Devices based on “Green Electronics” are expected to have a wide range of interesting applications, such as in the development of waste-free technologies wherein they can simply degrade into their surroundings with minimum or no impact.
Neeru Mittal, our next pathbreaker, Project Associate at Medidee, supports clients in the assessment of safety and performance of their medical devices, by evaluating chemical and biological risks.
Neeru talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her passion for developing environmentally sustainable technologies which led her to pursue a PhD in “Transient Electronics” at ETH Zurich.
For students, the beauty of science comes from its applications in solving real world problems. Experiments are fundamental to science, because they show us how science influences our daily lives !
Neeru, tell us about your initial years
My parents (Satish Kumar and Neena Rani) come from a small village in Haryana called Kakkar Majra, where I was born and spent the initial years of my life. Then my parents decided to move from this small village to a bigger town, Ambala Cantt, so that my younger brother and I could get a high-quality education for our brighter future. Had my parents not left their comfortable lifestyle back in the village for us, there is no way my brother and I could have achieved even an inch of what we are today.
I did my high school and secondary education in Ambala Cantt, after which I pursued basic sciences at IISER Mohali, India. Excited by the beauty of science and its impact on society, I decided to do a PhD in Material Science, wherein I worked on developing degradable batteries for a greener and more sustainable planet. It took me 4 years and 10 months to develop two working prototypes of degradable batteries, after which I decided to switch from academics to industry. Currently, I work as a Project Associate in Switzerland, providing expertise in clinical and regulatory affairs to big medical device companies.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I went to the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali (IISER Mohali) for an integrated BS-MS degree (5-year course) in Chemistry. The coursework at IISER Mohali is one of the best for students who wish to have a career as a scientist. During the first two years of the curriculum, I studied every possible subject in science you could think of, and in the last three years, I studied hardcore chemistry topics. But even then, I was allowed to take other courses that caught my attention besides chemistry. Since I was pretty interested in biology and chemistry, I did my major in Chemistry while attending a few exciting lectures in Biology. After obtaining my BS-MS degree, I was offered a PhD position in Material Science at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. Here, I worked on developing degradable batteries as a power source for green electronics.
What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
Right from my school days, I was always interested in science, be it organizing cool experiments during science exhibitions, attending different science summer schools, or tutoring my juniors on some complex science topics in a simple and easy-to-understand fashion. So with that love for science and a supportive family by my side, I decided to become a scientist.
Also, my physics teacher back in my hometown played a crucial role in getting me into IISER Mohali. He introduced me to IISER and convinced my parents and me to take the leap of faith and get me admitted to IISER Mohali instead of conventional options like IITs. He gave a boost to my career when I needed it the most, and I am always indebted to him for this.
Tell us about your career path
I have never planned things primarily related to my career in advance; I have always tried to make the best of what I was offered at that particular point in my life. I was, and even now, very careful in not rejecting or missing the opportunities that come my way.
After my secondary education, I was awarded an INSPIRE fellowship from the government of India to pursue a BS-MS degree from IISER Mohali. During those 5 years, I ensured that I worked as a summer intern in some of the top research laboratories in India to understand how to tackle and solve real scientific problems, what the process is like, and most importantly, what it is that fascinates me. For my summer internships, I applied for well-known scholarships like the Indian Academy of Sciences (IAS fellowship) to sponsor my travel and accommodation.
My last internship in nanoscience, in which I worked towards developing new substrates to image plant metabolites using mass-spectrometry, interested me the most. And it was clear in my head that I wanted to do a PhD in Material Science that provides a good balance between developing new materials and exploring their uses for real-world applications. So, this was precisely what I did, and I pursued a PhD in Material Science from ETH Zurich, Switzerland.
For the application process, I sent a well-written motivation letter, resume, and cover letter to my professor, which he liked. In addition, I did a thorough research about his group and the research work, read his publications, and found some possible projects where I could be a good fit based on my previous research experiences. My professor highly appreciated all these efforts.
In my PhD, I was working with a special kind of electronics, called “Transient electronics”. These electronic devices can undergo controlled degradation processes after a period of stable operation leaving behind minimum to almost no toxic products behind. Such electronics are expected to have a massive effect on a vast array of interesting applications, such as the development of waste-free technology wherein green electronics can simply degrade into their surroundings with minimum or no impact, thus addressing the environmental challenge. It can be of great use in biomedicine wherein a transient medical device can be implanted inside the human body to treat a disease and after its function ends, it can disappear without requiring a second surgery, and many more interesting applications. These electronic devices need a power source to run, and I was developing lithium and zinc ion batteries as energy sources for these electronic devices. I have written few detailed reviews on how these transient batteries work, what are they are made up of, what challenges one has to face to design such interesting batteries, and what is the current working status of these batteries. The links to these reviews are https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/advs.202004814, https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acscentsci.0c01318, and https://www.chimia.ch/chimia/article/view/2022_298. These reviews can provide an in-depth knowledge about this new and exciting field.
