New Technologies are transforming our society in many ways, through solar-diesel hybrid products powering remote villages across the globe, several healthcare equipment such as CT machines, ventilators & anesthesia machines, and next generation wind turbines. 

Sanketh Bhat, our next pathbreaker, Senior Engineer at GE Global Research, works across all businesses in the GE portfolio that span aviation, power, renewables, healthcare etc with the larger objective of introducing a new product or technology.

Sanketh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his most memorable work as being part of the team that developed the world’s cleanest locomotive, based on a Tier 4 (Tiers are the emission norms in North America analogous to Bharat stage in India) Locomotive engine.

For students, careers of the next few decades are going to be research intensive and innovation driven. Always strive to make the best of such opportunities and go ‘above & beyond’ your curriculum. 

Sanketh, tell us what were your growing up years like?

I grew up in Mumbai and called it home for my first 22 years though my family is originally from coastal Karnataka. After completing my Bachelor of Engineering (B.E.), I went to the USA for my post graduation. Coming from a family of engineers, where both my father (Mechanical) and elder brother (Chemical) are engineers, I always had an engineering bent of mind. I dabbled with everything, from learning to play tabla for a few years during my schooling days, to playing a lot of badminton and chess. My mother being a homemaker spent a lot of time with me during my formative years and has been a big influence in my life.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I am an Aerospace engineer by education. I did my B.E. from a well-known engineering college, V.J.T.I. in Mumbai. I then went on to do my master’s (MS) and PhD from the University of Florida at the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. I specialized in control systems during my post-graduation. My MS thesis involved coming up with a control-oriented design of a thermal protection system for a hypersonic vehicle. I extended this work in my doctoral thesis and developed a framework for integrated design from a control perspective.   

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

My childhood dream was to become an astronaut. As I grew older, that dream morphed into a more realistic interest in cosmology and astrophysics. By the time I was around 15, I was sure that I wanted to become an aerospace engineer. In that sense, I was lucky to have known exactly what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, in the early 2000’s there weren’t that many aerospace engineering colleges in India. So, I decided to pursue my bachelors in a mechanical or allied stream and then pursue aerospace engineering for my further studies. 

As I got into my 2nd year of engineering and started exploring options for further studies, I realized that getting into aerospace engineering from Production engineering (the field that I was pursuing) may not be easy. So, after my 2nd year examination, I decided to pursue any project or internship opportunity in IIT Bombay. I prepared my resume and knocked on the door of many professors. I was again lucky that one professor, Prof K Sudhakar in the Department of Aerospace Engineering was kind enough to offer me a summer internship in his project. My day-to-day activity involved working with a Research Assistant (RA) on power plant characterization of a Mini Aerial Vehicle (MAV) in a wind tunnel. This experience really taught me a lot in terms of getting my hands dirty and working hands-on. I also got the opportunity to develop my first computer code in Fortran. I continued that engagement, working with the professor and his team even after that summer for the next 1.5 years, going to IIT Bombay after my college hours and on weekends. This initiative and extra effort helped me immensely. Besides gaining a lot of technical knowledge, I also had the opportunity of getting good mentors and coaches which has helped me a lot till date. It was during that time I decided to specialize in control systems and aspired to be a part of my future PhD advisors’ team that was working a lot on MAVs and controls at the University of Florida. 

When I finally arrived in the US, my advisor, Prof Rick Lind gave me an option to work on 2 projects – one on MAVs and the other on hypersonic vehicles. I decided to pursue the latter because it was a multi-disciplinary project encompassing controls, optimization, structural dynamics, aerodynamics etc. and thought the learning will be more in this project. Because I liked the project and advisor, I decided to convert my master’s program to a PhD. 

Though seldom do you get to continue in the same field as your PhD especially in industry, the learnings, problem solving skills and research attitude will hold you well in your career. My PhD mainly focused on control-oriented design and co-design which is what I was able to successfully apply to several of my programs later in my career. 

I was keen on returning to India after my PhD. Hence, I pursued 2 internship opportunities with the support of my PhD advisor to get more experience in different companies. The first internship was with Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs (MERL) in Cambridge, MA and second was with Honeybee Robotics, NY. Both these experiences taught me a lot, not just technically. This was the first time I got to stay and work in large cities independently, so had to assimilate into the culture, food, etc in a short period of time. The work at MERL involved interacting with a team from Japan, wherein I got my first experience of how important is to understand culture and background while interacting with others. During my second internship, I got a lot of first hand experience building things, which was an added skillset to my simulation based work so far in graduate school.  

