Manufacturing processes have evolved significantly, by optimizing for a better environmental performance and thus contributing to the larger vision of sustainability !

Praneeth Annam, our next pathbreaker, Environmental Sustainability and LCA (Life Cycle Analysis) Consultant at DuPont, works closely with innovators (scientists, technologists and business leaders) in the Mobility and Materials business, with a focus on improving the products’ environmental footprint.

Praneeth talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his work at TerraCycle where he was involved in development of technologies to recycle a wide variety of hard-to-recycle/municipally non-recyclable materials such as diapers/sanitary pads, paint, cigarette filters etc.

For students, sustainability should not be just your professional goal but a personal goal as well, because a fulfilling career needs both your goals to be aligned !

Praneeth, can you take us through your background?

I was born in a village named Akividu in Andhra Pradesh. For the first 13 years of my life, I lived in this pristine green space. Both my parents are graduates (Dad – B.Sc. in Chemistry and Mom – B.Com.) but chose different career paths. My dad owned a business and my mom was a homemaker (she is now a Carnatic music teacher). My parents decided to move to Hyderabad for our education (me and my younger brother) in 2008. 

I was an active kid at school, both at academics and sports. I love(d) playing and watching Cricket, Badminton and Football. I enjoyed a lot of outdoor activities, be it playing sports, or spending time in nature. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I got my Bachelors in Technology in Chemical Engineering from SRM University. 

I thoroughly enjoyed my journey in Chemical Engineering at SRM and decided to pursue higher studies during my junior (3rd) year. I completed my Masters in Chemical and Biochemical Engineering at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey in 2017. 

What were some of the influences that made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Growing up, I had been a curious kid, questioning my parents about everything I found amusing around me. I was interested in understanding how things are made and in looking at big manufacturing industries. I have an uncle who worked in a reputable oil company. He took me to an oil rig and showed how oil is excavated from the earth. My uncle pointed at two gentlemen in formals and mentioned that they are Chemical Engineers – aka masterminds behind the project. That field-trip sparked my interest in chemical engineering. 

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

Initially, my exposure to Chemical Engineering was inversely proportional to my interest in it. There were not many (if not zero) Chemical Engineers in my village. All I knew was Chemical Engineers work for Oil or Pharma industries. I was pleasantly surprised when I was introduced to different possible avenues I could explore in this field. Without any hesitation, I was biased towards working for the oil industry, maybe due to the special field trip to an oil well when I was a kid. I interned at two different ONGC plants (Tatipaka and Dehradun) during the course of my B.Tech. I worked on process optimization to improve the yield of refinery operations during my first internship and developed a model to estimate the life-expectancy of an oil well (i.e., forecasting exhaustion of an oil well) during my second internship. Both these internships brought a different perspective into my thinking and the research I wanted to do. 

I was no stranger to the concept that fossil fuels are non-replenishable and overconsumption of these fuels will lead to a troublesome future. However, it was not hard hitting until I worked on estimating the age of oil wells. As soon as I went back to school after internship, I read a lot of science articles on alternative fuels. To my luck, I got to know that a PhD scholar was working on the synthesis of biodiesel from Algae. I worked with him for 6 months and learnt a lot about sustainable fuels. 

Research at Rutgers was Pharma-centric and there were not many research groups working on sustainability/green energy at the time I attended the school. I was selected by a professor (who was the head of Chemical Engineering Dept. at Rutgers) in her research group to work on a project to manufacture plastics from cellulosic (wood) waste. This research was focused on providing a sustainable alternative to fossil derivatives. In collaboration with researchers at University of Delaware, we developed an energy-efficient/green pathway to produce bio-plastics and bio-fuels using cellulosic waste (red oak) as a feedstock. One of the important tasks was to evaluate the environmental footprint of the chemical process that we were developing. This is the first time I was introduced to a new concept/tool called Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). Simply put, it is a science-based accounting tool that takes into account every activity in a process and evaluates the environmental impacts associated with it. As time progressed, my interest in this field grew and I ended up working on a thesis on this subject. 

Landing a job offer in the Chemical Engineering space (and that too for an immigrant) is/was challenging when compared to Computer Science or similar careers. Not making things any simpler, New Jersey (or Tri-state area) is dominated by pharma companies which further diminished my chances. The concept of LCA was not widely adopted by American industries at the time of my graduation. I remember the days when my friends and roommates applied for hundreds of jobs a day during their final semester and there I was, struggling to find any openings in my field. After a lot of consistent effort and time, I found an LCA and R&D Scientist opening at a global recycling company called TerraCycle (TC) and landed an offer. 

