Talk with Dr. Kanchan Dutta (Product Engineer)

This week, we introduce you to Kanchan Dutta, a competent and experienced chemical engineer. He is an alumnus of the University of Calcutta and Indian Institute of Technology (Kanpur) with a B.Tech and a M.Tech in Chemical Engineering, respectively. Furthermore, he has achieved his Ph.D. in ChemE from McGill University in 2020.

Besides a strong and impressive educational background, Kanchan also has strong experience working within the industry. He started his career as a Process Engineer at Air Liquide, then as a Design Engineer and Sr. R & R&D Engineer at Honeywell India Technology Center. After he finished his Ph.D., he is currently working as a Product Engineer at Abbott Point of Care in Canada. Hence, he has a strong understanding of ChemE core topics and their industrial applications.

His Ph.D. was focused on catalytic and process engineering while working within the Catalytic Process Engineering Laboratory at McGill University. His work involved developing a new class (nitride) of catalysts for direct non-oxidative methane conversion. He also established a new laboratory and involved ideation, design, purchasing parts and equipment, assembling, fabricating, testing, and modifying equipment.

Given his strong experience within the field and impressive educational background, we were lucky to get a chance to talk to him. So do read his answers below to learn from his experience and know more about him.


How was the workload of your degree? What did you spend most time on?

The workload for my degree was equivalent to the workload for project management. With support from my supervisor, I managed my Ph.D. project. During my doctoral studies, I had the opportunity to start a laboratory from scratch. It was the second time that I established a new laboratory in my research and development career. The work involved ideation, design (on paper), purchasing parts and equipment, assembling, fabricating, testing, and modifying (if needed). I was intimately involved in developing his Catalytic Process Engineering (CPE, now Catalytic & Plasma Process Engineering, CPPE) laboratory at McGill University. When I started, I was given a research proposal, which my supervisor wrote for Quebec's FRQNT grant. In addition to the grant proposal, there was a paper where our collaborator from McGill's Chemistry department reported a promising catalytic material. My supervisor entrusted me with my experience in catalyst and reactor design and gave me the freedom to plan my research. My challenge was two parts: first was to deal with a thermodynamically difficult chemical reaction (direct non-oxidative methane activation to ethylene), and second, was to make a novel, economically viable, and industrially relevant catalyst with the promising material. These challenges were dealt with in the design of experiments. However, I needed to design and fabricate the experimental setup for carrying out these experiments. Using the steps mentioned above, I designed and fabricated two catalyst synthesis setups and carried out the experiments.

I planned the experiments, managed the project, and delivered the results. In the process, I mentored two undergrad students and two master students. The results so far are five publications in peer-reviewed journals and one provisional patent application. These results enabled my supervisor to secure one industrial collaboration with NSERC Collaborative Research and Development Grant). My Ph.D. research proposal helped me get awarded Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarship and FRQNT Doctoral research scholarship. These results also established the methane activation group in the CPE lab.

Was there a lot of chemistry in your curriculum?

Yes, Chemistry was an important subject for my research career, along with reaction engineering and thermodynamics. I have a bachelor's degree with Chemistry honors along with chemical engineering. While ideating, innovating a new concept, I look into the chemistry of the process, try elucidating the reaction mechanism. As a chemical engineer, I think of the downstream processes and equipment needed after the reaction. One can carry out a reaction to make a desirable product. However, one should also ask about the yield, conversion, selectivity, ease of separation, heat effects.

What topics did you find the most difficult during your degree?

I enjoyed my student life thoroughly. Every topic has its challenge, but there's always a way to learn about these topics. Instead of saying "most difficult," I would prefer saying "where I gave most effort." Giving most effort does not necessarily mean most difficult. One gives more effort to learn more about a complex topic they are getting hold of with each learning step. More are the number of steps; more is the effort. In my opinion, it becomes "difficult" when one gets stuck at a step and/or give-up. I put the most effort into understanding reaction mechanisms and catalyst analysis processes (e.g., XRD, XPS, Solid-State NMR, FTIR). One unique challenge was: what to do when something did not work the way it was supposed to according to the scientific analysis based on which the experiment was designed, and that is what research is. The most exciting part of research work is venturing into uncertain and unknown zones.

What line did you choose to focus during your degree? Why?

Reaction Engineering, thermodynamics, and catalysis: one cannot separate them. They are highly intertwined. I was a process design engineer for five years, becoming a research and development engineer. I have worked on commercial reactions like hydrotreating-hydrocracking, hydrogenation, dehydrogenation, processes producing renewable transportation fuels. The subjects mentioned above were an intimate part of these processes, enabling me to choose a research topic accordingly.

Did you get your degree from your home country or did you go abroad? if yes, from where to where? How did you do it?

I completed my bachelor's in science with Chemistry and bachelor's in technology, and master's in chemical engineering from my home country, India. Then, I worked in the industry for 10 years before moving to Canada to pursue my doctoral studies at McGill University.

How did you get your Ph.D. offer? How can future BSc/MSc students prepare themselves for Ph.D. tenure?

