In this era of “greenwashing” and “fake news”, transparent and fact-based reporting on technical topics is the need of the hour !

Sreeparna Das, our next pathbreaker, Editorial and Communications Consultant, specializes in the chemicals industry, supporting clients in designing their content strategy and developing content on science-related topics that are clear, engaging, and easy to digest.

Sreeparna talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always wanting to pursue a career that not only combined both technical and creative skills, but also provided the opportunity to learn about new, innovative, and sustainable technologies within the chemical industry.

For students, technology is moving ahead with a blistering pace and we need more creative minds with a scientific temperament who not only understand science but also make it accessible to everyone !

Sreeparna, can you take us through your background?

Though I have lived the majority of my life in New Delhi, I spent my formative years in different cities and amongst different cultures. I got to spend my childhood in Army cantonments thanks to my father, a second-generation officer in the Indian Army. I started my schooling in Bhutan and completed it across 4 states – Rajasthan, M.P, Meghalaya, and Delhi. My mother, a post-graduate in Chemistry, took on the role of a science teacher in Army Schools. The focus on academics was strong at home and choosing to continue with science after the 10th standard was a natural progression for me. 

The majority of my schooling was in the Army Public School in New Delhi, which was a much bigger school in comparison to the schools I’d attended in the past. As a 10-year-old coming from Shillong, though I was quite overawed in the beginning, I believe that the experience of adjusting to new environments and making new friends every 2 years in my life early on, allowed me to adapt fairly quickly. 

Apart from focusing on my academic subjects, I also tried to participate in plays, debates, and quiz competitions. I was selected as a House Prefect in the 10th standard and went on to become the House Captain in the 12th.  

What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation?

Initially, my 1st choice was Biochemistry, but I didn’t get the college of my choice – Sri Venkateswara College (Venky), Delhi University – in the 1st cut-off list. Though I had cleared the list in other colleges, I decided to join Venky and opt for BSc (H) Chemistry instead. Because it was a matter of 3 years, I wanted to choose a college that offered wholesome growth opportunities. I also factored in the positive review from my sister, an alumnus of Venky as well.  

During my time at Venky, I continued to try and balance academics with extra-curricular activities. I participated in dance competitions and debates, and was appointed the President of the Chemical Society (Rasagya) in my final year. I was also awarded the Undergraduate Science Meritorious Award by the University of Delhi (South Campus), which motivated me to pursue Chemistry in my post-graduation as well. 

I did my Master’s in Chemistry from the University of Delhi and attended classes in the Faculty of Science (North Campus). My specialization (4th Semester) was in Inorganic Chemistry.        

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

After the completion of my master’s degree (and several hours of lab work!), I was fairly sure that I didn’t want to pursue a PhD. Instead, I wanted to pursue a career that required the application of both technical and creative skills. Though I formalized this thought into a quote – “On a quest to balance the equation between chemistry and creativity” – much later in my career, the basic idea was quite clear from the start.  

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path

While in my 2nd year of graduation, I did my summer internship at Min Mec R&D Laboratory with 2 other students from my college. Our college professor, Dr. Rao recommended us for the internship and I am grateful to him for giving me this opportunity to work as a Chemical Analyst on a project titled “Assessment and Analysis of Energy Content in Organic Waste”. The work involved preparing the samples of dried organic waste and determining their calorific values using a Bomb Calorimeter. Though the work was physically demanding, it was a great learning experience. And it definitely opened my eyes to the “waste-to-value” concept.

Through my first job at SpecialChem, I got introduced to the specialty chemicals industry (specifically the plastics industry) and as the content editor, I learned new skills (online editing, web user engagement, e-newsletters development, and e-mailing processes). Though I had a technical background, grasping the industry concepts, dynamics and key topics was a different ball game altogether. I invested a lot of time in the initial years to get to know the plastics industry better & understand the dynamics of the full value chain. I also focused on streamlining the daily tasks at work to be able to spend more time learning about the industry. This was recognized by the management and I was asked to take over the management of the team of editors to share the best practices. This improved the overall productivity of the team and helped us deliver results. 

Having added management skills to my resume, I continued my learning process to get a deeper understanding of digital marketing and the other industries SpecialChem was active in. This, together with the support of my team and the senior management, allowed me to further expand my horizons and create new opportunities within the company every 2-3 years. In subsequent roles within the editorial department, I went on to work on many corporate projects with C-level Executives and Subject Matter Experts, attend international conferences and events across Europe, and also successfully managed a Business Unit (online courses) with annual revenue of >300,000 Euros. 

