Transportation is one of the leading causes of air pollution in Delhi. EVs could be front-runners in Delhi’s clean transport transition because they not only reduce air pollution levels along with cost savings on fuel, but also reduce maintenance costs because EVs have fewer moving parts than ICE based vehicles.

Srishti Jha, our next pathbreaker, Thermal R&D Manager at Euler Motors, an EV Startup based out of Delhi, works on problems related to thermal management of vehicle components, specifically batteries.

Srishti talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her internship at Terrafugia Inc (Massachusetts) on an Electrical Vertical Take-Off vehicle concept (roadable-aircrafts or “flying car technology” as we call it), which was a pivotal point in her career in Electric Vehicle based thermal technologies.

For students, there are so many questions that we need answers to before EVs become our mainstream transportation vehicles. But we do know the answer to the most important question, Is it the future? Yes !

Srishti, tell us about your growing up years?

Being born and brought up in Kolkata, there was always a focus on exploring arts, sports, literature among other hobbies while managing academics at the same time. This naturally taught me multi-tasking and helped me develop a creative yet analytical mind as a kid.

I have been fortunate to have parents who were quite understanding and open to allow me to explore any area that I wished to pursue, I feel it is very important during school years to be able to understand what subjects or sports activities you like and what are the things you do not like, sort of a purging process.

My father being a Chartered Accountant, Cost Accountant and Company Secretary, has been a role model in inspiring me to do what I like and acquiring skills over the years to become the best at whatever I do. My mother having an Arts background always made sure each of us siblings had an outlet to explore our creative side and that we always participated in extra -curricular activities in school or in community cultural events. In my early school days, I participated in drawing competitions, dance, debates, sports activities such as sprint race, badminton, high jump and long jump. I served as the Sports Captain of my school – Loreto Convent. Two qualities imbibed in my personality since early childhood years are team spirit and self-discipline which I learnt through sports. These two qualities have aided me to get through rough times in my professional life in the US and in India.

Although my family background was in Commerce, I was not great at finance or accounting subjects. Moreover, I enjoyed physics quite a lot. I took up PCMB in Science stream for 11th and 12th grade in school and graduated from ISCE board of examination. The reason for me to keep Biology in the list of subjects was not because I wanted to be a doctor, definitely not! But I was naturally curious about Zoology and Botany and wanted to learn more about it. 

I have always been more of a hands-on person and liked to build and see things physically in front of me. These were the initial cues that channeled me towards engineering, and within engineering – mechanical engineering. I loved how gears turned, machines moved and functioned. I remember, as a child, how fascinated I was by the mechanism behind clocks.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

As a result of taking various competitive exams, I was enrolled in SRM University, Kattankulathur wherein I choose my field of interest as mechanical engineering. It was a tough call because taking a decision by myself as a teenager was difficult, especially since this decision would shape my entire career. So, I took up some of the online aptitude tests to understand my forte, interacted with friends and relatives who had a background in mechanical engineering, and also talked to some of my sister’s colleagues who were in the industry for their guidance and insights on taking this field of engineering. There was also some pushback against taking up this stream as something atypical for girls. But the rebel in me did not pay heed to those and with support of my family I ended up in BTech Mechanical Engineering only to realize on the first day of class that the entire batch had 4 girls in the department and I was the only female student of my class with a strength of 65. It was indeed a shocker and I must say coming from an all-girls convent school background, entering into an all-boys class was a huge transition! It took me two semesters to get accustomed to it, though it worked out fine. This experience also played an important role in preparing me for the outside world.

I also did an MS in Mechanical Engineering (Northeastern University) with specialization in Thermofluids.

What were some of the influences that made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

During college, getting selected for the BAJA SAE off-road racing team – The Conrods was a major turning point in my life. I value and treasure the practical hands-on experience I received, even today. I gained complete exposure to automotive subsystems, components, manufacturing processes, and learnt welding, profile grinding, using power tools. In fact, the ATV made by the entire team was the first vehicle I ever drove! It was hard to manage garage work alongside regular lectures in college, but this taught me how to manage my time effectively. This was my first and real close exposure to automobiles that directed the course of my career path.

