Science plays an integral role in our daily lives through wonder materials and composites that have applications in healthcare, automotives, manufacturing and several other key industries !

Vishal Srivastava, our next pathbreaker, Senior Engineer at Baxter Innovations and Business Solutions Pvt Ltd, is part of the Containers R&D team for the Renal Business Unit, which is responsible for innovating and sustaining the Container Systems Peritoneal Dialysis business.

Vishal talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being intrigued by the applications of macromolecules and chemistry in general, leading to a career in polymer science.

For students, the  versatility of polymers is unparalleled, from being able to blend into core scientific research, to being used in the most mundane applications in our daily lives.

Vishal, Your background?

So, I was born and brought up in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. I spent most of my childhood in Varanasi, apart from a couple of years in Allahabad in 2002-04. My father used to work in pharmaceutical marketing, so he used to travel a lot in and around the state of UP. My mother was a housewife, and so our studies (me and my younger brother) were taken care of by her. Like all strict moms, she wanted me to study hard and score well in exams. I was not an absolute topper in school; I was rather an average 80%-mark student and just did well enough to not get scolded by my parents. A pretty uneventful childhood I would say.

I loved playing cricket and developed a great interest in football in my late teens, which is still going strong to this date. I am a Liverpool FC supporter and still try to find time to watch games at pubs in Bangalore with fellow LFC supporters (which now includes my wife as well).

Chemistry has been the subject that has intrigued me since childhood. Looking back, I think the main reason why chemistry intrigued me was that it was all so visual. I still vividly remember the day I saw Potassium Permanganate change its colour due to a reduction reaction in our Chemistry lab. That instilled something in me which I am still able to carry on to this date.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Polymer Science and Rubber Technology from Cochin University of Science and Technology in 2012. Then, I went on to do my master’s in polymer science and technology at IIT Delhi and graduated in 2014.

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Growing up, an intriguing documentary on natural rubber production in Kerala, popularly known as the rubber state of India, unravelled the field of macromolecules for me. There was so much chemistry going on around us; we were using Fevicol and sawdust to fix our broken cricket bats, M-seal to fix leaking pipes, Fevi-kwik to quickly fix toys and broken spectacles. These were all a part of science that helped us in our day-to-day lives. Only after we joined Cochin University, did we understand that to fix the bat with Fevicol and sawdust, we were essentially making composites. Fevi-Kwik was a cyanoacrylate adhesive which got cured in the presence of air or M-seal, which was the curing of epoxy resin with curatives. As Steve Jobs said, you can only connect the dots looking backwards, and it makes complete sense now, my likeness of chemistry and a career in the field of polymers.

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

During my 2nd and 3rd year in B. Tech, I was awarded the UGRF Scholarship based on merit, and thus I got an opportunity to work with PhD students, mostly during the afternoons when there were no classes. My work was mostly assisting them with the making of different rubber compounds and then their testing and later characterization. This was perhaps my first corporate lesson, which helped me understand the importance of teamwork. This further increased my practical knowledge of polymer compounds and, somehow, I feel it was the reason I could crack GATE in Engineering Sciences in my 3rd year of college. Cracking Gate meant there was a real possibility of joining an IIT. Our final semester used to be internships, so I bagged an internship at CEAT Ltd., Vadodara. I arrived in Vadodara in December of 2011, and it was my first move out in the wild, but Vadodara could be anything but wild. The people are warm, the Gujarati food delicious, and the festivals are full of life. 

My project involved one of the most interesting pieces of equipment I have ever worked with, called Py-GCMS (Pyrolysis-Gas Chromatography Mass Spectroscopy). It was amongst the only two pieces of equipment available at that time in India. It was just being set-up when I was given the assignment, so I spent a significant amount of time at work planning and organising the test-runs and calibrations before it could fly-off. It was essentially a GCMS machine with a Pyrolyser on top for delivery. My project was to study the pyrrolysates of rubber chemicals used in tyre compounding and build a library of the GCMS spectra. So, I spent the next 5 months studying various rubber chemicals and stacking the shelves of the library (metaphorically, of course). The data would later be used to reverse engineer various competitor tyre compounds, and as far as I know from my colleagues in CEAT Vadodara, the library is still coming in handy today.

