Introduction

My name is Priya, and I am from India. Growing up I was always interested in physical sciences and mathematics, and thanks to my teachers, I started developing an admiration for the potential of microorganisms, especially in agriculture, bioenergy, and pharmaceuticals early in my career. I was deeply inspired by the potential of the emerging field of biotechnology along with India’s interests in exploring Jatropha seeds for biodiesel production. For my graduate studies I chose Chemical Engineering to get the best of both worlds. I admit that I had doubts about Chemical Engineering, whether I would be a good fit, and what were my career prospects later, etc. Little did I know that I will dedicate 11 years of my academic life studying various aspects of chemical engineering, let alone get a Ph.D. in it. In the final year of the undergraduate program, the students had to do an engineering design project. I designed a flare stack for my project. A flare stack is a vertical venting system to safely combust gases recovered from an industrial facility to help reduce air pollution. I spent weeks reading about designing a flare stack, the application and importance of the equipment. I was able to design a good model but was not impressed with the design, however, I thoroughly enjoyed the process. It made me realize I tended to Research and Development and wanted to learn more. So, I studied hard and got selected for one of the most competitive master's programs in my country in Chemical Engineering specializing in Industrial Pollution Abatement at Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee. For my master's thesis I worked on a remarkably interesting and practical problem of finding a low-cost, biodegradable absorbent coupled with bacterial consumption to remove phenol and cyanide from wastewater from a steel plant. This project was extremely challenging and made me think out of the box since wastewater treatment was an already saturated field. I was formally introduced to the world of microbes, the power of genetic engineering and using unicellular organisms as chassis for producing a variety of products and chemicals. I started exploring other potential applications in industrial biotech and was keenly drawn to biofuels. I loved research, creative problem solving, analytical thinking and project design. Finally, I decided to get a PhD in Chemical and Environmental Engineering specializing in biofuels and, to purse this dream, I came to United States in 2015. Here, I worked on another very industry relevant problem of finding a sustainable and cost-effective alternative to petroleum-based transportation fuels in United States.The first generation of cellulosic ethanol produced by fermenting corn and sugarcane, is neither sustainable nor economic. While the second generation of cellulosic ethanol produced by fermenting sugars, present in non-edible agricultural, municipal waste, woody biomass, etc. is sustainable but not very economic due to the poor yields and excessive cost of production. My doctoral research was based on finding economic cellulosic ethanol and bioplastics production routes from Poplar wood, optimizing the process further to maximize the yield and decrease cost. I attended and presented my work at many conferences during my PhD days. I also met engineers and scientists at these conferences who were solving challenging and interesting scientific industrial problems. I was very motivated to practically implement my knowledge and skills to find solutions to industrial problems and develop economic and robust processes that can produce bio-based chemicals and materials that can have a tangible impact on the environment. To follow my passion further, I joined Huue a biotech startup in Berkeley as a fermentation scientist to create sustainable dyes for the denim industry. I worked at the company for a year and half learning the application of the theories that I had learned for years to design, develop, and scale up a bio based indigo dye production process. The tangibility of the results of the successful execution of the project in the form of a high performing bio-based textile dye that is a greener alternative to a petroleum based indigo dye is what gave me the most satisfaction. My desire to learn more and my quest for finding other challenging problems then brought me to Lygos, also in Berkeley where I currently work as a fermentation scientist. Here, I get to work on early-stage as well as late-stage development of bio-based organic acid production processes. These organic acids can then be used as building blocks for manufacturing green alternatives to many petroleum-based consumer products like diapers, feminine hygiene products etc.

Chemical Engineering

career options

Having a very non-linear career graph myself after working in the field of air pollution, waste-water treatment, biofuels, bio-based chemicals, and materials I can confidently say that there are many career options for you if you are a student of chemical engineering. The skills you learn can be used in various fields and it also prepares you to learn new skills for better career prospects. Some of them are included in the table below.

1
Process Engineer
2
Research and Development (R&D)
3
Environmental Engineer
4
Energy Engineer
5
Biomedical Engineer
6
Quality Control Specialists

Chemical Engineering

 skills

What are the main hard skills you use on a daily basis in your current job?

1
Understanding of basic chemical engineering principles and concepts

Understanding of basic chemical engineering principles and concepts like reaction engineering, chemical kinetics, heat transfer, mass transfer etc. These are fundamental concepts that are taught as part of the undergraduate and graduate curriculum. These concepts are crucial to understand the science behind various industrial processes. For example, we use them to understand the basic metabolic pathways that the microorganism uses to produce the molecule of interest which in turn helps us to identify the key parameters required to maximize productivity. They also help us to determine the by-products of processes and their impact on the process yield.

2
Understanding the working of a bioreactor, process control and fermentation technology

Understanding the working of a bioreactor, process control and fermentation technology It is a prerequisite for a fermentation scientist to have an understanding of the basic operations and process controls of a bioreactor. One can not design experiments to be operated in a bioreactor without undersatnding its workings. Understanding types of fermentation, fermentors, impact of process parameters like dissolved oxygen, temperature, pH, agitation etc. are absolutely essential. Programming languages like visual basic and python are used to code processes in bioreactors. Fermentation science and bioreactor knowledge is generally not a part of any classroom curriculum but it can be learned by doing an internship in any biomanufacturing company or in an academic lab that works on projects related to fermentation/bio-manufacturing. There are many resources available to learn programming languages like Python, visual basic such as online course providers like edx, Coursera and Skillshare. There’s also many free tutorials available online.