Subsequently, I did an internship with Ford wherein I learnt about production processes, quality management and how manufacturing of vehicles occurs at mass production level. Among all the courses in my program, I was able to grasp concepts of heat and mass transfer, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, IC engines pretty well and did projects in these domains that helped me understand the courses even better. As a result of this, my final year project was based on the ESS- energy storage system utilizing PCM phase change materials. These steps acted as a path in guiding me to further pursue knowledge in thermal sciences and see how it could impact automotive systems. And so I decided to pursue MS in Mechanical Engineering with specialization in Thermofluids and moved to Boston, MA, USA. It was an excellent opportunity, moving to a new country studying and working alongside to manage living expenses, working on various cutting edge technology projects that are futuristic, it was a rich experience altogether.

I strongly believe in “where there is a will there’s a way” and that every problem has a solution, you just have to get to it and getting to it comes at a cost, and it depends on whether you are ready and willing to pay the cost or not. Dr. Senthil Ramalingam who was my project guide in final year at SRM University was an amazing mentor to me not only for my project but also for taking the decision to pursue MS in Thermal courses and merging it with my passion for a career in automotives. He still is a huge support to me from academia.

Throughout my career so far, I have focused on what I enjoy doing the most and then taken the path towards it. When I started my master’s degree, the courses were on a higher level than what I had studied. So, it took me at least 6-8 months to understand and bridge the gap due to which I sometimes felt like switching streams, though thank god I didn’t give up after those low scores in the first semester. Being a high scorer in BTech, it was initially shattering to see low scores in subjects that I thought I knew very well. After my first fall semester, I spent the entire winter break at the library studying the concepts of thermal sciences and completing books from the university undergraduate programs to be better equipped for the upcoming spring semester. This led to a huge jump in my scores in semester 2. 

In my third semester (2017) at Northeastern University, a major turning point was an internship at Terrafugia Inc. They were working on an EVTOL (Electrical Vertical Take-Off vehicles) concept of roadable-aircrafts or “flying car technology” as we call it. It was a life-changing experience and my first exposure to the startup world. I got to work as a Powertrain Engineer Intern within a team of MIT graduates on open-ended engineering problems for actively cooling the battery pack, the DC-DC converter, as well as the motor, and at the same time, every component had to be able to function on the road and in air. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn and grow by tackling challenging issues. This internship  acted as a pivotal point in my career. My first exposure to EV was in 2017. 

Towards the end of my degree at Northeastern University, I had also built prototypes for generating power from waste heat utilizing thermoelectric generator modules (TEGs). This not only gave me educational exposure but aided me to interact with many people in the academic field who were working on this topic globally.

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

My first internship opportunity at Terrafugia was a confirmation to me that I was on the right path and that the niche field that I was interested in, existed and had some form of demand as well. My educational and professional achievements during my master’s program were recognized when I was awarded the College of Engineering award in May 2018 and my parents were invited by the Dean for the ceremony. It was an emotional moment for us all. 

Having a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering along with a master’s degree in thermofluids set me apart from the crowd and prepared me well to enter the automotive industry from the thermal science perspective.

My goal was centered around the idea that I always wanted to be involved in new technology and be a part of R&D. This helped me make informed choices and sometimes say no to opportunities that would not be in the R&D. 

My first full-time job in the USA at Hanon Systems was for powertrain and cabin cooling components for Ford, GM and Stellantis. My educational background was perfectly suited for the position. I was finally able to find the right blend of thermal and automotive engineering in this role. One important piece of advice I received from a senior professional having 30 years of experience in the auto industry was to work for as many tier-1 companies supplying components to automakers. Because, when one works for an OEM, he/she gets to work on only one vehicle model or program and so bandwidth is limited whereas when you work for an automotive tier 1 supplier, you are working on vehicle models for various OEMs be it Ford, GM, Stellantis, Nissan, Mazda, Subaru and so on. As a result, it helps to work on challenges and issues faced across different brands, gain richer experience and be able to solve a variety of engineering problems within the same timeframe. Then after about 5 years of experience, one must think of moving to an OEM and add value. 

