IWD 2021: Learning from Women in Energy

This International Women’s Day, we spoke to two South Asian women in our community who are working to advance the energy transition in the face of global challenges.

Vrindaa Somjit, PhD student, MIT Materials Science and Engineering

Tell us a little about your current research and its renewable energy applications. What has led you to pursue a PhD with an energy focus?

I use computational methods to design improved aluminum oxide-based materials for use as corrosion barriers and electrolytes in next-generation electronic devices. Aluminum oxide coatings can protect pipeline steels from hydrogen embrittlement. These can enable the use of the current extensive pipeline network for hydrogen gas storage and transmission, accelerating our transition to a renewable energy future. Aluminum oxide can also be used as an electrolyte in resistive switching devices, which form the basis of hardware neural networks. These devices hold great promise to reduce the time and energy consumption (and thereby the carbon footprint) of deep neural network training.

Pursuing a PhD with an energy focus just came about naturally. During my undergraduate degree in metallurgical and materials engineering, I realized that it’s hard to disentangle materials and energy - energy is such a fundamental requirement for civilization, and stronger/faster/durable materials enable the harnessing and use of this energy - so that’s how I’m here!

What book are you currently reading?

I have just started reading Robert Iger’s book, The Ride of a Lifetime. I love MIT and being around the wonderful and brilliant people that make it - but sometimes I feel as though I’m in a bubble, which is comforting for the most part but can also get overwhelming! That’s why I try to regularly make time to read something outside the science-heavy bubble I am a part of. Robert Iger was Disney’s CEO for 15 years, and under him, Disney went through multiple significant changes and acquisitions. I picked this book up because the sheer longevity of his career is inspiring (he has been in the field of entertainment for 45 years!), and I am curious about the kind of decisions CEOs need to make and how they adapt to keep their companies relevant with changing times. It has been a candid and pleasant read so far!

What advice would you have for young women interested in pursuing higher degrees in the energy field?

There are so many energy-related challenges yet to be addressed. These range from understanding the life cycles of the materials that we use in our energy devices and daily lives, to inventing efficient ways to convert, store, and distribute energy, to passing better policies to ensure that the benefits reach everyone. More often than not, when disaster strikes, it is women and other marginalized groups who are disproportionately affected. By joining the energy field, you can add to the diversity of voices creating the next technological breakthrough and advocating for change. Multiple challenges imply multiple opportunities - pick an area that inspires you, and dig deep!

Suchismita Sanyal, General Manager, Computational Science at Shell

What led you to pursue a career in energy?

Growing up in urban India, it was common to face occasional bouts of “load shedding”. I was a kid then, and curious about why there would be a power outage same time of the day almost every day. This is when my mom explained about the growing energy demand and the grid being unable to keep up with it. She also mentioned that there would be other parts of the country who face this more occasionally, for longer times, including places which have no electricity at all. Sweating in the sultry summers of Calcutta with power outages leading to no fans or AC, that left an impression in my mind early on, something that I resolved to change within my capacity. During my days in engineering and further during my stints at the world’s largest energy companies, I fueled my curiosity in this space to learn more about the materials and systems that shape the world of energy. And now it has become my mainstream job: my fascination with the developments in this field continue. I feel humbled to be able to do my bit to address issues of energy access and intermittency while catering to the burgeoning demands of energy across the globe, a large part of which is around my own country.

What book are you currently reading?

History and anthropology always fascinate me. I had Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer prize-winning book Guns, Germs & Steel at home and triggered by the recent pandemic, I have started reading it now. It’s an amazing narrative of the world history and how it has evolved over the past 13,000 years to shift power-centers and dominions as an interesting interplay of biology, ecology, and linguistics. My biggest learning was how evolution of maladies have a huge role to play in shaping the world politics and demographics today, in addition to infrastructural and technological developments. The book is 20+ years old, and its fascinating to see similarities of the recent pandemic with the ones that have shaped history.

What advice would you have for young women interested in pursuing a career in the energy sector?

As Winston Churchill puts it: “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away”. I believe that having a career in energy gives you the unique opportunity to do both. To have a rich, fulfilling career, as well as to give back to the society via the work you do, in a meaningful, purposeful way. My advice to young women interested in pursuing a career in energy would be to build your fundamentals on a strong foundation, and then, most importantly, bring it home. Energy touches every person around us in some way or the other, a space where technological advancements when merged with creative contextualization brings in societal good, so continually think, “How is my work today going to benefit people that need this product/service the most?”. Fortunately, there are lots of avenues available now, lots of support from the energy companies, governments, social welfare organizations, so leverage all these to have the most rewarding and fulfilling career of your lifetime!