The journey from being an assistant editor to being the editorial program director was very rewarding and helped me grow as an individual and a professional. I believe the 3 big reasons that made me continue with SpecialChem for more than 11 years were – a front-row seat to learning about new, innovative, and sustainable technologies within the chemical industry, the opportunity to travel to new cities and countries, and work in an open, multi-cultural environment.   

Having been closely associated with the plastics industry, I was acutely aware of the challenges associated with plastic pollution and the growing momentum towards sustainability and a circular economy within the chemicals industry. Also, at a local level, I wanted to dedicate a significant part of my time to address the issues of waste management. And therefore, at the end of 2019, after having spent over a decade in the corporate world, I decided to take a pause and re-evaluate my personal and professional goals.  

I was keen on moving away from a corporate setup and working as an independent consultant to have more flexibility and time for personal projects. I continued my research on circular economy with a special focus on plastic circularity and sustainability. Simultaneously, my husband and I wanted to pursue a couple of project ideas including plastic waste management in Uttarakhand at a personal level. But we had to put them on hold as the world was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

How did you get your first break?

Back in 2008, I was mostly receiving interview calls for lab-based profiles, which wasn’t my 1st choice. While uploading my resume on job portals, I came across profiles such as “technical writer”, “content editor”, “science writer”, etc., which piqued my interest. I gave a couple of interviews and eventually got selected for the role of content editor in the specialty chemicals industry.

While in lockdown, I started writing pieces on LinkedIn and other media channels that were inviting contributors to publish on topics of circularity and sustainability. Based on my professional experience and because I was writing on relatively newer topics such as advanced chemical recycling, carbon capture and utilization, etc. I started to receive requests from companies and organizations working in this space to provide them with editorial and communications support. 

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

For me, the main challenge was finding the right job profiles to apply for. The majority that I came across were lab profiles or content writers for academia (K-12). My focus was on content writing for the chemical industry or environmental NGOs. Back then, I relied heavily on job portals and made sure that I uploaded my resume to a majority of them. The whole process took a while but I am glad that I was patient and waited for the right opportunity. During the job search process, I took on some volunteer work with the Center for Science and Environment.  

Where do you work now? Can you tell us about your current role?

I work as an independent consultant now. As an editorial and communications specialist for the chemicals industry, I support my clients in designing their content strategy and developing content on science-related topics that is clear, engaging, and easy to digest. As a science journalist, I regularly interview SMEs, attend industry events & conferences, conduct in-depth research on innovative topics within the industry, and write for leading media publications.   

I work with companies and organizations across the chemicals industry value chain i.e., chemical producers, technology providers, cross-industry consortiums, industry associations, certification bodies with a focus on communication plan, editorial strategy, and content development support for various goals such as building thought leadership, brand visibility, B2B marketing, project communication management, etc. 

It requires a combination of journalistic skills (verbal & written communications, editing, research, etc.) along with with creativity, subject matter expertise, and digital content marketing know-how.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day would involve browsing through top news within the industry and tweeting about it, attending meetings, working on project deliverables, writing articles, etc. I love the flexibility such a profile offers and it is very rewarding to work with companies and organizations that are actively working towards the transition to a circular and sustainable world. 

How does your work benefit society? 

As a society, we have to be mindful of our consumption and the waste that we create. It is important to move away from the take-make-waste linear model to a circular model, where we can derive maximum value out of waste, bring materials back into the loop, and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and finite resources. 

There is a lot of work being done to avoid the leakage of chemicals and plastic waste into the environment and to divert the waste away from landfills and incinerators. In this era of “greenwashing” and “fake news”, clear, transparent, and fact-based reporting on such technical topics is the need of the hour and science communicators have a key role to play here. 

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

In the corporate world, I got to work on several interesting projects with key scientific agencies and organizations. The top 3 that come to mind are a 6-month editorial project to report on available alternatives to a ‘chemical of concern’, a multi-year project to support communications around the science-based formulation concept, and a community engagement project to attract start-ups working on innovative solutions for more sustainable use of materials. As an independent consultant, my first client project with a multinational energy company on the topic of plastic circularity will always be special. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I truly believe that every experience teaches us something. So, no matter where you start your professional journey, try to make the most of the opportunity and always be open to learning. 

It is ok if things don’t go as planned. There’s always Plan B to fall back on. 

Stay organized (jotting down a to-do list goes a long way!), and learn to prioritize and manage your time well.  

Try to travel as much as possible, explore new cultures, and meet new people. This will broaden your perspective and hone your interpersonal skills. I would recommend solo travel too as it teaches you several life skills, which help in your overall growth as an individual. 

And lastly, trust your instincts! 

Future Plans?

Through my consultancy, I hope to continue working on international projects that support the transition to a more sustainable future. I would also like to work on personal projects focusing on plastic waste management in India.