Just like in my undergraduate days, in my PhD as well, I applied for a Young Researcher’s Exchange Fellowship so that I could travel and work with a fantastic research group in South Korea and learn about their process of approaching the problem of developing green electronics. During this exchange program, I worked on developing new biodegradable packaging for transient batteries which is crucial to achieving a fully degradable/transient battery. Such biodegradable packaging was designed in a way that it would protect the battery from the outside environment and when battery is no longer needed, it can initiate the process of degradation.
Throughout my PhD, I collaborated with scientists worldwide to combine their expertise with my knowledge and skills to answer the complex problem of developing degradable and green batteries. Doing science is not a single man or woman show; you have to learn teamwork and clear communication, which are two critical attributes of a researcher, in my view.
How did you get your first break?
I got my first break with Medidee via LinkedIn. And the rest of the process was the same: I sent my CV and cover letter to the company and went through different interviews before getting the job offer.
Can you mention some of the challenges you faced and how you addressed them?
The biggest challenge that I faced while applying for a PhD was to find the right research group that worked on projects that interested me and also offered a nice work-life balance. One must spend a good amount of time, sometimes in the order of months, to find that right research group which clicks for you. But once you have your PhD, the next steps are not challenges but more of a learning process. I had to learn many things in the beginning, such as understanding the work culture, project planning, being more proactive and asking for help from my colleagues when needed, and continuously updating myself with the new research trends in my field.
Where do you work now? Can you talk a bit about your current role?
I work as a Project Associate at a MedTech Consulting Company, Medidee, based in Switzerland, that provides consulting services for clients in regulatory affairs, quality assurance, clinical affairs, and digital health for medical devices and in vitro diagnostics.
What problems do you solve?
I support clients in assessing the safety and performance of their medical devices, especially in biological evaluations. This includes evaluating the chemical and biological risks. as well as defining endpoints to be tested in order to safely place a medical product on the market.
What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?
Besides a good chemistry background, I need skills like a good understanding of legal and scientific matters, the ability to grasp new concepts quickly, excellent writing and oral communication skills, analytical and problem-solving skills, and attention to detail. I acquired these skills during my PhD, multiple summer internships, and an exchange program in South Korea. But then, you must keep polishing these skills and learn new skills by doing, i.e., learning them on the job itself. Time management is one such skill wherein I am learning to plan multiple projects well in advance, set strict deadlines, and be ready to work under pressure to achieve those deadlines.
What’s a typical day like?
I start working at around 7.30 am and finish around 5 pm or sometimes earlier or later depending on the projects. My typical working day involves a lot of calls with clients, writing reports, analyzing scientific data/information provided by the client, and making sensible conclusions from it. In addition, I always devote some time during the day to my personal training, which mainly involves listening to lectures focusing on the latest developments in my field.
What is it you love about this job?
I work on many different projects, which do not allow boredom to set in. Regular interactions with the clients, learning about new medical devices in every new project, and working in harmony with a fantastic team towards one dedicated goal make this work exciting for me. Here, I must also add that the freedom to work from home and a good work-life balance are other plus points.
How does your work benefit society?
The ultimate goal of my job is to save as many human lives as possible. In this job, it is essential to ensure that the medical devices that go into the market meet the standards set by the notified bodies and present minimal risk to the user/patient.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
During my undergraduate days, I was involved with an NGO focusing on developing experiment-based learning and demystifying science for high school students. As we all know, it is not easy to understand some fundamental concepts in science if we don’t perform experiments and observe those theories or concepts showing their magic in front of us. Experiments are fundamental to science, especially at the school level, where many students get detached from science due to overcomplicated theories and no hands-on experience in doing experiments. My friends and I tried to solve this problem through this NGO. We designed around 25+ chemistry experiments for high school students that they could perform at-home with simple ingredients and thus enjoy science and connect it to their daily lives. We also organized chemistry camps where students from rural areas and towns could participate free of cost and understand science through live experiments, chemistry demonstrations, and interactive discussions. This work has given me satisfaction that I have given back to the society I come from which makes me feel proud.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
‘Nothing depends on luck, everything depends on work, because even luck has to work,’ Bhagavad Gita
Nothing in this world comes for free. So, keep working hard and give your best in everything you do because that’s the only thing in your hand, and the circumstances around you will dictate the rest. Don’t get disheartened if things don’t go the same way you planned. Just remember at that moment that you did your best, and that’s the only thing that matters at the end of the day.
I have a great passion for developing sustainable and greener electronics. My PhD has greatly influenced my interest in this direction. I look forward to doing some quality work in this field. Besides this, I am also interested in helping younger children pursue their dream careers. This is something that is very close to my heart and I will be working soon on this project.