More than one-third of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions come from the construction sector. Hence, environmentally friendly building materials have great potential to slow down global warming.

Madhuvandhi Ravi, our next pathbreaker, Cementitious R&D Lead at Terra CO2 Technologies Ltd (Canada), heads cement and concrete testing at their Vancouver facility in order to develop alternative cementitious materials which are low in CO2 emissions. 

Madhuvandhi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being drawn to the potential of sustainable construction materials in tackling climate change through impactful research !

For students, though we all face the same problem of climate change, there are several opportunities to come up with creative and diverse solutions based on our interests and skillsets !

Madhuvandhi, tell us about your background?

I was born in Madurai, Tamil Nadu but have lived in various cities across India because of my father’s job. I studied in the CBSE board all through school and took up a science group (with biology and mathematics) in high school. I loved and still love biology, especially natural and environmental sciences.

My father is working as a Professor of Civil Engineering who also recently successfully defended his PhD thesis. My mother is a homemaker and has a Bachelor’s in Physics degree. Both my parents came from a modest economic background and were the first persons in their family to go to university. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I finished my Bachelor’s in Civil engineering at NIT-Trichy and then graduated with a Masters of Applied Science degree in Civil engineering (Specialization: Materials) from the University of British Columbia.

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

I chose civil engineering because of my father’s background. As I started my Bachelor’s, I realized I liked certain topics and projects more than others. That’s how I found I was interested in materials research. So, after a few projects and good support from my parents, professors, and some seniors, I decided to pursue Master’s in that specialization.

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 my second year, I did an internship with a construction company. I learnt a lot but didn’t enjoy the work in design and modelling. And given that I really liked a course in my second year on Concrete Technology, I started exploring projects involving concrete and other construction materials. I worked to learn more about it, taking up relevant electives. I emailed several professors and universities and finally secured a research internship on concrete materials at IIT-Madras as a part of the Summer Research Fellowship Program (SRF). At IIT-M, I worked with fiber-reinforced concrete (FRC). I helped design, make and test various concrete mixes to build durable, sustainable, and strong materials. I measured properties like strength, flexure, and deflection and collected essential data for modelling and predicting the behavior of concrete reinforced with varying types of fibers. Old and deteriorating infrastructure is a problem that every country must deal with to accommodate changing climate and growing population. So, working on something that could directly impact this was very satisfying. I was also able to closely work with and learn from several PhD candidates and other SRF fellows.   

This helped me reinforce my interest and introduced me to the concept of sustainability (designing keeping in mind the future generations) in concrete. Now I could work with concrete while also fueling my interest in the environment. Consequently, I ended up doing my final year thesis project on a material called geopolymer (a type of sustainable alternative concrete).

Tell us about your masters program in Civil engineering (Specialization: Materials) from the University of British Columbia

At UBC, my master’s degree was in civil engineering with a specialization in materials. It was a thesis-based course consisting of courses during the first year and a thesis project in the second year. My supervisor had some ongoing projects on sustainability, and we decided on an idea related to that for my thesis project when I joined. So, I worked with her to design my course plan which could help me prepare for my research. I took up courses in the department of civil engineering as well as materials engineering. 

My thesis was on bio-composites made from wood wastes for non-structural applications. Wood waste is a prominent problem in Canada because majority of the residential construction are wooden. 

Since conventional Portland cement is often not compatible with materials of natural or organic origin, I worked on characterizing and designing the best suitable binders (cement) for mixing wood waste particles. We wanted the binder to have a lower carbon footprint than other widely available materials. We were hoping to use the final products for thermal and acoustic insulation on walls while also creating a sustainable utility stream for wood wastes. Even after graduation, my aim was to work on such alternative construction materials that could either fix a waste stream or reduce the environmental impact of concrete. 

How did you get your first break?

I got my first job after finishing my master’s at UBC. It was through networking since the concept of campus placements are not that popular in many North American universities. Though there are job fairs for students to learn about the companies, there is no intake program. I applied for several jobs through company websites while also cold-emailing HR managers in those and other companies. I finally got my current offer when one of my interviewers in another company passed on my profile to his professional network.

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

Challenge 1: My research in sustainable construction materials during master’s was a niche topic. There weren’t a lot of companies that were actively working on it, at least that’s what it looked like before I started looking for jobs. But once I interacted with people in the construction industry, I got to know a lot of smaller scale/emerging start-ups with a focus on climate change and alternative construction materials. So, it’s best not to assume your prospects before networking with working professionals. 

Where do you work now? 

I work as a Cementitious Research Lead with a start-up (Terra CO2 Technologies Limited) developing alternative cementitious materials which are low in CO2 emissions. 

I am an advisor for an innovation lab that redirects textile waste to be reused, recycled, or upcycled, from being landfilled or incinerated.

I have been recently selected as a RADIUS SFU Fellow. This fellowship is for emerging leaders and aspiring changemakers in the social innovation space, to equip themselves with the required skills for solving pressing problems faced by humans.

What problems do you solve in your current role?

My role with the company has evolved continuously as it grew. I am now heading the cement and concrete testing at the Vancouver facility. Knowledge of cement, cementitious material chemistry, concrete test methods and properties is important for my role which I learnt through the university and by reading a lot of academic literature. 

At the start of every week, our team comes up with a testing plan (everything from material characterization to concrete testing) and the approach to solve any problems that came up the previous week. I have a colleague who helps me with laboratory work, while I interpret and study the results. Since it’s research, no 2 days look alike for me, because I often have to change my testing approach based on the results. 

I love the creative and flexible aspect of my responsibilities. It involves a lot of problem solving and the fact that we are trying to make an impact through this research is very satisfying.

How does your work benefit society? 

Climate change is happening, and several people I know are jumping on the boat to do their part to stop or slow it. While climate disasters and the events happening around the world often keep me awake during the night, something that gives me relief is that my company and a lot of others out there are doing their part to help the environment. 

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

I have had lots of memorable moments. Everytime we solve an issue and make our product better or when our product performs well in a demo, the day just turns more exciting. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

  • Give yourself time to figure out what you like. You don’t have to know the moment you finish high school about what you will be working in the next few years. 
  • Be open to any opportunities. You won’t know if you like something or not unless you actually try it. 
  • Develop a positive professional network. Sometimes a network can get you an audience for your work on unexpected platforms. 
  • Explore interesting courses/topics/activities during college. College days are the best to develop your speaking, leadership and writing skills.
  • If you ever feel stuck in a job, spend time working on a pivot plan instead of feeling obliged to continue in the same job because of your degree in the same field. I have been part of courses, think labs and am still doing multiple courses as a part of my career exploration.

Future Plans?

I want to get involved in solving more climate issues, especially the problems faced by some vulnerable communities due to the climate crisis. I am part of an ongoing fellowship program for changemakers and emerging leaders in Vancouver which I am hoping would support that dream.