Whether is it addressing environmental contamination issues or powering the next generation of electric vehicle batteries, Applied Chemistry has diverse applications in the real world !

Prerna Joshi (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Postdoctoral Researcher at The University of Cincinnati, Ohio, develops various kinds of sensors to determine the concentration of lead (Pb) in water for safe drinking.

Prerna talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her Doctoral Research in Japan where she was responsible for designing the electrodes and electrolytes for Lithium ion batteries used in electric vehicles and consumer electronics.

For students, always choose the subject which interests you the most,  because the subject will lead you on to the most interesting research questions you want to explore !

Prerna, Your background? 

I grew up in a village in Uttarakhand. My parents are under-graduates from regional universities. As a kid, I was an above average student and I liked reading books. I also participated in several competitions organized by my school, especially Science and Math Olympiads.  

I have been interested in science since childhood. I wanted to study aerospace engineering as a kid. My family supported me in my goals to pursue the field of science. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation? 

I did my undergraduation in Chemistry (BSc. Hons) from Delhi University, and MS (Materials Science, Japan Advanced Institute of Science and  technology, Japan) and M. Tech* (Chemical Synthesis and Process technologies, Delhi  University., Delhi, India) 

*M. Tech was a 3-year course in collaboration with Japan. The course is closed now. 

Prerna, what were the influences that made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career? 

My brother and my seniors guided me towards this career path. 

I wanted to work on something through which I could help the environment in some way. I chose to study science (chemistry) so I could know the things around me and think of a better way to improve them. That led me to choose BSc Chemistry Hons. as an undergraduate degree. During my BSc, I got to know about several interesting subjects like nanotechnology, environmental science etc.  From my teachers, I got to know about the M. Tech program in Delhi University which was in collaboration with a University in Japan. 

The turning point in my life was getting selected for the MS program in Japan which helped me in opting to pursue a PhD afterwards. 

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 

My career path was initially a simple one. I started with a BSc in Chemistry. 

I did my bachelors from Delhi University and further, applied to a 3-year M. Tech program at Delhi University (Chemical Synthesis and Process Technologies) which had a 1 year collaborative research that had to be done in a university in Japan. 

The M.Tech program was a program with scholarships where one needs to get more than 60% marks in every semester to get a  scholarship of INR 3000 per month for the next semester. 

The opportunity to do research at a foreign university motivated me to study hard for their interview and exam. The 1-year research inspired me to proceed for PhD in the same lab in Lithium- Ion batteries. 

Getting selected for an MS program in Japan rewarded us with a fully funded Master’s degree from the University in Japan + Travel fare (India to/from Japan) from University of Delhi. 

Since I wanted to go prepared for research in Japan, I applied for a 2 month internship in the Institute of Life Sciences, Hyderabad, India. Here I learned about various synthesis and analytical techniques in chemistry. 

In my 1 year MS research in Japan, I worked on designing solid state electrolytes for Li ion batteries which could show high conductivities and better performance when tested in a LiB. This involved a lot of inert atmosphere synthesis, characterization of samples using NMR, FTIR, XRD etc. Further, I tested these using electrochemical methods for application in LiBs. The research was interesting and the energy sector had a lot of scope for more research. Hence, I pursued PhD.

Later, in my PhD as well, I got an opportunity to do an internship in IIT Madras where  I got to learn techniques and processes related to graphene synthesis and their use for  carbon dioxide adsorption/desorption. 

I pursued my PhD from Japan for 3 years in Li-Ion  batteries. I was awarded the Doctoral Research Fellowship by JAIST, Japan. I was responsible for designing the electrodes and electrolytes for Lithium  ion batteries. I learned various electrochemical techniques and synthesis skills during my PhD. I took several courses as well, some chemistry related, and some presentation skills related, as well as learning the Japanese language. I also participated in several extracurricular activities to improve my interpersonal and communication skills.  

During my PhD, I further got opportunities to travel to the USA for international conferences, where I explained my research work and built several contacts. 

The exposure in the international and national conferences helped me  build several contacts with professors and researchers of different fields. 

In my first PostDoc in Shizuoka University, I extended the electrochemical characterization methods to fuel cells and studied Pt nanoparticles as electrocatalysts for fuel cell application. From there, I got an opportunity to work in Toyota Technological Institute (TTI). 