At TC, I worked on solving complex environmental issues like recycling hard-to-recycle materials that reached the end of their life. Other than recycling, I also got involved as an engineer in a project called Loop (it is now a standalone company led by TerraCycle) to develop reusable supply chain for various different brands like P&G, PepsiCo, Nestle, etc. It is a unique avenue that no one had explored before. Not only had I been an integral part of research and development of sustainable solutions, but I was also involved in assessment of the environmental performance of both platforms. It still feels like a dream that I got into TC and kept working in the field I am passionate about. 

Very recently, after 4 years, I moved onto a different opportunity as an Environmental Sustainability and LCA Specialist at a renowned polymer company, DuPont. Right now, I evaluate the environmental footprints of DuPont’s materials and operations, and develop strategies to reduce them. 

How did you get your first break?

It took a lot of consistent effort and time for me to land an offer as an R&D and LCA Scientist at a global recycling company called TerraCycle (TC).

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

Challenge 1: I come from an upper-middle class family where financial security always was given higher importance over interests/passion. My case wasn’t any different either. There were a lot of relatives that suggested that I choose Computer Science over Chemical Engineering for my bachelor’s degree. Till date, even after I started my professional journey in this field, they still “advise” me to shift my career focus to computer science as the pay is significantly higher. Few times, it took a toll on my mental health during my job search phase. I took this as a challenge, stuck with something that I am passionate about, upped my efforts in getting more interview calls, and after persistent efforts, I got my first opportunity in the industry. Sports really helped with mental wellbeing. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role

I currently work as a “Sr. Specialist, Environmental Sustainability and LCA” for a globally renowned chemical company named DuPont. DuPont has a rich history that dates back to the American civil war. It is known for its life-changing discoveries and scientific know-how (to name a few – Nylon, Tyvek, Spandex, Kevlar etc.). I work for their Mobility and Materials business. We focus on delivering material solutions across the automotive sector to achieve advanced mobility and light weighting. 

DuPont is very aggressive with the sustainability targets to be achieved by 2030 or earlier. I work closely with the innovators (scientists, technologists and business leaders) in the domain of sustainable product development (i.e., how to improve the products’ environmental footprint etc.) to help meet the organization’s sustainability goals. This role is a perfect fusion of my interests in chemical engineering and sustainability as I get to work on the manufacturing side of things and also get to optimize for a better environmental performance.  

Not to leave behind my work for my ex-employer, which I equally treasure – I started as an Associate Scientist in a recycling company named TerraCycle straight out of grad school (left the company as a Sr. Chemical Engineer in Jan 2022). The work there was interesting yet challenging. We developed technologies to recycle a wide variety of hard-to-recycle/municipally non-recyclable materials (to name a few – post-consumer chewing gum, diapers/sanitary pads, paint, cigarette filters etc.)

How does your work benefit society? 

As the world continues to face the challenges of climate change, there is a need for greater urgency in adapting to a sustainable lifestyle. As a sustainability consultant/expert, I work to protect the planet by tackling climate change through science-based decisions. 

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

There is never a day that I go to work without a buzz of excitement that I will work to solve a unique challenge. It makes me happy that every effort that I put into my job is a small step ahead in the sustainability journey that helps in making the earth a better place. 

There are several projects that are close to my heart like development of medal-podiums for Tokyo 2020 Olympics out of recycled ocean plastic, developing recycling processes for pizza boxes, cleaning wipes, soap out of recycled post-industrial waste (confidential).

Working at DuPont has always been my dream ever since I knew that a few of my favorite scientists worked for them. I still am in my early stages of my career at DuPont, but I am very excited with the innovative materials solutions we provide to auto makers, allowing them to reduce the emissions/footprint without compromising on quality and performance.   

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Explore different fields that you are interested in with an open mind. Try not to be influenced by others’ (relatives, friends etc.) decisions. Before deciding your career path, seek guidance or chat with a few in the same field. You will get a better understanding/background of the field. The Indian educational system focuses only on grades and does not provide enough exposure to different careers, so it is highly possible that one could be mistaken about a field. For example, a lot of my friends chose chemical engineering thinking it is chemistry when in reality it is not completely true. 

Do something that you love and are passionate about. Though It might not always be rewarding (materialistically) in the short term, if you put in good efforts, you will reach greater heights. 

Work on your communication skills. Always remember the mantra, communication is the key to success. Personally, I believe that one is not a good scientist/engineer if they can’t explain their work to others effectively.

Future Plans?

At present, I am enjoying what I am doing, so my plan for the near future is to continue growing in what I am doing and bringing a positive change to the environment and make earth a better place to live. 

In the long term, I wish to start a school (till high school) and mentor kids to be successful not only in academics but also in moral education (gender equality, inclusivity, sustainability, etc.). I strongly believe in an idiom in my mother-tongue Telugu – “mokkai vanganidi maanai vanguna” (when you can’t bend a sapling, how can you bend a tree?). Kids are torchbearers of the future, if you want to bring a change in the world, start by teaching kids.