It was our pleasure to interview Dr. Anuja Kenekar and learn about her work, research, ideologies and future plans. Having completed her PhD in India, Dr. Anuja has been working with Organica Biotechnology as the Deputy Manager of Inventions and Innovations for 6 years now. Her inspiring career in environmental biotechnology can navigate those intending to choose this field and work for our country. Moreover, her views on the current environmental crisis and quick green solutions are quite refreshing. Read her interview below, and learn more about environmental biotechnology!
You have completed your PhD in Biotechnology. Tell us about your thesis and your experience of pursuing a PhD in India.
I carried out my doctoral dissertation under the guidance of the very talented and inspiring Dr. Manjushri Deodhar. The project was based on environmental bioremediation using microalgae. Microalgae are these fantastic microscopic beings that have the ability to utilize carbon dioxide and turn it into nutritious biomass and an array of valuable by-products. This is of critical importance in the treatment of industrial effluent gases as they contain copious amounts of CO2. Dr. Deodhar’s group has done some path breaking work in the field of microalgal biotechnology, not just in terms of CO2 sequestration, but also in developing several novel value-added products for the biofuel, cosmetic and nutraceutical industries.
Every PhD experience is unique in itself, but here are my two bits on my experience. As a Mumbai girl, I decided to pursue my degree with the University of Mumbai. I joined Dr. Deodhar’s group right after my post-graduation. While my experience working with my guide was gratifying, my experience with the University of Mumbai left a lot to be desired. Overall, my advice to students considering doing a PhD (in India or abroad) would be to choose your University as carefully as you would consider choosing your guide. Your PhD experience should be peppered with obstacles in your bench work & thesis, not the overall administrative process. Lastly, choose a problem that interests you, not that has been bestowed upon you. You are investing the most important years of your life when you work for your PhD, make sure it is worth the ride!
You are currently working at Organica Biotech. What is the company’s profile and what are your responsibilities there?
Organica Biotech Pvt. Ltd. (Est. 2000) is a Mumbai based Environmental Biotech Company. We create & innovate organic, eco-friendly and sustainable solutions for agriculture, waste water management, sanitation and hygiene, solid waste management, aquaculture and animal healthcare, both nationally and internationally. Being a part of Organica Biotech has given me the chance to be part of a movement towards preserving the planet. There is nothing more singularly important for our generation than to acknowledge that we are on the cusp of irreversible damage due to environmental atrocities and work cohesively towards finding effective solutions to stop and reverse the damage done.
I work as a Research Scientist in the Inventions and Innovation Department. I have been a part of the I&I department at Organica Biotech for 6 years now. Since the day I joined, not a day has passed that I’ve not learned something new and exciting. I am currently working in the position of Deputy Manager, so my responsibilities include both handling live projects and helping out my team when they need it.
The Inventions and Innovations Team focuses on two aspects. First, we develop novel, simple, elegant and cost-effective products and solutions to combat environmental issues that the world is facing. Secondly, we are on the continuous look-out to improve existing products in terms of efficacy because we truly believe that there are two things: imagination and improvement. That is exactly why we are the Inventions and Innovations team and not the ‘Research and Development’ Team.
You work in sectors like agriculture and waste water remediation. How sophisticated is the current technology to tackle the crisis our country is facing? Can you share some treatment methods and agricultural strategies?
Technology has grown by quantum leaps over the past decade. Who would’ve thought ten years ago, that a non-descript drone hovering in the air could predict disease infliction, nutritional deficiencies using artificial intelligence? A technology like this could save a farmer from losing his entire farm due to nipping disease spread in the bud, reducing the use of pesticide based on paranoia and heresay, the benefits are limitless. However, we must ask ourselves how accessible this technology is to an average Indian farmer today. The average monthly income of an Indian farmer in 2018-2019 was Rs. 10,000/-. We need another revolution in agriculture today and the initiative must be from the Government. Subsiding effective technology and making it accessible to EVERY farmer is the need of the hour.
From the Industry’s perspective, there needs to be more focus on making products and solutions – easy to implement and cost effective. Another lacuna that we face is lack of knowledge and awareness. Educating the farmers about advances must come hand in hand with products and services. From the farmers’ point of view, their strategy must involve thinking outside the box of tradition. I don’t choose sides between inorganic and organic farming, I believe the best solution is to adopt the best of both worlds and apply our own ingenuity and experience. Something as simple as switching from monocropping to multicropping can have profoundly positive effects on productivity. So, we must think on those lines as well.
