Exploring the flow dynamics of fluids through computational simulations has a wide range of applications in industries such as Aerospace, Manufacturing and Healthcare, to name a few.

Sucharitha Rajendran, our next pathbreaker, Modelling and Simulation Engineer at Parker Hannifin, creates and applies simulation tools to model the underlying physics of filtration systems used for industrial purposes.

Sucharitha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the widespread usage of computer-based-design aided by the power of computing, which have tremendous potential to impact every technological advancement, through a faster design cycle than purely experimental means.

For students, if you love exploring new areas of science and engineering and look forward to applying them in the real world, a career in R&D will excite you !

Sucharitha, Your background?

I grew up mostly in Bangalore, Karnataka. My mum and dad were always enthusiastic about new experiences and would turn them into learning moments. I believe this helped me develop a curious temperament. Physics, specifically mechanics, was always a top interest for me as a child – hands-on tinkering was very intuitive and I loved exploring how things were made, how machines moved and worked. This love for mechanics and physics made me decide to pursue Mechanical engineering as my career focus.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

When the time came to decide my area of study for graduation, Mechanical engineering was an obvious choice to me. Initially, I was dissuaded from pursuing this stream by a few due to job prospects, gender ratio etc. But my parents’ belief in me as well as their encouragement spurred me to take on this challenge with full vigour. Following my undergraduate degree at NIT Durgapur, I decided to pursue academic research at University of Cincinnati in Thermal and Fluid Sciences. 

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

My fluids professor, Dr. A.N Mullick, at NIT Durgapur was instrumental in my decision to pursue doctoral research in the area of Fluid and Thermal Sciences. Dr. Mullick saw my interest in the field and provided immense exposure and support to pursue small, but significant research opportunities during my B.Tech. He advised me to seek more exposure through research internships at other places as well. So I sought out research internships at IIT Kanpur and Madras, and at Indian Institute of Astro-physics. This led me to pursue my doctoral degree at the University of Cincinnati with Dr. Jog and Dr. Manglik. I have often found myself inspired by their clarity in thinking – be it in resolving the underlying physics or in developing better conceptual analysis. At Cincinnati, I had opportunities to delve into a teaching career, as well as industrial R&D and I find myself to be best suited for an industrial setting. Currently, I work at Parker Hannifin Filtration Innovation Center as Modelling and Simulation engineer

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

I never planned to be in a research-oriented career. It was purely due to the opportunities during my undergraduate years that I recognized this passion. The exposure I gained during my doctoral studies has led me to an industrial R&D career. 

During my B.Tech, I wanted to spend my summer and winter breaks seeking either academic or industrial experiences. In my 2nd year, I spent the summer at IIT Kanpur with Dr. A.K. Saha, which was my first real exposure to R&D and I loved the challenge it imposed. I also spent my winter break that year at BOSCH, Bangalore facility. 

At IIT Kanpur, I worked on understanding how geometric parameters of wavy channels impacted enhancement of heat and mass transfer. This finds wide applicability in large scale events like sedimentation on river channels to flow in micro channels (biofluids). The work I did here was very stimulating and kindled an interest for research in me. 

My experience at BOSCH Bangalore, was in manufacturing and in assembly line. The judicious layout of the whole product assembly line was my focus. Seeing the dedicated work involved in ensuring on-time delivery and planning for contingencies was an eye-opener for me as I had never thought through such aspects before this. 

Between the two experiences, I found the R&D experience to be more fulfilling for my interests and that is what I wanted to do the next year. I had a very encouraging Fluid Sciences professor – Dr. AN Mullick – he recognized my interest in Fluids and provided ample guidance in my pursuit of a research-based career. 

I spent the next year on a couple more research opportunities – working at IIT Madras with Dr. Panchapakesan and with Mr. P.K. Mahesh at IIAP, Bangalore. 

At IIT Madras, I worked on understanding Turbulence using computational tools – this was my first exposure to the power of computer-aided-design tools for research. This experience made me truly appreciate turbulence and see its diverse range of applicability across industries. 

The experience at IIAP (Indian Institute of Astrophysics) was truly unique. I have always loved astronomy and here, I not only got to understand and explore different aspects of construction of telescopes, but also got to visit the Kavalur Observatory and actually see the operation of a telescope for astronomical research. Astronomy, till date remains a passion of mine .

These research experiences, in addition to my final year research project at NIT-DGP, motivated me to pursue a postgraduate degree at the Thermal-Fluids & Thermal Processing Lab at University of Cincinnati.

I completed my MS in 2011 and in 2012 Jan, I started my PhD. I knew I wanted to pursue a doctoral degree. However, since it was a long term commitment, I wanted to be sure of my interest in R&D and thus decided to first do my masters. Half way through my MS research, I knew I’d continue on for a PhD.

My PhD was on jet breakup and drop impact dynamics. I chose to pursue research in a broad area of study that has wide applicability. Jet breakup is something we find in inkjet printing (where we do not want the ink stream to breakup before it hits paper) or in pesticide sprays (where we want jets of pesticide to breakup effectively to ensure a good spread). My work looked at parameters that control breaking up of jets and an analytical means to predict this. When jets breakup, the resultant drops impact different types of target surfaces, depending on the application in concern – plant surfaces or soil in case of pesticide sprays, coatings on glasses and screens. In the former case, it would be beneficial to have the spray of impacting drops spread further, but in the latter case of the coatings, splashing/spreading will be detrimental. I used experimental and numerical techniques to discover a means to predict the behaviour of impacting drops on a target surface. In the pursuit of this research, I also came up with improvements to existing computational techniques to visualize these phenomena.

