The future of electric power will be focused on designing interfacing technologies for adoption of renewable energy – solar, wind, hydropower etc.

Kaustav Chatterjee, our next pathbreaker, Staff Research Engineer at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (Richland, Washington), works on a wide variety of problems ranging from integrating renewable energy into the electric grid, to ensuring reliable power transmission.

Kaustav talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the research conducted at national labs, and about pilots and prototypes of future technologies which are yet to be commercially adopted by the industry. 

For students, finding a solution to a problem is only halfway to the end goal; the endgame is in making the outcomes of research accessible to more and more people. 

Kaustav, Your background?

Growing up in a middle-class family in the suburbs of Kolkata, I spent most of my childhood aspiring to be a good student. I knew only a handful of people (family friends who were either professors or teachers) who had a PhD and I somehow fancied having one. To me, adding a ‘Dr’ before the name was somewhat ‘cool’.  

As a high school student, I was a voracious reader. I consumed everything from Agatha Christie to J K Rowling, from Satyajit Ray to Conan Doyle. I clearly remember having a special fascination for books on science fiction and thrillers. Puzzles and number-games were my favorite pastime. In hindsight I now realize that my passion to pursue engineering has roots in this innate curiosity of my mind. It is this inquisitiveness that tied my knot with science and made me appreciate its ability to uncover the truth hidden in nature. As time passed, the beauty of mathematics as the language of science unfurled before me. I was captivated by the idea that there can be multiple ways to solve a problem, with all ways leading to the same. This appetite for solving problems later inspired me to take up engineering as a career choice. I took up electrical engineering as a career choice with an urge to address the issues pertinent to energy security and sustainability. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I have completed my B.E. in Electrical Engineering from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India in 2015 and MTech. in Electrical Engineering (with specialization in Power Electronics and Power Systems) from IIT Bombay, India, in 2018. In 2017, I was a visiting scholar at Iowa State University, USA.  In 2022, I completed my PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University, USA.

I received Research Assistantship for all four years of my PhD. The funding came from the National Science Foundation. 

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

I was doing my undergraduate studies when the big Indian blackout of 2012 happened. Tripping of a 400 kV line had cascaded into a series of outages paralyzing the northern and eastern regions of India leaving 300 million people without electricity. As I started reading about it and discussed it with my peers and professors, I was overwhelmed by the dynamics of the power grid. In power systems, I had found a subject which could translate my interests in mathematics and control systems into a technology that impacted millions.

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

I had always been keen on pursuing independent research. Getting into IIT Bombay helped me get hands-on experience in my research area. It motivated me into publishing my research outputs in reputed journals and furthering my dreams to pursue a PhD.

During my masters at IIT Bombay, I carried out a part of my masters thesis research at Iowa State University. The travel support and the research stipend were provided by the university and the host. I was a Visiting Researcher at Iowa State University, Ames, in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering during the summer of 2017. Here, I was involved in research on reliable electricity transmission. The focus was to design combat methods for potential cyber-attacks that could paralyze power system sensors and the associated data acquisition system.

My research in PhD was on the topic of power systems wide-area monitoring and control. One of the things that I worked on during this time was the design of data-driven algorithms for detecting anomalies and event signatures in the sensor data. This was largely on the applications of signal processing and machine learning. Besides this, I also worked on system identification and estimation methods for automated identification of sources of low frequency oscillations in a large power grid, especially under high renewable penetration. The potential solution could benefit the system operators in improving system reliability by preventing large scale outages and blackouts.  

During my PhD, I was a research intern at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), Palo Alto, CA during the summer of 2021 . The thrust area was reliable electricity transmission with high penetration of renewable energy. I was mostly working on developing algorithms for automated detection of events and anomalies in power system sensor data. 

How did you get your first break?

I got the taste of success when the first work I did in my PhD got selected among the best papers in the flagship conference of my area – the IEEE PES General Meeting. I was excited as well as nervous to present before a large audience in Atlanta. The positive response that I received from the talk bolstered my confidence and motivated me to strive for more. Years thereafter, I would go on to participate in the conference often as speaker and sometimes as an award recipient.