After my eventful internship at CEAT, I went ahead with completing my master’s degree at IIT Delhi, fulfilling a life-long dream to become an IITian (though I avoid using this lingo these days, back when you were 22-23, you didn’t really care much). I graduated in 2014 and landed my first full-time job at Kenda Farben in Noida. It was a medium-scale footwear paint and adhesive manufacturing company which had just started its full-time production in Noida with the parent company, Kenda Farben SPA, based out of Italy. I was an R&D executive, but as they say in start-ups, you’ve got to get your hands in all the departments. I did the same. From signing-off daily production batches of footwear paints, to finalising the last night’s batch of polyurethane pigment, to working on my own paint formulations, to visiting the biggest footwear giants in the country, such as Woodlands Shoes and Red Chief in Himachal, Liberty Shoes in Panipat, Red Tape in Greater Noida, etc. for trials. 

After a blitzkrieg of 1.5 years in the company, I decided to move to a more corporate-esque job as an R&D Engineer at ABB in Vadodara. It was my second stint in the city, and it felt truly like a homecoming. I was part of the Transformers Global R&D team and worked on insulation materials and systems used in power transformers. In my first year, I learnt the principles of project management and travelled extensively to all ABB plants across the globe. As a project manager, I learned how clear communication between stakeholders and team members allows effective and time-bound results. Moreover, it made me culturally aware, helping me avoid miscommunication and team conflicts. It further enhanced my problem-solving and leadership skills. This also helped me build credibility for which I was awarded with responsibility for the establishment of a state-of-the art insulation R&D lab with a budget of over $200,000 at the Technology Centre, Transformer Business Unit, Vadodara, India. We completed the project in record time and for this, we were awarded the team award for “Performance Excellence” by the ABB Management. In a little over 2 years, we could complete over 40,000 hours of thermal ageing tests to assess the average lifetime under “service” operating conditions of insulation systems used in power transformers. The results were successfully presented at INSULEC-2019, the 10th International Conference on Electrical and Electronic Insulating Materials and Systems, for which I was awarded the 2nd prize.

I was associated with the group since December 2015 and spent around 4 years as an R&D Engineer before moving to ABB’s Insulation Manufacturing locations in Germany, PUCARO GmbH, as a Laboratory Specialist in December 2019. At PUCARO, I was responsible for designing and implementing performance tests of insulation materials, viz. cellulosic paper and pressboard, rigid polymer composites based on thermosetting resins, and flexible polymer insulation for electrical equipment for all 4 plants in the factory as per IEC, IEEE, and ASTM standards. I was also responsible for developing in-house testing capabilities for thermosetting-based composites and flexible laminates, along with conducting laboratory scale trials for cellulose-based insulation materials. With my background in research and development of insulation materials systems,

towards the end of 2020, around a year into the job, I felt that it was managing projects which was my forte and something I loved to do day-in and day-out. So I quit in February-2021 and moved back to India in June-2021 with Baxter Healthcare in Bengaluru.

How did you get your first break? 

Well, that is an interesting story. There weren’t a lot of companies on campus hiring polymer graduates. I started interviewing for companies off-campus in my final semester at IIT. I used to spend hours every day on various job portals such as Naukri.com, Indeed.com, Monster.com, and others, submitting tens of applications, some of which were rejected. As a result, I landed my first off-campus job at Cosmo Films Ltd. in Aurangabad in the month of February and got a second offer later in April from Kenda Farben. I chose to join the latter.

Well, it might come as a shock to many people reading this, but it was the reality back in 2012. We only had one company, Aditya Birla, which came in December-2013, and the next company came in June. There was a big vacuum in terms of absolute campus placements in core polymer companies.

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

Challenge 1: Lack of companies visiting the campus. So I made profiles on Naukri.com, LinkedIn, Monster.com, etc. and started investing a couple of hours every day.

Challenge 2: After hard work for 2-3 months, this helped me grab hold of an off-campus interview in February for an offer from a polymer film manufacturing company in Maharashtra. Though, I didn’t join that company and ended up joining Kenda Farben in Noida.

Challenge 3: Help others to help yourself. Since I was still in my 4th semester, there were still a few of my classmates who were interviewing for a position. So, I started assisting them in making cover letters, refining their resumes, and doing mock interviews. This helped me improve all three aspects of my profile such as how to make a better CV, Cover letter and how to prepare for interviews.

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

Currently, I have been working with Baxter Innovations and Business Solutions Private Limited based out of Bangalore since June-2021. As a Senior Engineer, I am part of the Containers R&D team for the Renal Business Unit, which is responsible for innovating and sustaining the Container Systems Peritoneal Dialysis business. In simple terms, these are the containers that carry the dialysis solutions that are then used in PD therapy. This is the other form of therapy which is used worldwide apart from the more common one we see in India, which is hemodialysis therapy.