I was funded for my research work in both my masters and my PhD.

As I was pursuing my doctoral degree, I found myself always interested in both academic as well as industrial R&D careers – and could never figure out what I was best suited for. Both have their attractions and to ascertain what I’d be best suited for, I needed to explore both areas. I sought multiple fellowships, assistantships, and scholarships in academia and in the industry, ultimately choosing to be in industrial R&D simply because of the scope this would give me to continually expand my interests as well as give me the opportunity to spearhead multiple projects. 

I love exploring new areas of science and engineering and look forward to exploring and applying my expertise in new avenues. I think this is what truly drives me to seek new opportunities and will always be something that guides my career pathway.

How did you get your first break?

I would consider my first “break” as the summer internship (SURGE fellowship) at IIT Kanpur. My college seniors with more knowledge in the field of research helped me identify the subjects that would be of interest, and I think that helped me gain this fellowship. Not only did this opportunity show me what a research-based career has to offer – but I think it also opened a few doors for my next steps.

I was working part time as research assistant at Proctor and Gamble (P&G) UC Simulation Center. This is a collab effort between University of Cincinnati and P&G. This opportunity showed me that industrial R&D was what I wanted to pursue. I was constantly on the lookout for openings in R&D teams in the industry. Parker Hannifin’s Filtration Innovation center  (PFIC) had a small R&D team and were on the lookout for a simulation expert. It ended up being a great match for my interests and what the team at PFIC needed. 

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

If I had to pick 3 big challenges I faced so far, they would be the following:

  1. Odd girl out: Getting into mechanical engineering, I was quite aware of the male-female ratio in this field. Even with this prior expectation, I was quite taken aback by how often this would become a central issue. From simple things like staying out to do my project work later, to doing my own welding and carpentry, I’ve faced multiple instances of “girls can’t/ shouldn’t do this”. It was almost always from a place of concern – but that meant I couldn’t argue easily. I’ve seen significant change in peoples’ perceptions through deliberate, conscious conversations. 
  2. Learning to delegate: Relying on others instead of trying to do it all by oneself is a key learning for me. One cannot be an expert in everything, and often, it pays to delegate. This does not come naturally to me, and it was only through learnt experience that I found this to be not only a more productive approach, but I also started seeing other ways of thinking and finding solutions that were radically different than mine. 
  3. Differentiating forest from trees: Being a detail-oriented person, it is very easy for me to get excited about the nitty-gritties of a problem and miss the larger picture. I had a very good manager, Tom Carr, who made me realize the significance of stepping back from time-to-time to ensure the larger context doesn’t get lost. This has been a challenge for me, and I now make a conscious effort in every project I undertake.

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

I currently work as the modelling and simulation expert for Parker Hannifin Filtration. 

Parker Hannifin is the world’s leading diversified manufacturer of motion and control technologies and systems, providing precision-engineered solutions for a wide variety of mobile, industrial and aerospace markets. I work for the filtration division specifically. Parker Filtration products serve customers for different filter applications from chemical process filters to off-road vehicle filters. We make products that primarily aim to improve system efficiency and maintain clean by-products by filtering contaminants and particulates in the working fluid – be it air, fuel, gas, etc.

Our facility houses the research and development for all Parker Hannifin Filtration products. I get to work on both current and future developments and primarily develop tools to gain insights into the underlying physics of filtration systems. I love being able to collaborate closely with cross-functional teams to develop products that fit multiple prerequisites. 

How does your work benefit society?

My expertise is specifically in creating and using simulation and analytical tools to model and represent underlying physics. In many applications, physics is very complex and not fully understood. Here is where people with my background can make a significant impact. Simulation tools are a means to see the unknown in a better way. Building an analytical understanding alongside carefully conducted laboratory tests help build a systematic view of the application in question. Not only that, but given the power of computing nowadays, these tools often offer a faster design cycle than relying purely on experimental means. The usage and applicability of computer-aided-design tools is tremendous and I see immense potential to impact every technological advancement.

Let’s take a simple example of fuel filtration. Let’s say we have water as the only contaminant in fuel and that has to be removed by our filters before the fuel makes its way to the engine. One can think of multiple parameters that can impact the efficiency of these filters. There are many parameters of concern here, but to just name a few:

  1. Engine speed
  2. Filter’s size
  3. Life left in filter (is it an old filter or a new one)

Now, to optimize the filter for best performance, cost, and manufacturability, lots of prototypes need to be made and tested. Not only would this be time consuming, but it would also involve a lot of resources to make parts and test them physically. Using simulations, we are only limited by computational power available. We can run as many prototypes as we want to find optimum solutions. Once simulations provide a guideline, we would typically take the best two or three and test only those in the laboratory. This not only helps us get to solutions fast, but also saves us a lot of valuable time and resources.

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

If you ask most PhDs, their answer would be their research work for their doctoral degree. That is the case with me as well. The work I did is very memorable primarily because this was all ground up executed by me – from finding a suitable impactful topic – to building test rigs – to finding improved simulation means, of course with guidance from a number of people. Given the effort that went into this research work, the opportunities I procured, and the wonderful memories associated with this research work, my doctoral degree experience will always be close to my heart

Your advice to students based on your experience?

If you discover the love for learning, you will never stop seeking new experiences to grow and expand your mind. Find interests that excite you and you will enjoy exploring the subject, the challenges it offers, and the overall experience.

Future Plans?

I am still very early in my career in the industry. I look forward to honing my research proficiency in broader areas of computer aided design and simulation, and data analytics. I envision myself growing to lead a team in innovative product development endeavors.