Most full-time scientist/engineer positions in national labs require citizenship or at least permanent resident status. But there are other positions too (mostly outside the national security research domains) that do not  require these clearances. The requirements, if any, are usually specified in the job posting. 

My understanding has been that the current administration at the White House is committed towards electric grid modernization and adoption of renewable energy systems. The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last year by the US Congress created many job openings in the area of  clean energy research in almost all national labs. I was lucky to be one of these new inducts – who just happened to graduate in the right time with the right skill set.   

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

Challenge 1: One of the foremost challenges that I realize one faces in PhD/research is to identify a good problem to work on, or in other words, what is a good problem ‘worth’ investing time in. I have felt we often confuse the complexity/difficulty-level of a problem with the tangible (or intangible) benefits and usefulness that come with the potential solution. The scale of the problem may not be proportional to the application of the problem. As an engineer by training, my attitude has always been – ‘never cut your toe to fit a shoe’, rather do the opposite.  

Challenge 2: The second realization has been that it is always important to step out of the comfort zone. It is important to explore the other realms of interests as it might help in enhancing the areas of application. From my experience, I have often seen funding in some research areas go down suddenly. In these situations, it helps if a researcher has the drive to step outside his/her comfort domain and explore other allied areas.

Challenge 3: Another important challenge that every researcher faces is how to deal with situations when the results obtained are not favourable, and contradicts the primary hypothesis. In situations like these, it is important to be patient, not lose hope, and remain committed to the ethics of research.  

Where do you work now? 

I am currently a Staff Research Engineer with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory at Richland, Washington. 

What problems do you solve?

In the Electricity Infrastructure and Building Division of PNNL, we focus on a wide variety of research problems ranging from integrating renewable energy (solar, wind, etc.) into the electric grid, to ensuring reliable power transmission – focusing on challenges like resilience to natural calamities (hurricanes, storms, etc.), to designing efficient infrastructure for smart buildings, to formulating policies for resource planning and sustainability.

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

Some of the basic skills include ability to frame research questions and write proposals – aligned to the interest of the sponsor, managing time to deliver results as promised, communicating the research outcomes/results effectively through illustrations and visualizations. A command over the language helps a lot – especially in making pitches and presentations. Having said this, it is important to underscore that these skills become useful only when one has a good grasp of the technical knowhow and understanding of the problems he/she is attempting to solve. 

What is a typical day like?

My day typically begins at around 8am. Meetings are usually scheduled before. These meetings are mostly project specific wherein I or someone from the project team briefs the rest about the updates and progress made. The other times I try working on the tasks assigned to me. If I am managing interns or junior staff, I try keeping a slot wherein I sit with them to understand the problems they are working on and addressing the challenges they might be facing. Recently, I have also been pitching for research funding before sponsors.

What is it you love about this job? 

Working in a national laboratory is very interesting. We work at the interface of academia, industry, and policymaking. We have the unique advantage of working with multiple stakeholders and picking up on their perspectives. In our case, we regularly work with operating engineers from transmission and distribution utilities, design engineers from equipment manufacturers, researchers from academic institutions, and sponsors from the government. At national labs, we often get to work on pilots and prototypes of the future technology which are yet to be commercially adopted by the industry. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Designing interfacing technologies for adoption of renewable energy – solar, wind, etc., is something I have been working on for the last few years. This involves design of efficient storage systems, dc-ac conversion systems, sensing and data monitoring systems, and their associated controls. These technologies aid in the adoption of green energy that helps in combating the challenges of global climate change. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Work hard and stay true to your commitment. In research, it is often easy to get derailed (read demotivated) while chasing metrics like the publication count, H-index, impact factor, etc. While some of these metrics are useful indicators, they do not necessarily always measure your worth or value. Keep doing good work unperturbed by these. Always take peer reviews seriously. Communicating research with clarity is equally important as the research. Finding a solution to a problem is only halfway to the end goal; the endgame is in making the outcomes of research accessible to more and more people. 

Future Plans?

Sometime in the future I aspire to be a professor. Besides research, I think I have a flair for teaching as well, which I would like to explore. The multi-faceted expertise that I am gaining from working at the interface of academia, industry, and policymaking at the national lab, I believe, will prepare me well for this role.