Wastewater Surveillance can provide early warning signals for epidemiological outbreaks, which can help communities prevent the spread of infectious diseases !

Hema Ravindran (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Environmental Biotechnologist, works in the field of environmental engineering, biological aerosols, air quality & pathogen surveillance, with an aim to create products that ensure healthy living in indoor spaces through better bio-detection and advanced multi-pollutant remediation.

Hema talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the immense potential for the development of advanced sensing technologies that address environmental challenges.

For students, the world requires innovation and innovation needs science. Focus on developing innovative solutions to improve the lives of people and the environment that they live in !

Hema, what were your growing up years like?

I grew up in Tirunelveli, a beautiful city of Tamil Nadu, Southern India. I grew up to become the only PhD in a family of some amazing IT and software engineers. I was a naughty kid who always ran away from studying. Little did my younger self know that she’d grow up to become a studious researcher. My favorite childhood memory is of climbing a huge guava tree at my grandpa’s along with my sister, staying up in the tree for hours, and gazing at the beauty of the world with my curious little eyes, enjoying the freshly picked guava fruits with a sense of victory. I also remember the days when my dad would take me to the Sunday markets and then to the farms where we would catch some red velvet rain bugs together. Perhaps, that fascination and curiosity from a young age kindled my interest in science. My dad is an electrical engineer, and he runs his own electrical service company. So, I spent a lot of time watching dad fixing huge equipment and when I insisted that I help dad, he’d teach me how to use the gadgets and also the science behind it. My mom is a kindergarten headmistress right now but has served as primary school principal in the past. I also inherited the love for science from mom. Mom is a botanist by education, and I enjoyed hours of gardening together. Mom would teach me about plants and always made me win every science project in school. When mom gifted me the ‘Fun in the sun, activities’ book from Scholastic in grade 6, I learnt how to burn a piece of paper using a big lens and I remember feeling euphoric from that little science activity. I was also fascinated by the field of medicine and doctors, as I spent quite a bit of time of my teenage days in hospital getting treated from some health ailments. As a Gemini, I was interested in a lot of different things, but they were all in the field of science. Over the course of time, I strongly decided to either become a doctor or a scientist. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

Being the oddball in my family of software engineers, I pursued a bachelor’s in biotechnology followed by Masters in Energy Engineering from NIT, Trichy. I enjoyed studying Biotechnology and my hard work was rewarded with four gold medals for being the consistent topper in my department. I also received the state rank of 7 among 100,000 other students finishing their under graduation at Anna University, Chennai. I thoroughly enjoyed my first proper research experience during my masters. I used sono-photocatalysis technology to treat effluent water contaminated with textile dye. For the first time ever, I started seeing data and I had never been that happy in my professional life. I started spending more time in the laboratory and my performance in research was rewarded with a full CGPA and an outstanding student award at the end of my master’s degree. I then did a PhD in Environmental Engineering from IIT Madras.

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

I decided to pursue research because I like the way research expands the depths of my mind, and challenges me to think of new ideas. I like finding answers to questions and research keeps me intellectually stimulated. I also hate monotonous tasks and in research you have new challenges almost every day. 

Certainly, I wanted to do more research in the field of environmental engineering. But I knew it was going to be a tough journey. Though I did have a job offer from a famous software company, I decided to choose the road not taken. With a lot of motivation from mom, I made up my mind to pursue a PhD. I had applied to only one institute, the top engineering institution of India that I strived to get into, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras. I applied way past the deadline, but the Civil Engineering department was kind enough to consider my candidacy. The world knows how hard it is to get into IITs, especially at the grad school level where acceptance rates are as low as ~2-4%. I was nervous about my candidacy, but I tried my best and got selected for the PhD program in Environmental Engineering. For my PhD, my research was focused on characterizing biological aerosol particles (i.e., solid, liquid, or gaseous particles of biological origin suspended in air) in particulate matter using advanced DNA analyses for assessing their health and climate impacts. 

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

After realizing that my enlightenment lies in science and research, I started to look for research opportunities in the United States. After a bit of networking, I got a great opportunity to work with pioneers in my research field, at Clarkson University. I started working as a postdoctoral research associate with Prof. Thomas Holsen and Prof. Suresh Dhaniyala in the field of passive air samplers and air quality. 

At Prof. Dhaniyala’s lab, I enjoyed all the challenges associated with solving air quality problems using high-tech aerosol instrumentation and advanced low-cost sensing technology. One of the life changing experiences that enabled me to broaden my research scope was learning about product development and start-up research. I was thrilled to learn how one could take science out of the four walls of a laboratory to market and solve real world problems. I understood the true meaning of research and development and it was mind blowing. In the due course of research, I extensively learnt about grant writing and realized the importance of this very skill set in conducting sound research. 

