Core Engineering has never been as exciting as it is today, bolstered by the power of Data Science, in addressing big climate change goals along with business goals while contributing to the society as a whole.

Nikita Agrawal, our next pathbreaker, Operations Research Analyst at Shell,  uses advanced mathematical and analytical methods to solve business problems related to resource optimization, electrification, efficient use of energy sources and decarbonization of existing assets.

Nikita talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about blending her interests in mathematical modelling with her background in chemical engineering (BTech, IIT Kanpur) to address business and sustainability challenges in the energy sector.

For students, walk the talk –  make a good portfolio to create your brand, work on interesting projects and find out where your interest lies, which could lead you to where you want to be in the future. 

Nikita, Your background?

I grew up in a nuclear family, in a town called Satna in the north east of MP. I am in the middle of two sons and one daughter to my parents. My Dad had a struggling life growing up, but the rest of us had a fun filled upbringing. Everyone in my family claims that they ensured I never had to ask for anything more than once and I agree to it. 

I always liked to be the jack of all and still an ace for some and hence have been busy trying to be everywhere. But I have always had very supportive people who made me dream more.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

 I studied Chemical Engineering (IIT Kanpur) with a minor in Industrial Management Engineering for graduation and finished studying in 2016.

What were some of the events that influenced your transition from core engineering to data science?

My father motivated me to explore my interest in mathematics, my elder brother told me about the importance of choosing the right university for graduation, my mother inspired me to work hard to get everything I want, and my younger brother ensured I stayed safe from any distraction on my way to live the life of my dreams.

I developed more interest in the chemical industry during my internship and understood the wide horizon of opportunity that the career brings.

My assessed summer internship at Shell led me to a full-time role as Reservoir Engineer. But the subsequent job cuts in subsurface gave me an opportunity to find the role of my choice.  

I was fortunate to meet the right people who helped me discover my potential and become an expert in the data science field with no prior experience.

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 like to make the best of every moment, hence my years spent in Chemical Engineering made me fall in love with the curriculum. I wanted to use my learning at work. I had a lot of doubts, and hence I was also open for unpaid internships in the field to start with.

My first step towards professional life was an amazing 2.5 months spent as reservoir engineering intern at Shell. I worked on the first real project of volume estimation using analytical methods. The idea was to prove that I am capable of learning new things and applying my understanding of fluid dynamics in chemical engineering to subsurface flows. This made me sure of my choice to continue spending my time in core engineering and use it as my strength to stand out in the competitive market. 

While I was waiting for my dream job at Shell to start after graduating, (I had a soft corner to also pursue PhD) I had a chance to spend that time working as a RA (Research Associate) on an interesting problem which is now already published. By studying the chemical (metal) composition of samples of the Ganges, the idea was to find out the contribution of different sources of water to the river. I used the Monte-Carlo method to model the composition algorithm which was later used as a reference to further develop the findings by scholars who took over after I left.

I was never too much into getting my hands-dirty, so I was clear that modelling is what I wanted to do, hence I see RA as an opportunity I got because I was interested in modelling.

I enrolled for a distance B.Sc. in Mathematics after graduating because this was one of many other things I wanted to do. I have always been very passionate about studying pure mathematics, but couldn’t make it a choice for graduation because of some personal circumstances and hence I did it from IGNOU. This helped me formally learn mathematics and gave me a strong base for Data Science exploration.

How did you get your first break?

I got my break with Shell by applying externally. I made my own application to the Shell assessed internship program and got through the 2.5 months of internship successfully. I never had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do, but to me, my curiosity and flexibility to adapt to changes look like the key. 

I had to face a layoff within three months of my first job. During my notice period, I met a few very smart people who agreed to give me a chance to prove my passion towards data science and helped me navigate the system to start on my first project on data reconciliation, which was a perfect blend of chemical engineering and mathematics and finally helped me land a permanent position in three months.

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

Challenge 1: I had to compete with people from diverse backgrounds. I addressed it by identifying my strengths and holding them against other competitors.

Challenge 2: I had to face job cuts within three months of my first job, I took it as a challenge to find a new opportunity within the company in a more flourishing team of my choice.

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

I work at Shell Plc. in their India technology office. I solve problems to improve operations, develop future strategies and update assets to become assets of the future.

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

Along with a good understanding of business and mathematics, I need skills like defining problems, coding skills to build models, and software development skills to plan the deployment ahead. Skill development is a continuous process, I learn a lot of things on the job and also invest a lot of time in structured learning and read a lot to stay up to date with latest developments in different fields and identify how it can be beneficial for Shell.

What’s a typical day like? 

My typical day is a good mix of work and life. I ensure I keep some time for myself every day. I get into a lot of calls for consultancy, do at least 2 hours of coding, read, and write reports and proposals. I start my work at 7:30 AM and finish around 5 PM. 

I love that this job is in a central team that gives me an opportunity to choose and work with the business of my choice. This helps me keep my work dynamic and challenging.

How does your work benefit society?

Climate change and technology development are two very fast and life-altering phenomena impacting us every moment. It’s a very special era to live in, there are immense opportunities to grow and contribute to the future. At Shell, working as a R&D Data Scientist, I feel privileged to be able to work on problems worth solving. The models I develop support big climate change goals along with ensuring we use the best technology and hence contribute to the society as a whole.

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

I started working on an individual unit optimization (along with my team) project in 2017 for one of our sites that wanted to integrate different units, which finally turned into an end-to-end plant optimizer. This work has been very close to me, and I would love to see it where it’s today. The model is used for many different applications like daily operation improvement, decarbonization scenario simulations, data improvement using data reconciliation, etc. I am so proud to see it flying. 

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

Walk the talk – make a good portfolio to create your brand, work on interesting projects and find out where your interest lies, which could lead you to where you want to be in the future. Don’t run after money in the initial days of your career, try to learn on the job to become valuable. 

Future Plans? 

I want to build my own company that would train people to earn money. I want to help those who need a start to their career and would be ready to take the next step themselves. I would train people to land jobs directly after finishing their education and may not need to struggle too much to make money to support their people.  And hence, I work every day on my people skills, and already provide pro-bono support to my connections to sort their career related queries.