Climate/Environmental problems require unconventional solutions that draw on satellite data, geospatial analysis and algorithms coupled with domain knowledge!

Karthik Krishna Ramesh, our next pathbreaker, Water Resources Engineer at EKI Environment & Water, works on construction and calibration of groundwater transport models for different basins in the state of California.

Karthik talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always wanting to work at the intersection of data modeling and environmental engineering.

For students, the potential for innovations in the environmental space is growing by leaps and bounds. Remember, where there are challenges, there are opportunities !

Karthik, Your background?

I don’t have a very unique story, I was born in Kerala and began my schooling there before living in the Middle East for a few years. I then moved back to Tamil Nadu where I completed the rest of my schooling. I gravitated towards science and mathematics in high school and decided to pursue engineering (like several others!). I used to consistently perform well in exams and I was encouraged by my family and teachers to prepare for the JEE. I made the move to Chennai to join a coaching center and finished the last years of my schooling there. Throughout this time, I was an avid quizzer and won several state and national level competitions. Quizzing and being recreationally involved in sports like cricket, table tennis and football helped me deal with the pressures of gearing up to give the JEE.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

Post the JEE, I got into Delhi Technological University (DTU) where I completed my Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering. This wasn’t a field which I opted by choice, rather what was offered to me by virtue of my rank in the entrance examination. Despite having admissions in reputed private universities for the more “conventional” branches of engineering like Computer Science and Mechanical, I chose to go to DTU as I expected better peers and opportunities. Living in the metropolis of Delhi also contributed to my growth which would have been harder in a Tier 2 city. 

During my time in Delhi, I wanted to explore different avenues since I was unsure about my specialization. I launched a now defunct startup out of college with two of my classmates where we worked for Chennai Super Kings in 2017-18 to streamline the process of their squad building through statistical models. 

I went to Stanford University for grad school where I got my Master of Science degree in Environmental Engineering with a specialization in statistical modeling and simulations.

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

During my undergrad, I had traditional engineering internship experiences eg. at a steel plant, waste water management at an industrial plant etc. These experiences made me identify my interest in building solutions rooted in data rather than conventional engineering roles and I wanted to apply this to work on climate/environmental problems. I was interested in equipping myself with the requisite data and coding skills which coupled with the domain knowledge would be useful.

Tell us about your career path

As discussed previously, I started my non-academic exposure with stints as a trainee engineer at the Salem Steel Plant. My role there was to “shadow” senior engineers at the plant and mostly just observe and assimilate the processes that go into water management and recycling. I also subsequently interned at an environmental consulting practice where I gained experience at the microbiological aspects of water/wastewater engineering. This comprised of preparing and analyzing several samples and was definitely my most hands-on traditional engineering training.

Meanwhile, I was working with my classmates at DTU towards building the algorithms which we used in our startup when we worked for Chennai Super Kings. This made me understand that I was excited by the potential applications of data and statistics.

My final “engineering” internship was at a Textile Dye Factory at a SIPCOT industrial park in Tamil Nadu where I worked with engineers in the implementation of Zero-Liquid Discharge systems i.e. recycling/reusing the effluent water as much as possible within the plant.

I had figured out by then that I wanted to work at the intersection of data modeling and environmental engineering and I tailored my Stanford experience to go hand in hand with this. In the summer of 2020, I worked at a Lab in Harvard University where I worked on developing a Python Model to simulate the earth’s energy balance. This was part of a larger effort to study the implications of placing a large number of mirrors on the land surface to essentially reflect some of the sun’s radiation back to the outer atmosphere and thereby, reducing the “warming effect”.

I also had the opportunity to work on projects at Stanford where I used Machine Learning and Deep Learning approaches to help potentially build smarter air quality monitoring networks.

How did you get your first break?

Unlike in India, universities in the States do not arrange placement drives to interview with firms. It is almost entirely a self-initiated process to network with professionals in your domain through LinkedIn, University Alumni portals, career fairs etc. I interviewed for the job I am currently working through a career fair where I had identified a number of Stanford alumni in the management.

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

One of the biggest challenges I faced was the limited opportunities available in the environmental sector in India and the lack of professional guidance as opposed to other traditional branches of engineering. This is also true in the States where a much larger (also more lucrative) number of opportunities are available to folks in the software domain.

However, this also presents a unique space where you can carve a niche for yourself and stand out from the crowd. 

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

I currently work at a consulting firm where I am part of the Water Resources Modeling Group. We work on constructing and calibrating groundwater transport models for different basins in the state of California. This includes working with a lot of satellite data, real world water levels, geospatial analysis and coding!

These help the water districts and authorities manage the aquifer levels sustainably and also plan for the future. 

(Aquifers are bodies of saturated rock and sediment through which water can move, and they provide 99% of our groundwater.)

What are the skills needed in your role? How did you acquire them?

My job involves a combination of coding, Geospatial analysis, data processing, data visualization and applying domain knowledge and principles to help make modeling decisions. 

How does your work benefit society? 

One of the perks of being in the environment/climate space is the knowledge that the work we do goes towards helping safeguard the planet’s natural resources! Our work also ensures the conservation of flora and fauna, equity in water availability etc.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice would be to explore as many different avenues as possible and not restrict yourself to engineering or medicine right from middle school. It is hard to know where your passion or interest lies until you try out several different things. It is also useful to know that it is possible to switch your major and transition to a different field after your undergrad, so that gives you more room to maneuver around with your career.

Future Plans?

I would ideally love to launch a venture of my own in the Climate space in India and work towards building a data product which helps in the conservation of our resources!