Madhu Kaushik is the Vice-President of Vera Inkjet. She received her PhD in Chemistry from McGill University. Her research experience includes inkjet fluids, drug discovery, nanotechnology, material sciences and sustainability. Besides research, she loves to learn about business and operations, which led her to do an internship at Deloitte during her postdoctorate. When she is not juggling between her roles of being a researcher and a businesswoman, she loves to cook, dance and play with her toddler son. Researching problems systematically and finding creative and innovative solutions is her passion.
Q: Let’s start with a big, huge question: why did you decide to do a PhD in chemistry?
I decided so long ago that now I don’t even remember. [laughs] I come from a very middle class Indian family. And back in those times, education for girls was not a priority. However, my parents decided to give me a good education. And part of that plan was that I should be highly educated and independent in any field I chose. So for them, I had to be a doctor, but which field, I could choose for myself.
I always loved to know how things work, especially in chemistry and in part, it’s because of my chemistry teachers. So after my Master’s, I worked in drug discovery for about five years. And then I thought, okay, maybe I should go ahead and do my PhD.
Q: Was part of it related to the types of jobs you wanted to have?
Yes—on the professional side, you’re not given full responsibility just because you have a Master’s. Sometimes a new PhD would join the group and would have an independent research project, and that got me frustrated.
And that’s when I realized that maybe I should just listen to my parents and finish my degree.
Q: Did you find it difficult then to come back? Some people say when you start working and you come back to school, they find it challenging. Was that the case for you?
It was. McGill asks you to do some coursework and write exams, and all of those things were stressful. Thankfully, I was married, but I didn’t have a family with kids and all, so that helped me a lot, as I had all the time to myself for studying.
The other thing is that most of the research, to be honest, is very incremental and doesn’t have real-time implications. In industry, you work very hard and there are deadlines and you sweat over them and you get used to it. So after that stress for me, the PhD wasn’t that stressful.
Q: Why did you choose Montreal and McGill?
When I started to apply, I chose Canada over the US because of personal reasons: Canada sponsors work permits for your spouse, and the US doesn’t. Then, I applied to the top universities, and they all accepted me, but I chose McGill because I wanted to be in a French environment. Other places, everyone speaks English, it’s not as European, and I really wanted to expose myself to a new culture as well, so McGill was the best option.
Q: How did you find the sense of community and mentorship once you were here?
I can’t stress it enough, how important it is to have good mentorship and a good friend network to survive in a PhD program. On a personal basis, I had left my home. My husband came with me, but in India, we used to live in a joint family, extended family. And then you come here and you feel lonely. And it got me. I joined in fall of 2010 and I booked my tickets back to India twice. I was like, I’m leaving the PhD, I need to go back.
In the first research group I joined, somehow, there was no connection amongst the students. Our research supervisor was perfect, but was not a very warm person. She was supportive, but very professional and cold. So she would discuss research things, but never ask me how I’m doing on the personal side, like that I might be feeling lonely, or how am I struggling through my first winter in Montreal.
So then my mother, I told her on Skype that I’m coming back, and she’s like, “Why do you want to come back? You worked so hard to get into McGill, get the scholarships and now you’re there.” And it’s like…I don’t feel good. I went through a bit of a low phase, and that’s when she suggested, “Why don’t you just try to change your research group?”
When I came in, I chose a research group based on what I was doing before and their publications. So I talked to the graduate coordinator of our department and she was a lifesaver. I did a lot more homework in choosing my next supervisor, talking to students already in the lab, and the new group was totally different—the students were like friends, it was very multicultural, and they introduced me to activities and people outside of the lab. And my supervisor, Dr. Audrey Moores, was not only professional, but also very warm. That’s the kind of relationship which motivated me to stay here and then finish my PhD.
Q: Did the change in topic change the type of job that you were aiming for afterwards, or were you still aiming for a particular job and you just needed the PhD?
It was really organic. At first, I wanted to go back to the drug discovery company I was working for. I never had the intention to stay in Canada. When I changed, I thought, I’ll figure this out later, let’s see what happens. But by the time I was a second-year student, I was doing a lot more extracurricular activities, and this is another thing which I cannot emphasize enough: a PhD is not just about research. It’s more about soft skills. You learn how to do research, but you also learn about starting from scratch on any topic, making things happen in short frames of time, multi-tasking, negotiating with collaborators—all soft skills that can be applied to other fields.
My supervisor saw that I had a really good business sense, and pushed me to network with consulting firms, like BCG, McKinsey, and so on in my second or third year. I was enjoying what I was doing—some business models and some science—and in my final year, I started to look for internships and I got an internship from Deloitte. I did a presentation about why hire a PhD instead of an MBA. Nothing against an MBA, but I already acquired soft skills through my PhD, I don’t need to go through it again. As for other business-specific terms and theories, I can always take targeted courses. Finally, they said yes but didn’t have funding for the internship. For that I applied for a scholarship through the CCVC, who paid for my internship at Deloitte.
Q: On that topic, can you talk about their present company and your current role?
Vera Inkjet is a small company— just four people when I joined in 2018. At present, we are 11 and will be 16 by the end of this year. Our primary business activity is the Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SRED) of Inkjet Fluids. Our proprietary technology and knowledge have direct applications to the greater Functional Inkjet Fluids industry. We make water-based products for applications which would conventionally use either screen-based dye printing or UV inks, both of which are not sustainable. And it’s not just ink, it’s about fluids, involving amazing physics and chemistry. It’s very fascinating science, and I didn’t know about it until I was interviewed.
I was brought in specifically to build up and expand R&D. We develop the product and then our collaborative partners take over for sales and distribution. We do the science and then sell it.
Q: So what is your role in all this? What is a typical day?
It’s a small company, so I’m responsible for a little bit of everything. Fifty percent of my time is planning research projects and reaching out to potential new collaborators. The rest is meetings, some production, managing the supply chain, risk mitigation, reading patents and papers…Broadly, I manage a little bit of everything in the company, but R&D, that’s my key focus area.
Right now, my job might sound stressful, but it’s very fulfilling, too, because I get to wear so many hats, not just for R&D. I look into shipping. I look into operations. There is a new challenge each day! And even if it is fast-paced and stressful, you feel fulfilled, because you also see real-life applications! I loved my PhD research, but it stays in published papers – no one is using it actively. At Vera Inkjet, you can experience the immediate impacts of your research in real life.
Q: How did you get your current job?
The president of the company found me on LinkedIn; he was looking for someone who could be the head of R&D, and at the same time have some business sense. He asked me for an exploratory chat over a cup of coffee. But I wasn’t even looking for a job—my son was four months old at that time (December 2017) and I was on mat leave. I went anyway, because I love to network and talk to people. I told him that after mat leave, I was going to go into consulting. He said no, consulting is boring and you have to work hundreds of hours a week. If you come to work for Vera Inkjet, you will be doing both science and business, you’ll have flexible hours, you’ll only travel when you want to, and you can work from home. He wanted me to start tomorrow, and I suggested April  and he agreed—it was like a dream job interview.
Q: This has been an amazing story! Do you have any advice for people in the PhD, looking for jobs?
Reach out to people. I love to give back because I have gotten so much from reaching out. Of course, don’t just reach out to ask “I want a job, can you help me?” Remember that it is a give-and-take. Be specific and relevant in why you’re reaching out; don’t be random. Both of you can learn a lot from these conversations. And don’t get demotivated if someone declines or doesn’t seem to like you—you can’t please everyone right?
Many thanks to Madhu for sharing her narrative! You can find her on LinkedIn and see more about Vera Inkjet here.
This interview took place in May 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.