Our group works mostly on sustaining projects (SPO), where our primary goal is to ensure product continuity in the market while implementing changes in the background. These changes include product-related changes at design level, manufacturing-related changes at process level, supplier-related changes at raw material level, etc. Since the work involves managing multiple projects at once, you get incredible opportunities to sharpen and implement your project management skills.

[Shyam] Vishal, Just, one question here. How does PD therapy relate to your background in Polymers? This will be an interesting reveal for polymer students. Can you explain a bit?

Peritoneal dialysis is a kidney failure treatment that filters our blood inside of our body using the lining of our abdomen, more commonly known as our belly. This lining is known by the medical community as the peritoneum. 

A few weeks before to beginning peritoneal dialysis, a surgeon inserts a soft tube into the patient’s abdomen known as a catheter. When we start the treatment, dialysis solution—water with salt and other additives—flows from a bag through the catheter into the patient’s belly. The bag is detached after it is empty, and the catheter is covered with a cap so that the patient may resume their usual activities. The dialysis solution collects toxins and surplus fluid from the body while it is within the stomach.

So, there are two important components of the therapy here, the “dialysis solution” and the “bag” which contains the dialysis solution, what we commonly refer to as containers. Our group works on these containers and its various accessories which are mostly composed of a combination of commodity and engineering plastics. Since the bags are used in patient therapy, they must pass through stringent quality standards. 

Further, polymers used in healthcare industry especially as packaging or container materials must meet requirements such as sterilizability (ability to undergo/withstand sterilization), permeability, biocompatibility, processibility, fluid compatibility etc., as they must meet strict pharmacopeial guidelines across various countries.  We usually work with a combination of commodity and engineering polymers such as polyolefins, polyesters, polyamides, etc.., so there is always something exciting to look up to in every project. 

How does your work benefit society? 

At Baxter, we are working towards our core principle of saving and sustaining lives. As SPO leaders, we work round the clock to ensure that product continuity in the market and patients receive their therapy on time. It gives us tremendous work satisfaction with the completion of each and every project, as we feel that we are contributing towards improving the lives of people directly.

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

My work with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, co-guiding a PhD student for the development of a novel natural adhesive system for electrical equipment, was one of the most interesting yet exhausting experiences of my life, and it instilled in me a resolute desire to study and practice the principles of polymer science. As the lead for the industry-university collaboration (IUC) in ABB, I was responsible for forming an effective communication framework representing the research project’s progress to technology groups inside the company and capturing and passing on the ideas and suggestions of the IIT team. However, it gave me an opportunity to foster project discipline, which I have further implemented in my work. The outcome of this collaboration has been 3 conference posters, 2 of them at national conferences and 1 at an international conference in Belgium, and 1 advance article publication in the Soft Matter Journal by the Royal Society of Chemistry. We just filed a patent application for the work in early-2022 as well.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I fondly remember a famous Steve Jobs quote that says, ” Most people do not ever pick up the phone. They never ask, and that is what separates the people that do things from the people that just dream about them. You must act, and you must be willing to fail. You must be willing to crash and burn, because if you are afraid of falling, you will never go very far. ” So, the moral of the story is don’t be afraid to ask questions and just fold your sleeves and get down with the dirty work (I mean, of course, take it as a metaphor), but what I mean is to never shy away from working hard in perilous situations. Your hard work today will translate into success later in life. It has been my personal experience too that whenever I have been fearless, I have excelled in that goal or task, so don’t be afraid to ask questions.

As for my days in IIT, things in 2022 have significantly improved in my department. It is now a full-fledged department (Department of Materials Science and Engineering) compared to a multi-disciplinary center (Centre for Polymer Science and Engineering, or what we fondly call CPSE). I just wanted to share an anecdote from last year. In December-2021, I went to IIT Delhi for campus hiring in my own department, so that is one proud moment for me.

Future Plans?

Well, I am working on improving my project management skills. I am currently studying for my PMP certification (Project Management Professional) and then on Lean Six Sigma Green Belt. That is the plan for the next 6 months. As they say, we overestimate what we can do in a year and underestimate what we can do in 10 years. So, my idea is to make small plans with a target of 3 to 6 months and then have a few like that in a year, keeping the longer term goal of 5 to 10 years in mind.