So, in short, my focus till my PhD was to get as much exposure and learning as possible. Also, I was fortunate that a lot of my plans fell into place with a little initiative from my side but I was also prepared to pivot in case it didn’t work out. 

How did you get your first break?

I was very keen to return to India after my PhD and was looking for opportunities where I would fit in. So, I had applied to several companies in India. I was reaching out to my network in search for a suitable job and realized my friend’s brother worked for GE Research. He forwarded my resume to the relevant hiring manager and after an interview process, I was offered a position. GE Research has been the only company that I have worked for after my PhD.  

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

I have faced a few challenges in my career so far. I would like to highlight a couple of them. 

During my PhD, I was stuck in my research for a few months and all my options ran into dead ends. I realized that I needed to reach out for help and discuss the problem with fellow researchers. My hunt for a solution went on for a couple of months. During one such interaction, I found a potential solution to the problem through the research of Prof Felipe Viana who was pursuing his doctorate then. I collaborated with him which expanded my field of knowledge and made my research thesis even more impactful. I learnt an important lesson – ‘reach out to get the job done, but only after giving reasonable time to find a solution yourself’. 

My first project in GE Research was on development of a Tier 4 locomotive and marine engine and I ended up leading the program in a years’ time. It was a large interdisciplinary global team working on the project. Being fresh out of college with a PhD, I started off with the feeling that I knew it all. However, I very soon realized the depth and breadth of knowledge of my team members to the point where I was slightly intimidated. My initial “know-it-all” attitude made me go through some initial hiccups for e.g, I was providing solutions without understanding all aspects of the problem. I learnt simple things which we otherwise take for granted, like how to effectively communicate with global stakeholders with different cultural backgrounds, how to work effectively as a team etc. I still remember the feedback I received in my very first team meeting which had stakeholders from a few different countries saying that I was talking too fast to people not used to an Indian accent. This experience taught me to be humble, listen more and value everyone’s inputs, pivot when needed, and course correct where necessary. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role

I currently work with GE Research, which is the corporate R&D arm of GE. We work with all businesses in the GE portfolio that span aviation, power, renewables, healthcare etc… My work is based on opportunities to introduce a new product or technology. 

GE Research is split into different verticals based on technical disciplines. My skill sets are in controls, optimization, controls-oriented modelling, systems engineering & systems thinking. 

GE has a varied portfolio of businesses – like aviation, healthcare, renewables, power to name a few. I had the opportunity of working with several domains in my 12 years at GE Research career, in transportation, healthcare, distributed power and renewables businesses.  

There are several reasons I like my job – the technical challenge & intellectual stimulation involved in research, ability to influence technology & products, which have a direct impact on society. For e.g., being part of a team, which developed the world’s cleanest locomotive & marine engine, several generations of CT machines having your algorithm running on it, solutions which help power the remotest & rural areas of the world to name a few. 

How does your work benefit society? 

I feel very lucky and fortunate that I can work on technology that helps the society at large. Be it seeing the solar-diesel hybrid product powering remote villages across the globe including maternity hospitals in Africa, to developing the ‘brain’ for the world’s cleanest locomotive, to being able to contribute to several healthcare equipments such as CT machines, ventilators & anesthesia machines, to powering the next generation wind turbines. 

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

The first project that I worked on in GE Research (and my professional career) was being part of the team building a Tier 4 (Tiers are the emission norms in North America analogous to Bharat stage in India) Locomotive & Marine engine. Initially, it was a very new domain for me and after coming from graduate school where I was working on hypersonic vehicles, this topic did not feel glamorous enough. However, very soon I realized the impact and outcome of my work on the business and society in developing real world solutions to today’s burning problems. Being part of a team, which developed the world’s cleanest locomotive is something I cherish. This project has many firsts for me – first patent, first publication in industry, first company wide award but the learnings from the project on account of working in a multidisciplinary and global team is probably the part I value the most today.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Pursue your passion – It is easy to have a herd mentality and go with the flow, but is that something you enjoy doing? I will urge you to pursue your passion

Get one or more mentors – Having mentors has helped me a lot personally by having a sounding board for my thoughts and aspirations. Hearing a vastly different perspective, rooted in the mentor’s career experience helped me stay aligned with my career objectives and milestones. A mentor is someone whom you can trust and have a good relationship with – it could be your professor, someone in your neighborhood or from some professional body.

Proactively seek out learning opportunities – In today’s information age, there are plenty of learning opportunities like online courses, workshops in college festivals. Always strive to make the best of such opportunities and go ‘above & beyond’ your curriculum. 

Future Plans?

In the next decade, I would still like to be close to technology development in the one of the following domains – energy transition, automotive, automation or healthcare. I see myself in R&D, product management or in engineering.