Protecting critical oil and gas infrastructure from corrosion not only helps the infrastructure last longer but also conserves the environment from oil spills and leaks.
Ranjani Vijayakumar, our next pathbreaker, Senior Engineer at Corrpro Companies Inc (California), manages engineering and construction projects with a focus on cathodic protection, corrosion prevention and durability testing.
Ranjani talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her master’s thesis in the field of Geopolymers, cementitious materials that are being studied as a replacement for Cement.
For students, civil engineering technologies are undergoing a transformation, with a shift in focus towards sustainable technologies that go hand in hand with development !
Ranjani, Your background?
I grew up in Mysuru and Bangalore. Like everyone in high school, I aspired to get into IITs and NITs and attended coaching classes. But I knew early on that I did not want to be someone with a desk job and hence when it was time to choose my field for my undergraduate degree, I chose Civil Engineering.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I graduated from National Institute of Technology, Karnataka with a degree in Civil Engineering and then a master’s degree in Civil Engineering with a concentration in Construction Materials from University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
My internship at IIT Chennai and my undergraduate thesis work motivated me to pursue a degree in Civil Engineering for my graduate studies.
In my third year of under-graduation, I was lucky enough to get an internship at Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai. My advisor there, Prof. Manu Santhanam, was an inspiration for me to continue work in construction materials for my graduate studies. My undergraduate thesis advisor- Prof. Narasimhan Mattur and his enthusiasm in teaching the graduate degree course related to concrete materials were also key motivators for me to pursue this career.
When I was choosing Civil Engineering as my major for my undergraduate studies, my parents were against it because of the nature of the job, mainly because I would have to be in the field. That drove me to want it even more and prove that I was just as capable of doing a field job as a man.
Tell us about your career path
After my summer internship at IIT Chennai, I really wanted to get my PhD in Civil Engineering and for my masters, I got into one of the best universities for Civil engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, with an intent of getting PhD. But after a year of research for my Masters, I realized that a PhD was not for me and decided to look for industry positions.
My master’s thesis was in the field of Geopolymers. Geopolymers are cementitious materials that are being studied as a replacement for Cement. While doing this research, I realized that I needed to know real world applications of my research to stay motivated. Just theoretical applications were not going to make me stay motivated to study a subject. Hence, I decided research and thus, PhD was not for me.
I used LinkedIn as my primary tool to find positions and then reach out to the hiring manager to find additional details about the position and network. I attended a couple of networking events, but mostly used LinkedIn as a networking tool.
I started my career as a concrete durability design engineer and worked on durability testing and design for mega projects such as Goethals Bridge Replacement and New Bridge across St. Lawrence in a small company called Tourney Consulting Group, LLC (TCG) in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Since the company was small, I was given a lot of responsibilities very quickly and I learned how to deal with client expectations and take ownership of the projects listed above. While working at TCG, I realized that I was interested in Cathodic Protection design and testing, and hence pursued a job at Corrpro Companies, Inc.
Once at Corrpro, the learning curve in the initial year or two was very steep and I learned a significant amount about testing and designing Cathodic Protection systems. I was also lucky enough to get a wide array of testing experience. This experience was instrumental in helping me obtain my Cathodic Protection Specialist certification. This certification sets me apart as a CP engineer in this field.
I found myself spending hours on a design for a cathodic protection system and not knowing that I had spent that much time. I was really enjoying the work and so I decided to go into the field.
A great example for CP is refineries. All the underground infrastructure in the refineries are protected by cathodic protection because they are critical to the functioning of the refinery, for example, if a cooling water system/oxygen line has a leak in the refinery, it will cause a lot of delays and losses due to loss of production. This can be avoided by protecting the underground infrastructure from corrosion.
How did you get your first break?
After my graduation from the master’s program, I started reaching out to professionals on LinkedIn for networking and landed my first job through that effort.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Getting into NITK Mining Engineering Program: When I got into NITK, my rank was only good enough to get mining engineering and my parents were against me joining the program, but I went through with it after fighting against them and changed my field to Civil Engineering after the first year.
Working in a male dominant field: This is something I have had to deal with a lot. I have had to develop coping mechanisms for catcalling while on-job sites and being accosted while working, out in the field, by random strangers. I find myself constantly trying to be the best in what I do to be taken seriously.
Where do you work now?
I work at Corrpro Companies, Inc. as a Senior Engineer. There are multiple roles that I fill: Project Manager for engineering and construction projects and a project engineer for cathodic protection testing or troubleshooting projects.
When I am wearing the PM hat, I work on scheduling, budgeting, material ordering, and interacting with subcontractors. While I am a project engineer, I determine the needs for the project, identify the path for executing the project successfully, keep all the stakeholders for the project up to date on the progress of the project and request any additional resources that are necessary to complete the project.
What’s a typical day like?
My job requirements have required extensive travel (70-80%). This has provided me an opportunity to visit a lot of new places and learn many testing procedures and troubleshooting techniques, which sets me apart from others in the industry. I am involved with the local NACE chapter and have served as the Vice-Chairman for the “Special Topics” section at the Purdue Underground Corrosion Short Course in 2019 and was the Chairman of this section in 2020.
I think most of the skills necessary for the job can be acquired on the job if you have a hunger to learn and grow. My certification as a Cathodic Protection Specialist has given me the skills that I need to excel in this position.
I enjoy the fact that I get to travel and perform testing and protect infrastructure in all parts of the country.
How does your work benefit society?
I tested the track-to-earth resistance for all of the San Diego Trolley Extension projects and when the tracks were active, I felt very proud of the work we had done, and being a part of a project that is improving people’s lives was very satisfying.
Protecting oil and gas infrastructure from corrosion and being able to protect the environment from oil spills and leaks is also something to be proud of. We are doing our part to conserve the environment while making the infrastructure last longer.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I was part of the team that designed and constructed the bridge across the St. Lawrence River and there were significant challenges related to durability design. Coming up with solutions for these unique scenarios as well as supporting the construction team with unique construction challenges such as low temperature concrete pours were very satisfying. Once the construction was completed and we were able to drive across the bridge that I had worked on, that was a very satisfying and proud moment. Probably will remain one of the highlights of my career.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Work hard and talk to people from various backgrounds in order to figure out what you want to do with your career. There are always going to be people who do not believe in you, never heed their advice. Always look for opportunities to learn and grow. Never pass up on an opportunity because you think you are not qualified enough. Because most often, you are the most qualified person for that job. Seek out mentors who build you up, support you, encourage you and look to give you the opportunities that you deserve! Pay it back in any way you can.
I am working on my Professional Engineering Licensure and after that, I need to figure out what I need out of my career.