TTI is an academic institute founded by Toyota (as Toyota’s founder wanted to invest some amount of their earnings in research and academics). In TTI, I worked on designing graphene based low-cost electrocatalysts for water electrolyzers. I was responsible for their synthesis, characterization, and application studies. Since I was the only electrochemist in the lab working on the project, I got upgraded to the position of a commissioned scientist for in-depth characterization of those graphene based electrocatalysts.

How did you get your first break? 

In my M. Tech, I was a good student. I revised every day and kept my concepts on fingertips. This helped me a lot in my interview for the MS program in Japan (my first break and my turning point in life). 

At TTI, research was conducted in English. There were times when maintenance of instruments required technicians to come from industry, and for that I learned Japanese. For research, it was not required.

It is not so difficult to get an industrial job being an international student in Japan. If you are ready to learn Japanese, some big companies conduct training sessions to teach their work as well as Japanese for work.

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

Challenge 1: Choosing a career option. Shifting between engineering and  medical science, I was not sure how to proceed further. After talking to my teachers in school, I chose the subject which interested me the most,  Mathematics. (Always make sure that the subject you choose really interests  you.) 

Challenge 2: Choosing a research topic. Due to high competition, it is not easy  to select a topic for your research. Reading thoroughly about the recent updates on the subject can help you decide the research topic. 

Challenge 3: Getting a job After PhD. If you don’t have enough publications, getting a job becomes difficult. I was made aware of this while pursuing PhD, and so I made sure that I published my work on time. 

Challenge 4 : When you choose a country for PhD work, knowing their language is a must. Although global research and development can happen in the English language, daily survival requires you to learn the local country’s language, in my case, Japanese language. 

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

I work as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. 

I am trying to design various kinds of sensors using carbon nanotubes that can determine 

a. the concentration of lead (Pb) in water for safe drinking  

b. the amount of potassium (K+) and ammonium (NH4+) ions in human serum  samples. 

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

The skills required are research and analytical skills in chemistry, knowledge of electrochemistry and  carbon materials, as well as basic fabrication skills. 

I acquired the skills during my PhD and research internships at University of Hyderabad and IIT-madras. 

What’s a typical day like? 

Getting to the workplace (university) by 9:00 am, reviewing the previous day’s results, designing, and performing new experiments, studying about some recent literature on a similar field, and data analysis. I leave work around  5:30-6:00 pm. 

What is it you love about this job?  

I love the freedom to work on my own without any interference. I get to Implement new ideas that are not time bound and without worrying about the results. 

(If you get the results the sooner, the better, but it is not  product based, hence one can move at one’s own comfortable pace). 

How does your work benefit society? 

In areas where drinking water is not clean, many people suffer from fatal diseases and have died because of the toxicity of water. Designing a sensor that can determine toxic substances in drinking water is useful for everyone. It can prevent you from harmful effects of lead (Pb) in your body if taken beyond the allowable limit.  

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

In my PhD, I was working on lithium ion batteries that are commonly used in laptops, mobile phones and electric vehicles. Currently, liquid electrolytes are used in such batteries. Due to several leakage and explosion problems, it is better if we can have  some solid state electrolyte instead of conventional liquid systems. But solids are not as  conductive as liquids. To address this issue, I designed a solid state electrolyte using Boron (highly unstable element) for a Lithium ion battery which is one of its kind. It is  the first time such an electrolyte was designed using boron that was conductive and  improved the performance of Li ion cells.  

I was awarded for this work by the American Chemical Society (ACS) in 2014. It also  helped me get several publications and a chance to work in an institute by Toyota and  then come to the USA.  

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

Participate in different competitions and Olympiads. It is a good exercise for your  mind. This also helps you decide what you are most interested in. 

I was always an under-confident and a shy student. Believe in yourself and be confident early on. Low confidence does not help in your career. 

Also make friends with those who share a different view/opinion from you. This helps you to learn something new about different topics and understand people’s personalities which helps you in your future workplace when you meet people with different ideas. 

Play any kind of sport. (I have been playing badminton since I was in class 8th). Sports are extremely necessary as it gives a positive stress to your body. It helps relieve the negative energy (like stress, anger, negative thinking) and keeps your mind focused. 

Future Plans? 

Developing some novel sensors and micro-batteries that can be beneficial for society and the environment is on my mind. It can be achieved through working in a university as a faculty (Professor), as that also gives me an opportunity to mentor and encourage young students towards science. Getting a faculty position will help me in conducting my research as well as teaching students.