Adya Karthikeyan, Senior Research Engineer

Adya Karthikeyan completed her PhD in Chemical Engineering in 2018. In her thesis research, she developed a method for improving boiling heat transfer using stable nanofluid and laser textured surfaces. Today, she is a Senior Research Engineer at Saint-Gobain Research in Chennai, India. She will soon be relocating to Montreal to pursue a postdoctoral position at Polytechnique in the hopes of achieving her dreams of becoming a chemical engineering professor.

Q: Let’s start with this: how did you decide to do a PhD? 

As a school student, I really wanted to do engineering and I loved chemistry. So, in the process of searching for engineering branches, I came across chemical engineering, which at that time wasn’t a field promoted for women. It was always “oh no, women shouldn’t be going to chemical engineering, it’s not going to be safe,” etc. But I really wanted to do it given my love for “process of manufacturing”.

After my chemical engineering degree, I joined a nuclear power plant in India and started working in the steam supply systems commissioning team where it was 99% men. It was quite challenging to overcome the bias. Meanwhile, I was also pursuing my Master’s project at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center connected to the Atomic Energy Department in India. My project was modelling simulation work of employing nanofluids for heat transfer in nuclear reactors. That’s exactly when I understood my passion for research and decided that I really needed to go for a PhD where I could do hands-on research.

Q: How did funding impact your decision to start a PhD? 

I was selected for the MEDA scholarship when I applied for the PhD—it was for three years, which was good and bad. Knowing that it was for three years made me think I had to finish in three years. It did give me a little bit of stress. But I’m honestly so thankful. If I didn’t have this funding, I wouldn’t have gone for a PhD. I tried applying to some schools in the United States as well, but I was only offered 50% funding. I was clear, “if I’m going for a PhD, I want 100% funding”, and McGill did that for me. 

Q: How did teaching fit into your professional development? Did you get opportunities to teach during your PhD?

I actually got the opportunity to guide some internship students at the power plant—guiding them through their project, helping them, teaching them, and doing very short lectures at the nuclear training centre. I realized I love teaching. So I thought I’d change my career path and go do a PhD and become a professor. I think that was my biggest motivation to go for a PhD.

Teaching is something I am really excited about, and wish to pursue as my career. I really did not know that PhD students could actually give lectures. Every semester I got one TAship and I enjoyed them so much. It gave me the opportunity to realize how my industrial experience helps in teaching chemical engineering to undergraduates. 

Q: What were the biggest challenges for you in finishing your PhD and what helped you overcome them? 

I think I’m more of an experimental person. I really like to be on the move, trying new things, going to the lab, doing experiments and finding out stuff. But I found it really hard to sit down and write…and you know, writing is very important in a PhD. I really struggled through it. 

Initially, I was terrible at writing. My PhD proposal was a riot. I’m sure [my supervisors] Sylvain and Anne would agree with me, because it was bad. It was really bad. So they advised me to take this writing course offered by McGill, and I started writing my first paper. There was a point where Anne, she sat with me, went through my paper, and showed me what exactly was my problem. That changed me. Literally, that really changed me. She really showed me things like areas where I wrote a word twice and it never caught my eyes. She was like “Did you even proofread this before sending it to me?” and I was like “of course I did!” Then she showed me the issues and I was like “wait…what is wrong with me?” Also, Sylvain definitely helped me notice I was jumping between verb tenses, which happens when you are explaining what you did in the lab and writing a hypothesis. 

Adya reflects on how the support of her supervisors helped improve her writing skills.

What helped me was to listen to what was written. I used the “read aloud” option in word, or I would just copy paste small paragraphs into Google Translate and ask it to read it to me. When I listened, I could catch my mistakes and say “That doesn’t sound right. I should probably rephrase the sentence.” It all sounds so easy now!

Q: You mentioned your two supervisors. What other roles did they play during your PhD?  

Sylvain really taught me to be very independent in research. I think the freedom he gave me was amazing. I would have biweekly meetings with him and he would never tell me “this is what you need to do next.” Never. He would ask me, “what would you do next?” I really am thankful to him for that because that helped me to think and develop my creativity. 

From Anne, I learned that “putting a 100% in what you do is possible, and yes you can be 100% sincere”. The other thing she taught me was to be very systematic. She used to make us submit weekly reports of our research and plan for the next week. Honestly, sitting down every Saturday evening or Sunday night to look at what I did the last week and how I should go about the next, I am sure helped me really be on track in my PhD. 

Q: What was it like once you finished your PhD? 

I was applying to postdocs across the globe just as I was submitting my thesis. Some of them looked 100% promising, and even Anne and Sylvain were saying “yes you’re definitely going to get this”, but none of that worked. But…

In my first or second year of my PhD, I used to do contact angle measurements. Anne put me in touch with a postdoc in another group so I could help her with the stuff that she was doing. We’d say “Hi” and “Bye” and that was basically the relationship, but we kept in touch even after she left McGill. 

Years later she came back for one of the Research Days at the Polytechnique. She was there with her colleague to set up a booth to talk about Saint-Gobain and look for people from McGill interested in working with them. She told me I should fill the forms even though I wouldn’t be graduating for another year. “It’s ok. They will still contact you.” So I wrote to them and they asked me for an interview—which I didn’t take at that time. 

When I did start looking for jobs a year later, I messaged her on LinkedIn, and she connected me to the Saint-Gobain Research Center in India. I had no idea that they had a research center in India, in Chennai—the same city where I wanted to go. I was called for an interview two months after I came to India and got the job. 

So I would like to say to the people currently in their PhDs, build your network! You never know who will help you. 

Q: That’s great. I’ll ask you a final question then. Is there something you wish you knew before starting your PhD? 

I really didn’t have to stress out that much [laughing]. Things will work in the end. I think we all know that, but when you go through it, it’s just “why is it not working? I want to make it work!” The amount of frustration that you go through, it’s incredible. I knew I shouldn’t have stressed out that much. I think my supervisors helped me with that. At some point they would say “you know what? It’s OK. You can take it easy.” Luckily it went really well and it was an amazing journey. 

If I look back at all the degrees I’ve earned or any studies that I’ve done, I think the PhD was the best. Those days were amazing. Go to the lab, try whatever you want…I miss those days! 

Many thanks to Adya for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find out more about her on LinkedIn.

This interview took place in June 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.