go of old methods (even though it means you “wasted” time on the old one), I learnt you should do it without any hesitation at all. And this is a learning I will keep with me always. In my opinion, whether or not you wasted time on something just boils down to your mentality. A positive way to look at a failure is that you eliminate methods that don’t work. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

  1. Don’t be afraid of taking risks. Some will seem like (relatively) bad decisions or mistakes, and some will pay off handsomely. 
  2. There is no hurry to “find your calling”. Take your time to try things out.
  3. Give priority to overall happiness and life in addition to career and professional growth
  4. Question everything and learn how to learn. 
  5. While asking someone about their career, also ask about the worst part of their job and not just the best. You can only keep doing something if you are ok with the worst parts of it. In my case, the worst parts are getting conceptually stuck or dealing with failing experiments and wrong hypotheses. I learnt that I am ok with it, as long as there is some strategy to change something and keep trying. And when things work, it is a very rewarding feeling.
  6. A few book recommendations: 
  • Range, David Epstein. 
  • If you are so smart why aren’t you happy, Raj Raghunathan
  • The psychology of money, Morgan Housel

Future Plans?

Future plan is to be engaged in R&D for at least a few more years. I like the nature of the job. Even though it is 90% frustration, the 10% reward when things work and make sense, more than make up for it (read pareto principle). I would like to have a certain component of R&D and Science even later.