When COVID-19 hit, I got a chance to work in a new public health area called Wastewater Epidemiology in order to understand the spread of COVID-19 in a community. Working along with Prof. Shane Rogers at Clarkson University, we conducted wastewater surveillance at 34 distinct sewage sampling locations to provide an early warning on COVID-19 outbreaks at five universities, six villages, a middle school and a prison in the communities of Northern New York. I was thrilled about the new learning opportunities that lay in front of me when I pivoted to this role, and most importantly, I felt honored to serve the people and community. Through this work at Clarkson, I got a feeling of purpose and accomplishment, as I was a part of something bigger than myself. Knowing that my data helped in averting COVID-19 outbreaks in critical communities, I slept better. I started looking beyond myself at this stage of my career and, I decided to stay a bit longer in the field of wastewater epidemiology. I transitioned to becoming a Principal Scientist at Eurofins Pandemic Prevention Services. I got another chance to serve the public through this new public health research role. Through this experience, I also discerned the difference in research between academia and industry. I yet again realized what I liked better. 

How did you get your first break?

When I decided to leave behind the conventional career paths to pursue a career in research, I knew I had to network, pretty hard. I have the habit of staying abreast with the researchers and their scientific communications by following their publications. I reached out to scientists, and I always made sure to write succinct emails. I expressed my true interests and passion for research. The little personal touch in my emails, made sure that my emails were read and also responded to. A quick take away message here is, put your self-doubts to rest and just shoot that email! And you’ll never know, opportunities can just be an email away. 

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

The challenge that I consistently try to cope up with is overcoming rejections and moving ahead in the path of productivity. I have also overcome a lot of health issues in my grad school journey. I was fortunate to have my family support me through the tumultuous PhD journey. As funny as it may sound, the pain from rejection was harder to process than the physical pain caused by an illness. I published my first PhD paper after facing 11 rejections and 3 surgeries. I was trying to publish a new finding in the field of aerobiology and boy, was it hard. Repeated failures shook me many times, but I always reminded myself about the end goal, the very reason why I started it, and that helped me to get back on my feet. I’ve tackled rejections by hitting the pause button, taking a breather, and then seeking a different perspective to solve the problem. When I successfully published that research, it rapidly gained a wide audience, and media attention. Recently, I had a Harvard University educated Rabbi reach out to me asking if they can include the findings from my publication in a science book that they are creating for religious youth. The rabbi told me they believed in the coexistence of science and religion and that was enough for me, that revolutionary belief. I was happy to know that the fruits of my hard work were making positive impacts in people’s lives. So, my tip for facing rejections – face that demon head-on, maybe even take a break to ease your mind and heart but don’t throw in the towel, just don’t, instead, start strategizing on what you have to do differently in order to win the next time. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you address in Environmental Biotechnology?

Currently, I’m incubating a start-up along with a team of scientists and business peers. Our small business aims to create products that will ensure a healthy living in indoor spaces through better bio-detection and advanced multi-pollutant remediation. My scientific and research background in the field of environmental engineering, biological aerosols & air quality, pathogen surveillance, followed by the experience in grant writing, and the ability to understand market needs, gives me the confidence to turn to entrepreneurship. Though I’m not there yet, I’m taking the necessary steps along with my team to eventually get there. Though it’s a strenuous process, this direction would let me do both research and business – two activities that I have enjoyed the most. I’m also in the process of seeking more international research experience and building collaborations in the field of biodefense, bio-detection, and pathogen surveillance. Besides this, I’m working remotely with an Israeli team as a R&D consultant to strengthen the environmental pollution monitoring in Western Africa. I’m now focusing more on projects with a social cause while I chase my dream. 

How does your work benefit society?

The world requires innovation and innovation needs science. I intend to develop innovations to improve the lives of people and the environment that they live in. It took a while for me to figure out a purposeful career path where I could have a sense of deep connection and satisfaction. That sometimes means that you have to stand out and try carving out a path for yourself and not just try to fit into a place or a job. It’s never easy, but your growth, and the success of your start-up, will be the ultimate reward. 

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

I’m a firm believer in making science available for all. As a part of my own science (STEM) outreach initiative, I spoke about wastewater epidemiology to grade 8 kids at a school in South India. This is the school where my mom works, and I was going to deliver the presentation to over 150 curious kids. Yes,150 kids!! Mom was also in the zoom call as a part of the audience. It was 11.30 pm EST on a cold winter night in Pennsylvania and I was nervously chugging down my coffee. I was more nervous about having mom on the call, as this was the first time she was listening to my work-related presentations. Moms are amazing critics, aren’t they? So, I was nervous 2X times. Mom wished me good luck over a text and as always, advised me to ‘pause and breathe’. That experience interacting with kids about the latest science topic was a great experience. It was challenging and a fun-filled learning experience to de-jargon your whole science talk and make it suitable for young kids. At the end of the call, every kid made sure to thank me (all 150, my zoom kept pinging) and they let me know how much they loved my talk. I promised to do more such classes. 

One another such experience was giving a talk about ‘pathogens, poop, and pandemic’ to grade 7 kids at a rural school in Alaska. For this session, I worked with their science teacher for a week before making the science palpable to school children. At the end of the session, I got invited by the kids to Alaska and their school. I mean these were the kids who hesitated to interact with me in the first couple minutes and later, wouldn’t stop chatting. I live for such rewards. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Just take the leap and do what your heart desires and that will help you go far. Don’t get bogged down by trying to fit in and don’t be scared to stand out. Take that unconventional path. Trust your gut. 

Future Plans?

Have our start-up incubated and accomplish the phase I research towards a successful product development. Generate more products as a sustainable solution to the emerging contaminants of concern. I also would like to sign-up for more projects with social causes. I am always open for such opportunities.