I followed this religiously and ended up working for Marelli – another amazing tier one supplier for automotive OEMs like Nissan, Subaru, Mazda, and some smaller EV startups. At Marelli, I took up a bigger role than earlier and was working as a R&D Project Engineer in the Thermal Solutions Business Unit. I got an opportunity in an exciting project to execute, from design concept to production, for the front end electric cooling module for an electric passenger van with a California based EV startup company. It was an amazing journey seeing the entire cooling module take shape from design to prototype builds, testing them, modifying the designs in order to improve efficiency, doing cost reduction drives, working with the startup and understanding their working style and culture, planning for production, conducting tool trials, taking the finished product for manufacturing & production hand-off to the factory in Mexico. There was huge learning involved in this role.

My interest in the industry and EVs in general, led me to attend many auto expos and conferences held in Michigan which gave me insights on the industry and the transition from ICE to Battery based vehicles. I learnt a lot about the components impacted by this transition, how the supply chain was undergoing the change and new components entering the market as a result of this transition. All of it contributed greatly to my awareness about the industry and developing a  plan to shape my career around it. I also got the opportunity to interact with many policy makers in the US government that were working on regulations related to EVs.

My move to India was based around 3 events – US immigration uncertainties, covid19 and family concerns. Around the middle of 2021 with all the chaos around the globe, I felt an impulse to take a career break for 3-6 months and see if I would like to be in the same field or try out different career options, maybe something on the creative front. It was a leap of faith that I was taking and I was completely unsure about how my life would unfold in the upcoming years.

So, I took a break and moved to Accra, Ghana in West Africa, to explore a new city, country and continent. Spending time in Ghana and volunteering there taught me so much about life in general. I experienced some of the hardships of life very closely and first-hand through Ghanaians and realized how privileged some people are in other parts of the world. I also learnt how less is more, and simple things in life can also lead to pure joy. At the end of 2021, I moved to India. I started learning about the progress in the EV industry in India over the last couple of years and was intrigued by the growth and opportunity. I started learning about various startups in the EV segment and had some engaging conversations with people who were making a difference here. I eventually landed a role with Euler Motors. I am working at Euler Motors as R&D Manager in the Thermal team and have been managing a range of R&D projects from thermal cooling to battery designing and some other research work.

How did you get your first break?

My entire goal of traveling out of India to study was to gain an enriching experience. As my interest in automotives was sparked in the Detroit of India- Chennai, I wanted to begin my career in the original Detroit of the world and then came back to India to be able to apply my global experience in India. As an international, having work permit restrictions makes it quite difficult to find suitable roles though it is certainly not impossible. After interviewing with multiple companies, I was able to land a full-time job that closely aligned with my niche skill set, background and future goals. I got my first job as a Product Development Engineer at Hanon Systems Americas Innovation Center. 

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

Challenge 1: Thermal being a niche field, and culmination of thermal in automotive manufacturing is even more niche. I would say finding the right job where I could utilize my skills and knowledge based on the degree itself was a challenge. I overcame it after I got my first job at Hanon and entered the workforce.

Challenge 2: Navigating my career path being a female mechanical engineer in the auto industry, with a thermal background, made it difficult for me to find mentors from the same background. As a result, I had to figure things out by myself which involved experimentation, trying new things, failing at a few, learning from them and getting back up. Based on my experience, I would always be open to help out any individual seeking a career in this field. I would also advise young individuals – do not take/follow advice given by people who are not in a position that you aim to be at. Someone who has not travelled the path will not know what it is like.