I was moving to Canada as a permanent resident in 2016. After working in the industry for 10 years, equally divided between engineering and research, I decided to go back to school to pursue my doctoral studies. Direct methane conversion is one of the big exploratory research topics in the industry. I started looking for professors in Canadian Universities who were working in this particular field. After an initial interview and discussion, I was hired by Dr. Kopyscinski as his second Ph.D. student but the first student in the field of methane conversion. That is how I came in contact with Dr. Kopyscinski and learned about his collaboration in developing a new class (nitride) of catalytic material for direct methane conversion.

Before approaching a professor, carefully check their profile, work, and requirements on their website (if available). When approaching a professor, state quantitatively what you bring to contribute to the research interests of their lab and how it helps you learn more. Share your grades (if possible transcripts) and do not discuss other research interests (unless asked). Be concise and precise in your application. Ph.D. needs a lot of dedication, perseverance, patience, not just technical knowledge. One has to learn multiple new skills, be open-minded and learn these skills. Don't expect someone else will do the work for you, and you will only supervise/monitor the work. Like my mentor used to say, "get your hands dirty if you want to fix and clean." There will be times when nothing works, but one has to stay put. Also, have an enriching personal life outside your Ph.D. work; it helps focus on your work when you return the next day to rethink the research.

Did you have student jobs during or between your education? How did you get them? Where did you work? How did it help your education or future career?

During my Doctoral studies, I worked as a teaching assistant (TA) at McGill University. I worked as a tutor, lab demonstrator, grader and also set up two undergrad laboratory experiments. My work as a TA brought out the educator inside me, enhanced my demonstrating capability, and brought me back to my memories when I was one of the undergrad students. The work helped me get in touch with the topics I don't encounter much daily. I had to go through these topics before I tutored anyone. It is very well said: if an expert is taking 1 hour to solve a problem, a learning student will probably take more than 1 hour to do the same. It sets the expectations at the right place and deals with the difficulties students face accordingly and justly.

Work Experience

What was your first job after graduation and how did you get it?

I started as a Process Engineer at Air Liquide (formerly Lurgi) in India. I got this job through the campus recruitment process in 2005.

Which industry do you work in? How long have you been in this industry?

Currently, I am working in the medical device industry. I have been working in this industry for one year. It is a major career change in my life, greatly motivated by the global pandemic, and I am enjoying every bit of it.

What is your official title and in what company?

I am a Product Engineer at Abbott.

What is your daily work routine like? What do you do at your job?

Biannual medical device calibration to ensure correct performance to meet Abbott's purpose is to help people live their best through better health; Designing experiments for the continuous betterment of devices and processes; Keep oneself update as per regulatory requirements update.

What are the typical tasks which you have to deal with?

My work involves contributing to the biannual team project supporting sensor calibration for Global Software Release for the coveted Abbott's i-STAT medical device. I Design experiments, analyze and interpret data for calibration, and root cause analysis for existing problems. Cross-functional coordination is one of the key skills required for this job: e.g., experimental building assembly builds with the manufacturing team. Good communication skills through writing and presentation is another skill: e.g., writing device calibration records, writing engineering reports for the results of an experimental design, and presenting the findings to the cross-functional team.

What hard and soft skills are the most important for your job?

Mathematics, especially statistical analysis, Chemistry, Fluid mechanics, regulatory requirements; Thermodynamics and Electrochemistry; effective communication skills; foster teamwork; time and project management. Some knowledge of biology helps a lot.

What is the best thing about your job?

I am contributing towards meeting Abbott's purpose is to help people live their best through better health. Along with this goal, Abbott is also committed to protecting the environment and seeks the most sustainable ways to deliver life-changing technologies to people worldwide.

Is there any need for programming languages and special programs at your workplace?

Not yet, but talks are going on. I can't write about it until it's official.

Which topics from your degree do you use the most on the workplace?

Mathematics, Statistical analysis, Chemistry, Fluid mechanics, Biology (basic physiology).

How easy was it for you to change company and/or jobs if any?

I had a very steep learning curve when I started at Abbott in 2020. With a very effective training plan and wonderfully helpful people, I learned fast.

What are you future plans for your career?

At this moment, I am learning a lot every passing day. I like to call it "to be on my toes," which motivates me a lot. My main goal is to become a subject matter expert (SME) in what I am doing.

Any suggestions for future graduates? Something they should be doing while they are still in university getting their degree.

Focus on what you like to do professionally and personally. Try maintaining a decent grade because while you might be bright, you will be judged on your grades when you compete with many students, and the recruiter doesn't have prior knowledge of your talents. Networking is important. Get connected to people who are like-minded and pursue what you want to do. If you like what you do, you will do wonders. Find time for yourself; do not ake your work your regret for not achieving in your personal life. E.g., I have been learning French for three years. I started late, and now I can communicate "en français," I cannot practice enough because I interact mostly with the anglophones.

What skills should they focus on during university years?

I would focus on soft skills. A common saying is, "soft skills are hard to learn." One can be trained technically if one has some basic skills acquired through education, but soft skills need practice. Good communication skills (presentation, writing, speaking one to one, to a group); Ability to work in a team, volunteer to help even if that might not be your part; Take a lead where no one is volunteering and enable your team to finish the task. Learn about other cultures and travel to a different country (if you can): this will make you a better learned and aware person.

"Don't focus or worry too much about which you have no control. I am still trying to learn this skill to focus my attention on what I can control; Also, be kind, and you will have kinder people around you."
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