A career in research is not about specific subjects or streams, but more about taking on real world challenges that excite you !

Vagisha Nidhi, our next pathbreaker, Early Stage Researcher at CEA (French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission), conducts research in the domain of Nuclear Energy, trying to develop new ways to aid Nuclear Decontamination. 

Vagisha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from  The Interview Portal about her career transition from biotechnology to nuclear energy in order to understand nuclear waste better, due to the significance of nuclear technologies as an alternate source of energy.

For students, It is alright to fear an exam or to change your plans, but in the fear of the future, don’t compromise your present.

Vagisha, what were your growing up years like? 

I was born and brought up in Varanasi. I was a mid-range mark scorer, with immense love for extra-curricular activities (almost everything). Apart from classical dance, sports, music & instrument, arts, I was one of the best rifle shooters of my battalion (NCC). Until the 10th standard, more than half a dozen options gave me “career-butterflies”. I clearly remember striking “Sitarist”, “Basketball Player”, Rifle Shooter, and “Bharatanatyam Dancer” off my list in 2006, which narrowed down possible careers to “Scientist”, “Surgeon”, “Fashion Designer” or “Journalist”. As a child of an excellent homemaker and a banker, no career path was forced upon me. Thus, all of my decisions were based upon the factors such as, my interests, success rate and my family’s likings. Finally, when I opted for Science (PCB) with Physical Education in 11th standard, I felt closer to things that I really liked (though Physics of 11th is a big scary thing). 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation? 

I hold engineering degrees, BTech in Biotechnology and MTech in Nuclear Engineering. I also dropped out from a central university (BSc Biotechnology course) after a year. In my bachelor’s (BTech), I specialized in Genetic Engineering, followed by MTech in Nuclear Science and Technology. I further specialized in Advanced Nuclear Waste Management from my second master’s degree (MS – Engineering in Sustainable Nuclear Engineering: Application and Management) from Ecole des Mines de Nantes, France. 

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Many people ask me, how could I, and how did I shift from a Biotechnological background to an advanced physics and engineering domain. The answer is simple; challenges excite me. One such challenge presented itself at the IITB Techfest 2010; wastewater treatment. I turned to my professors for guidance, who fortunately did not take my curiosities seriously enough, which ultimately led me to dive into “Research”. 

By the end of my degree, I wanted to treat and reduce not just the wastewater, but also other wastes, and one of the categories that required attention was (still is) Nuclear Waste. Therefore, to understand nuclear waste better and integrate my prior knowledge, I studied about it and specialized in Nuclear Waste Management. Finally, with all my learnings so far, I know there is still a lot more to learn and share. This makes me glad about my current job as a Scientist. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? 

My plan since the beginning was to learn as much as possible, and my interest in higher education always kept me away from jobs after graduation (including campus placement). From my third year onwards, I started researching institutions and organizations with the best research facilities and opportunities, both nationally and internationally. To strengthen my knowledge and profile, I did multiple research-internships in diverse domains like Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, Microbiology, Nuclear Reactor Design and Cancer Therapy. In addition to the personal interviews, my GATE rank helped me to get admission in MTech Nuclear Science and Technology at UPES. They had an MoU with multiple institutions (both national and international), from one of which I could earn the second degree and get a double master’s degree. My performance and interviews by the end of MTech first year helped me win a French government scholarship for the French degree. This opportunity aided and polished my future research plans, as it was mandatory to go through a six months internship in order to qualify for the degree. Having a thorough course plan in the field of Nuclear Energy, Radiation Technology, etc. in India, made my studies and research internship in France easier and I managed to look into the possible aspects of my education. My first internship in my masters degree was at a Nuclear Power Plant where I participated in a project at one of the reactor groups, followed by my next long term research internship at SUBATEHC, France, where I worked on a French National Project in order to improve the precision of Cancer Therapy using High Energy Proton Induced X-Ray Emission. 