3
Mathematical and statistical modeling

Bioreactors accumulate a lot of data from every fermentation run. The data is then analysed to get meaningful information from each experiment that helps understand and eventually improve the process. While codes written in programming language like Python can be used to clean the data recovered from bioreactor softwares. Softwares like JMP, Matlab and Origin can used to do modeling, advanced analysis and plotting. Understanding of statistical concepts like Design of Experiments(DOE) two-level screening, using prediction profilers on the data to understand the significance of different parameters on desired metrics by looking at the p-values and profiler trends for each factor. Using simulators to design future experiments for maximizing desired metrics like productivity, optimizing media etc. by adding random variability to the prediction profile data. Many academic institutions offer courses to teach these programming languages. I would also highly recommend to take a statistics elective in undergraduate/graduate school as it really helps to understand the logic behind various statistical techniques used for data analysis.

4
Technical writing

An integral part of a scientist’s job is to write Standard operating procedures, Technology transfer documents to communicate the processes to internal, external stake holders and other collaborators. A scientist is also required to summarize the learnings from various experiments in the form of presentations and scientific papers to communicate to a broader audience. If you wish to be a scientist someday, internship with a graduate student in an academic lab at your school is highly recommended. Work on a mini project with your fellow graduate student and try to co-author a research paper. Take advantage of any kind of communication workshops written or oral offered at your school.

5

What are the main soft skills you use on a daily basis in your current job?

1
Adaptability

A scientist must be adaptable and should be able to quickly learn new technologies. Technologies are constantly evolving and methologies are changing regularly. It is essential for a scientist to constantly learn and stay relevant to navigate the dynamic nature of most scientific enterprises. For example, I mostly rely on online course providers edx, Coursera and Skillshare to learn new softwares if and when needed.

2
Teamwork and collaboration

Some times one has to be a team player and some times one has to be a team leader along with a team player. Team leaders are a part of the team not above the team. Collaboration is key to achieve goals much faster. Scientists should be able to work effectively in a team, contribute to group goals and communicate ideas with colleagues. These skills can be learned by participating in any kind of group event offered by your school including a group project, group sports, a community activity, or even a drama club.


3
Time management

The work environments in most biotech companies is extremely fast paced and challenging. Scientists are usually working on multiple projects at the same time with tight deadlines. Effective time management by setting clear goals, creating a schedule, breaking down bigger tasks and prioritization tasks is essential to meet project deadlines.

4

5

Priya

’s personal path

Tell us about your personal journey in

Chemical Engineering

:

My experience looking for a job in the United States was not very easy. I graduated in 2020 in the middle of a global pandemic where there was a hiring freeze in most industries. On top of that I am an immigrant so I required work permit from companies that were willing to sponsor which is an added expense in an already challenging economic environment. I had filled in at least 20+ applications before I got my first interview. I did at least 10 interviews before I got my first job. Scientist interviews are mostly 5-6 hours long and are divided into technical and behavioral sections. The panel is looking for a brilliant mind, creative problem solver, an empathetic person, team player and team leader. It was discouraging every time I got rejected after an interview after putting in so much effort. However, I kept a positive attitude and looked at each failure as a learning opportunity. I always reached out to hiring managers for feedback. Sometimes people got back to me with suggestions that helped me improve. I got my first job through networking. The CEO of the startup where I had started my career as a scientist reached out to my PhD. advisor to tap into the talented pool of graduate students his lab produced. My advisor recommended me. I had an interview and I got the job. My first job was really challenging, fulfilling and overall a great experience. I also met some really talented people and made great friends at my first job. Your first job may or may not be your dream job but it’s an excellent opportunity to learn about yourself and your craft and hone the skills that you really think will help you land your dream job.

What would you tell your younger you regarding building your current career?

Networking is key. I landed both my jobs through networking. I was a shy person. I would always hesitate advocating for myself and asking for help. I would tell my younger self that asking for help doesn’t make you small; it is a great virtue to have. Constantly keep leaning new skills but also take it easy. Exhausted minds loose their creativity. Hustle but also take intermittent breaks. Talk to people in your field. Reach out to your seniors and friends in different fields and put yourself out there. It gives you great control of your future. Believe in yourself and get comfortable in getting uncomfortable.

Final thoughts & tips

In conclusion I’d like to reiterate the importance of following your passion, constantly upskilling yourself and networking. Internships in a biotech company, in an organization like Open Avenues or along with a graduate student in an academic lab can very useful. Students should try to learn the most out of these internships and increase their professional network. Schools offer many workshops and I would highly encourage for students to seek out these workshops and enroll in them. Most importantly learn to enjoy the process while keeping an eye on the end goal.

Priya Sengupta

Priya Sengupta

Chemical Engineering
Build Fellow
Open Avenues Foundation
Open Avenues Foundation

Priya Sengupta is a Chemical Engineering Fellow at Open Avenues Foundation, where she works with students leading projects in Chemical Engineering.

Priya is a Fermentation Scientist at Lygos where she works on early-stage and late-stage process development of bioproduction of organic acids via fermentation.

Priya has 7 years of experience in the field of fermentation. Prior to that she was working as a Fermentation Scientist and Team Lead at Huue where she was leading early stage process development of bio-based textile dye indigo.

She holds a PhD degree in Chemical and Environmental Engineering.

A fun fact about Priya: She can speak 8+ languages spoken in India.

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