On International Women’s Day, Dr. M. Premalatha, associate professor at the Centre for Energy and Environmental Science and Technology, NIT-T explains why more female science students should opt for research in this field

Dr. M. Premalatha’s workplace, the Centre for Energy and Environmental Science and Technology (CEESAT) at the National Institute of Technology Tiruchirappalli (NIT-T, formerly Regional Engineering College), is an oasis of calm. But every day of the associate professor and her team of research scholars is guided by the urgent quest for sustainable solutions to ecological problems.

Concepts such as growing micro-algae through carbon dioxide sequestration to purifying industrial effluent using solar energy are being explored in detail at the CEESAT, with Dr. Premalatha’s area of expertise in solar energy and environmental engineering proving crucial to mentoring the research scholars.

“Luckily, solar energy is available in abundance in India. One more plus is that the high sunlight level is fairly predictable for most of the year. So we need to focus more on developing solar energy for both thermal and electrical applications,” says Dr. Premalatha.

As India’s reputation for ‘frugal engineering’ has grown, so has the importance of research and development at institutions such as NIT-T, which has nearly 200 research scholars undertaking PhD-level studies. “At the CEESAT, we are always looking for research that serves a purpose outside the laboratory,” says Dr. Premalatha. The department is headed by Dr. G. Swaminathan, an expert in bio process and environmental geo technique.

The most recent example of this kind of work has been to improve air quality by using algae. “Algae have a major role in photosynthesis – which uses light energy and carbon dioxide - but are very hard to grow. If the alga grows at a higher rate, it will absorb more carbon dioxide, and thereby help us in controlling air pollution,” she says.

The carbon sequestration project, which is in its second phase now, uses a native species of algae that grows in open sunlight and is acclimatised to absorbing more concentrated CO2. The centre is planning to set up a shed to grow the algae outside the lab.

Two students of CEESAT are working on a solar-powered method to treat effluents. “Solar energy gadgets are costly right now because they use copper as a base material of construction. If we shift over to high density poly-ethylene, which is easily available at a lower cost, we could get the same effect of copper,” says Dr. Premalatha.

“Our work should be useful not just for publishing papers, but also for practical application,” says Dr. Premalatha. “It is also important to keep an open mind about the results of research rather than abandoning a project because it doesn’t meet your expectations of the outcome.”

Making a mark

Science, especially chemical engineering, is often seen as a male-dominated field. But the barriers have been crumbling steadily, feels Dr. Premalatha. “Most industries do specify that they don’t want women candidates for on-the-plant jobs,” she admits. “And while I took up an apprentice engineer’s position for a year at the Trichy Distilleries and Chemicals Limited in 1992-93, just as a challenge, it was a strenuous job.”

It was while working at the distillery’s ‘mother plant’ (where the alcohol is produced) as an apprentice plant engineer after graduating with a B.Tech (Chemical Engineering) from Bharathidasan University, that she decided to enrol for a part-time M.Tech course at the Regional Engineering College. “I used to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., then take a bus to reach the campus (around 20kms away from the city) by 6 p.m. From 6 p.m to 9 p.m., I would study, and then return to my room in a working women’s hostel at near the BHEL township in Kailasapuram,” she recalls.

Dr. Premalatha went on to work as a lecturer and also enrolled for her doctoral degree at the R.E.C. She has been an associate professor with the CEESAT since 2005.

She credits her progressive parents for the success that she and her siblings (she has a sister and two brothers) have seen in their life. “My parents were always motivating us to do something useful for society,” she says. “My mother used to say that education can never get destroyed.”

The most sophisticated of schools can turn out the dullest of students, warns this mother of two kids. “What teachers and parents should do is to teach the children how to accept success and failure with a positive attitude.”

Dedicated to research

As a woman, she feels that the gender bias has diminished since her student days. “Research is not time-bound, so it is ideal for women,” she says. “But since it’s not a 9 to 5 job, research has to become a part of you, your life. Your family has to be really accommodating about the late hours you will have to keep on projects.”

However, the diversion of engineering graduates of all disciplines into the more lucrative information technology industry has resulted in the shortage of female research scholars, feels Dr. Premalatha. “Girls nowadays have the same opportunities as boys in education. It’s up to them to pursue their subject and shine in it.”

Besides this, many corporations are reluctant to implement the results of research projects due to budget issues or an in-built scepticism. “Many companies do have an amount set aside for R&D, but how much they use the work of research institutions is not known,” says Dr. Premalatha. “What we need is a platform that will bridge this research-to-industry gap and encourage the adoption of clean energy.”

It’s also important to see research as a continuum, says Dr. Premalatha. “There is no senior or junior in research,” she says. “It has to be a group effort, and even someone who joined yesterday can contribute to it because each person has a unique way of thinking.”