Apart from my performance in national level exams; research skills, training and workshops helped in growing my network and learning about the wide scope of different domains, which are important aspects for a researcher as well as regular job seekers. After earning two master’s degrees in Nuclear Engineering, I taught Nuclear Engineering courses at an Indian University. Lastly, before joining the French Atomic Energy Commission as an early stage researcher (my current job), I worked at a premium research institute of India (National Institute of Advance Studies (NIAS), IISc Bangalore campus), in the field of Human Reliability Program with respect to Nuclear Power Plants, as a Research Associate. As we all know, human resources is one of the richest factors that form the backbone of a healthy place. My work at NIAS focused on bringing attention to the importance of the “Human Reliability Program” in the Nuclear Power Plant industry and its national benefits. My team studied various nations and their ‘Human Reliability Program’ components. Though non-scientific, this experience helped me learn more about the psychological and other soft factors, which play a crucial role in maintenance of a healthy work place. The overall idea always remained the same; LEARN UTMOST POSSIBLE and IMPLEMENT what you learned POSITIVELY. The world has more to give than the other way around, therefore take benefit of the opportunities you are offered or create one, but keep learning. 

How did you get your first break? 

I was a very active student during my bachelor’s degree, especially in event management and co-curricular activities, and thus had a wide range of contacts and a good network.

But, irrespective of that, I had received my first job offer as junior scientist, in my third year of bachelor’s degree, which for the obvious reasons I could not accept. I was offered two more jobs in both biotech and non-biotech domains after I started my master’s degree. Fortunately, getting a job was not on my agenda, as I have always believed that ‘success follows knowledge’. Therefore, I accepted my first job, only after my second master’s degree, which originated from a professional networking platform. Later, I was invited for an international conference, where I was approached for my second job directly (was finally selected after an interview though). The first pro-bono role that I accepted, was for the membership of Environmentalist for Nuclear – USA, as international board advisor, where our aim was to create awareness, discussions, content regarding the “clean” and “environmentally friendly” Nuclear Energy. I have also trained students and faculty in Innovative Engineering in workshops at IITB and Amal Jyothi College of Engineering, respectively (this offer was via linkedin). 

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

Challenge 1: When it comes to job opportunities for an “Indian Nuclear Engineer”, unfortunately, we lack sufficient requirements on various scales. Therefore, to help my scientific career and gain experience, I accepted the track of research via the academic front for a little while and then bounced back to core research. 

Challenge 2: “You are a Biotechnologist, not an Engineer!” was/is slammed on my face numerous times and I always smiled (I believe in saving my energy, rather than wasting it on ignorance). 

Challenge 3: “Your Bachelors is in Biotech, but Masters in Nuclear”, I consider that as my strength because my diverse background benefits my workplace due to my wider range of skills and expertise. 

Where do you work now? 

Currently, I am an Early Stage Researcher at Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission) and earning my PhD from University of Paris-Saclay. I conduct research in the domain of Radiation Chemistry, Chemistry, Nanoparticles, Microfluidics and am trying to develop a new way to aid Nuclear Decontamination. 

What skills are required for your role?

To be able to reach this level, excelling in all the possible subjects, as well as having good experimental skills in a Chemistry Lab and Physical Sciences Lab (both from my bachelors and masters degrees) have helped me.

I love the core experimental activities, and it was the first reason I applied for this job and accepted it when offered the opportunity. So, the weekday starts with checking my emails followed by my favorite part ; 5-7 hrs. in my lab coat with chemicals and instruments. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Have you ever noticed the dust deposited in one small corner of your house, which no matter how hard you try to brush off, does not go that easily. Well, I am trying to fight something similar in the “Nuclear World”, and develop a new technique, that would aid nuclear decontamination. This would not only reduce the exposure for trained people who work at nuclear radiation sites, but will also help the environment. Therefore, healthier us! 

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

Outcomes of my work in the field of Cancer Therapy utilizing some advanced physics and engineering were very memorable to me. The observations and data processing outcomes from my last experiment, gave the clear signal that my team was now one-step closer to encountering the problem that doctors and patients face with cancer radiation therapy. It was a joyous and successful moment.

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

You are in the best period of your life. It is alright to change your plans, or to fear an exam, but in the fear of the future, don’t compromise your present. Exploit the internet fruitfully. Be brutally honest to yourselves, it helps you make healthier choices. Also, observe the utmost possible; it helps in the long run. I would go redundant with this, but I want every student to understand, acquiring knowledge is much more important than just scoring marks or a job.

Future Plans? 

I still have multiple plans, it’s “Work in progress”. But Innovation & Sciences will always be a part of my life.