Challenge 3: Comparing the number of years spent developing IC engine vehicles versus the amount of time spent in developing EVs, it is a huge achievement for humanity to transition into technologies at such a rapid pace (also considering autonomous vehicles). But this rapid shift has also raised unanswered technical problems and issues that we all need to unanimously work towards to solve, and I feel it is a good challenge/ problem to have. Also the impact of this transition has flowed through to other segments, and supply chain has been massively affected as components have changed (from traditional ICE vehicles to EVs), materials have changed, requirements have changed and those who have not been able to reinvent their businesses have fallen off course. On a personal level, my challenge through all of this has been that when asked to plan or forecast projections for R&D products, rather than following conventional predictive techniques, I have had to switch to a complete agile approach towards products. And thus, I have become comfortable with the unknowns and uncertainties.

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

I am currently working in a managerial role at Euler Motors, a commercial EV startup that has been growing since its inception in 2018. In this role, I am working towards solving problems related to thermal management of vehicle components, batteries being the main ones. Challenges that I am working to solve in our team include, how to enhance the life of batteries? How to predict the life of batteries? How could the customer make the most of his/her investment in the vehicle? How to reduce customer anxiety related to vehicle range (distance travelled on a single charge)? How to reduce charging time of batteries to save customer’s time? And most importantly, how can the company make profit while making a positive impact on the environment and on the lives of people? Along with these, I am also involved in the supply chain decision making and forecasting for industrialization of the R&D projects.

What are the skills required for your role? How did you acquire them?

My educational background in thermal sciences and automotive industry experience from the US aids well in terms of experience and skills required to perform the duties of my job. A typical day involves me engaging with my team members first thing in the morning, regarding the previous night’s testing updates and any abnormalities observed in the data. I also sync up with individual members on their tasks for the day and any issues they require my support with. I then check on the testing schedule for the day, troubleshoot any resource, and also work on time or cost related decision making for ongoing and upcoming projects. A part of my role also involves meeting with any new vendors that stop by to discuss their latest products in thermal management of EVs.

What do you love about your job?

What I love about this job is that I get to work on the latest technologies and have the freedom to explore and experiment any new ideas I may have. At Euler we are encouraged to explore new things and fail, in order to learn from those and create newer and better products. Also, because I have industry experience, I get to share ways in which existing processes and methods could be improved in terms of projects, manufacturing processes and procurement activities.

How does your work benefit society? 

Transportation is the leading cause of air pollution in Delhi, and final-mile delivery vehicles disproportionally contribute to high PM and NOx pollution levels. According to an analysis published by RMI, final-mile delivery vehicles in the city emitted 1.6 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2020, 23% of total road transport CO2 emissions. Switching to EVs can make the city’s final-mile delivery sector cleaner, sustainable, and more cost-efficient. The advantages of EVs over ICE vehicles, by reducing air pollution levels, saving costs on fuel as well as lower maintenance costs because EVs have fewer moving parts than ICEs (i.e., no engine, clutch, transmission, gearbox or catalytic converter), make them the front-runner in Delhi’s clean transport transition. 

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

The most memorable work I can recall is when I was an intern at Terrafugia. The whole concept of “flying car” was extremely exciting to me and being a graduate student working towards resolving some of the most challenging open-ended unknowns in the segment that was so new to the world was an amazing journey. Creating thermal analytical models for battery and DC DC converters and designing heat sinks was a cool experience being an international intern! 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Follow your intuition, spend time in your teens and early twenties to explore and find out your ikigai, then pursue the career path you align with. Don’t be afraid to switch industries in your twenties, you can always return. 

Do get comfortable with uncertainty in your professional and personal life because the times we are in right now – change is the only constant.

To all the female engineers/ professionals interested in joining the automotive sector – the future of electric is women in leadership roles. The way the automotive industry began, and the transition it is going through towards electrification, is also repealing a lot of the gender biases and opening up newer types of roles and career paths. It is an excellent time to be in or join this industry.

Future Plans?

I would say the pandemic has diminished the hard-core planner in us, and because startup culture has taught me to take an agile approach rather than a predictive one, so no specific long-term plans as such. I would like to make the most of my skills and experience to solve and make a positive impact on the lives of those who are not as privileged and keep contributing towards solving environment issues on a global level.