Similarly, for wastewater technology, you will find great developments in technology. Unfortunately, wastewater treatment is a sore spot for the industrial sector in India. That is why only the bare minimum is done to satiate regulatory bodies and law enforcement. But until more stringent norms are applied and enforced, technological developments in this arena are not going to be of much use to us.
You have also mentored Masters and Undergraduate students for their final year dissertations. What kind of opportunities are available at your organization for students to pursue?
We do provide students pursuing their Master’s degree the opportunity to work on their final year dissertation with us. We also provide training opportunities to students under the DBT- BITP scheme, a partnership between the Department of Biotechnology, Govt. of India and industries to provide a platform to undergraduate and graduate student to pursue training that could possibly result in employment opportunities as well. My team and I also join hands with colleges and universities and provide our inputs as Board of Studies Members in order to help improve the curriculum of Biotechnology and Microbiology students. We encourage Universities to work in collaboration with us in order to do our part in bridging the Industrial – Academic Interface. We at Organica Biotech believe that our students are our future and that’s why we try and play an active role in providing students opportunities wherever possible. The company also provides internships to students pursuing their MBA in Agribusiness Management as well.
The world is facing major environmental disasters this year. From oil spills in Mauritius to California Fire to Assam flood… 2020 has been a nightmare. How majorly are we lacking in terms of awareness, action and preparedness; what is the SOP that governments should be following to deal with such a crisis?
Honestly, this year has been nothing short of terrifying in terms of environmental disasters. Everything that has happened is because we have blatantly abused our natural resources over the past century. World leaders and organisations have been looking at 2050 as our make or break year, I think we are already experiencing it. Different nations in the world are taking this with different levels of seriousness. According to me, the Scandinavian countries have done the most amount of work in moving towards a more sustainable lifestyle. India is lagging too far behind for comfort. I wouldn’t say there is any SOP as such but I truly believe that no matter which side / party forms a Government in any country, the singular objective for everybody should be to be on the same side in terms of saving our planet. How will it matter what side we are on once everything is destroyed?
Applications like hydroponics and smart composting is something we can do in our homes to contribute to the environment. Can you please elaborate on these, and talk about some other “Start from your own home” techniques that people can employ without much hassle?
Yes, contrary to popular belief there are many things we can do sitting in the comfort of our homes to support our environment. For the green thumbs out there, a simple hydroponics system or a traditional terrace garden can do so much. You can harvest your own organic produce and also learn to appreciate the difficulty that comes with growing food. Composting is not just a science, it’s an art. I know a lot of people fail miserably when they try their hand at this. It is mainly because there aren’t enough resources available out there to help you through the process. Organica Biotech is trying to change all that by providing insightful knowledge resources out there for everybody to learn from. Once you make your own compost, use it to nourish your garden. Not just this, if you are an arts and crafts aficionado, you can try your hand at upcycling non-biodegradable waste into something of value, and have a lot of fun in the process. Create safe havens for butterflies, bees and birds by growing flowers, making your own bird bath and feeder. These things can help bring friends, family and community together and that too, for a beautiful cause.
Simple daily chores like using nature friendly products to clean our homes instead of harsh cleaning chemicals, reducing the use of one-time- use plastics, segregating waste, reducing food wastage, giving old clothes and utensils to charity instead of throwing them away. Frugal living is the also something that I strongly believe in and can help end this vicious cycle of consumerism.
As a career, what options are available for students who wish to pursue environmental Biotechnology?
There are a lot of upcoming companies in the field of wastewater treatment, next generation agriculture, plant-based foods, waste management today. I am so proud to see the young generation flex their entrepreneurial muscle and take the path least tread. It signifies a shift in thinking from the herd mentality to thinking for yourself. My only advice would be not to aim for a company but align yourself mentally and emotionally to a mission in life. The excitement and glamour of a new job will certainly wear away, but if you have an objective set for yourself, work will never be boring.
Lastly, what are your future plans? How do you think you can contribute to promote Biotechnology as one of the most important fields?
That is a tough question. Every day I ask myself where my work is taking me. I am happy as long as there is something new to learn every day. It gives me immense pleasure & satisfaction to communicate and educate an audience about something that is seemingly technical. I have been studying marketing and digital marketing for over the past year to be able to help create value in terms of engaging and educational content for our social media audience and website viewers. I also loved using my LinkedIn network and platform to share views, and well written and researched articles about environmental awareness and technological advancements. Scientists have always shied away from addressing the masses. It is of critical importance that we invest our time in taking scientific advancements to raise awareness and catalyze positive change.