November 18, 2019
Research and Internship Propels Master's Student Vaidyanathan into His Professional Future
Growing up in Chennai, India, Vishal Vaidyanathan recognized that not everyone in his hometown had access to safe, affordable water. He committed himself to pursuing the education that would allow him to help find a solution.
“India is surrounded by water. There are two seas and a huge ocean, but still the government is not able to supply good, safe drinking water to every single person in the country. Someone who is poor can’t afford to purchase safe water. They have to get it from the pipe and boil it to consume it,” he says, noting that India is not unique. Many countries throughout the world, including the United States, face similar issues. “That is a problem.”
Vaidyanathan came to CEE to pursue a master’s degree in Environmental Engineering, Sustainability and Science after obtaining a BS in Chemical Engineering from Anna University in Chennai. He will graduate with his MS in December 2019 and start his career with Geosyntec Consultants a few weeks later, as a member of the Process Design Team.
Vaidyanathan says that the academics at CEE have instilled in him a level of competence that often sets him apart in professional settings. He credits support from advisors, instructors and staff, as well as student organizations, with creating an atmosphere that helps students feel like they belong, and that they can thrive.
David Dzombak, the Hamerschlag University Professor and head of the CEE, was especially influential, says Vaidyanathan. As his graduate advisor, Vaidyanathan says, Dzomback made the time to get to know him, and helped him progress through his program to achieve his goals.
“I came to CMU because I wanted to achieve something,” he says. “CEE is the best department I have ever been in, starting from orientation to academics. You can reach out to your professors – they are going to help you with everything. They make you feel like it is a second home. I mean, it’s a tough home. But it is worth it.”
For Vaidyanathan, his classroom work was bolstered by opportunities to do research and internships.
He participated in a research project on how to develop Rare Earth Elements (REE) from fly ash waste, which is a byproduct of the coal industry. REE is used in mobile phone chips, laptops, rechargeable batteries, and is important to national defense. China is the largest producer of REE, which means the United States is dependent on exports from China, as well as other countries, to meet its REE needs. Vaidyanathan’s role was removing the radio-active elements from the fly ash.
He says despite having been the lead author on a research paper as an undergraduate student, participating in that research through CEE helped him understand the true value of research.
“That was really interesting because I used my chemistry background from chemical engineering, and I also used what I learned in remediation engineering,” he says. “That kind of showed me how research is done.”
During the summer of 2019, Vaidyanathan secured an internship with ALCOSAN, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority. ALCOSAN treats the waste water for 83 communities, including the city of Pittsburgh, and treats around 215 million gallons of water per day. In September, ALCOSAN announced a Consent Decree for a $2 billion expansion and improvement plan.
During his internship, Vaidyanathan helped develop two reports that will be used during the expansion process, and wrote a report taking into consideration the institutional knowledge of a longtime ALCOSAN employee who will soon retire. He additionally had the opportunity to shadow Kimberly Kennedy, the agency’s director of engineering and construction division, during which time he was able to meet with consultants and attend board meetings.
He says the internship allowed him to see the physical manifestation of the designs and other research he has been doing throughout his college career. The experience, he says, was invaluable.
“It was a powerful internship, to be honest,” he says. “That kind of helps me going forward.”