Dr. Gayatri Keskar, advanced materials scientist: Networking and collaboration is the key to success

In this Women in Composites interview, get to know Dr. Gayatri as she discusses her diverse experiences and valuable insights gained from her successful career in advanced materials. She shares her passion for materials science and imparts wisdom and guidance for aspiring female engineers.

Dr. Gayatri Keskar, advanced materials scientist: Networking and collaboration is the key to success

7 minutes, 60 secondes

Gayatri’s childhood in an engineering-centric family sparked a fiery love for science and technology, which naturally guided her toward a career in engineering.

She began exploring the fascinating world of chemical reactions and molecular structures during her college days, which sparked a deep passion for chemistry. Furthermore, engaging in discussions with her chemistry professor about the possibilities in Metallurgical engineering deepened this passion, directing her towards specialising in the field.

Even though metallurgical engineering was not a common path for women during that period, she was undeterred in her pursuit of the subject. Driven by her deep desire to step out of her comfort zone, she embarked on her journey into the fascinating world of novel functional materials.

Discovering the world of nanocomposites

She got introduced to the field of nanotechnology while working on her final year engineering project.

I was fascinated by its potential to disrupt the material world. During my final year project at the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) in Pune, I had the privilege of meeting Prof. Apparao, a world-renowned expert in carbon nanotubes from Clemson University. His innovative research and remarkable findings in carbon nanotubes and nanoscience inspired me.”

This led her to join the materials science and engineering programme at Clemson University and conduct her master’s thesis research under Prof. Rao’s guidance.

I vividly recall my first major project at Clemson, where I produced nitrogen-doped isolated single-wall carbon nanotubes. This project was significant not only in terms of its technical complexity but also because of its collaborative nature with IBM, a global leader in technology and innovation. Our goal was ambitious – to fabricate n-type carbon nanotube field-effect transistors.”

During her Master’s studies, she seized opportunities that allowed her to observe the intersection of academic research and industrial innovation. This experience prompted her to pursue her Ph.D. within the same academic group.

During her Ph.D. she developed a novel electrical sensing platform using micro/nanocantilevers (MEMS/NEMS) to detect low levels (ppm) of toxic gases like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.

The platform’s remarkable selectivity was demonstrated during a proof-of-concept experiment in collaboration with Dr. Serkiz at Savannah River National Laboratory, where it successfully differentiated between different hydrogen isotopes under ambient conditions. The opportunity exposed me to cutting-edge projects, reinforcing my interest in engineered materials and processes to solve complex challenges in demanding environments.”

She then went ahead with her postdoctoral studies, where she led the development of novel, high-performance hybrid nanomaterials, and composites for applications in critical sectors like next-generation solar cells, thermoelectrics, and catalysis. She trained and mentored students and lab staff during this tenure, which honed her leadership skills and cultivated multidisciplinary collaboration. It also allowed her to develop a deep understanding and expertise in solution chemistry, interface engineering, and advanced material testing.

The exciting field of advanced materials  

Gayatri went on to work with several startups, where she witnessed the breakthrough power of leading-edge materials. Motivated by a desire to effect significant change on a larger platform, she gravitated towards a consulting and advisory role at Material ConneXion.

World Bio Markets
World Bio Markets (The Hague, 2023)

At Material ConneXion, I leveraged my material and product development expertise to empower startups and consumer brands to develop purpose-built products, packaging, and experiences that contributed positively to society. By providing strategic guidance and actionable insights, I facilitated the development of sustainable and impactful solutions tailored to specific industry needs.”  

Later on, she went on to become a technical consultant and an advisor in the field of advanced materials, and shared her expertise at leading national and international conferences, including Rethinking Materials, Circularity, Sustainable Brands, and World Bio Markets. She has been working with extremely fascinating and cutting-edge technology over the years as a consultant and has been actively involved in forward-looking programmes and initiatives that challenge the status quo and push the boundaries of human-led discoveries.

One of the most interesting projects I have worked on as a thought provoker is the Hotel of Tomorrow Project, which periodically brings together a global think tank comprised of hotel brands, owners, operators, consultants, students, and suppliers to envision the future of the hospitality industry. The latest iteration was truly game-changing, not just in terms of futuristic concepts surrounding safety, and wellness, as well as automation, design creativity, and sustainability. The entire experience was elevated to the next level within the metaverse, showcasing seamless integration and the deep impact of technology.”

Another notable programme is the Outdoor Retailer Innovation Awards, which celebrates cutting-edge products, materials, and retail services year-round. She has been a judge for over five years and is consistently impressed by the ingenuity and user-centric focus evident in the submissions. It demonstrates the outdoor industry’s commitment to developing inclusive solutions prioritizing personalized fit and well-being while extending material and product lifecycles and positively influencing consumer behavior.

Outdoor Retailer Innovation Awards 2023
Outdoor Retailer Innovation Awards 2023

Cross-pollinating technologies: way of the future

Gayatri is presently affiliated with several organizations in advisory and thought leadership capacities, notably the Fast Company Executive Board. She is passionate about staying informed on emerging trends, materials, and processing advancements poised to disrupt consumer-facing design industries. 

She is currently witnessing the impact of cross-pollination of technological innovations wherein frontier materials developed for one industry find new and unforeseen applications in others as exemplified by NASA spin-off technologies.  

A prime example is the superelastic, space age metal tires developed by NASA that are now being commercialized for terrestrial use by The SMART Tire Company. These airless, durable tires are made from a shape memory alloy (NiTinol+, widely used in medical applications) that combines the elasticity of rubber with the strength of titanium, offering a revolutionary solution to flat tires.”, she states.

Another technological advancement she is excited about is within the sustainability domain.

Cecilia Energy is addressing the plastic waste problem by developing a distributed, modular microwave-based system that upcycles plastic waste into hydrogen and carbon nanotubes. This powered-by-electricity process is highly energy-efficient and can achieve a carbon-neutral profile when coupled with renewable electrification of the grid. Importantly, it produces high-performance, high-value additives like carbon nanotubes at reduced costs, which will overcome typical adoption barriers such as economics and scalability associated with advanced materials and recycling technologies.

A different perspective in a male dominated industry  

Although Gayatri worked in an environment where women were often underrepresented, she seldom encountered disparate treatment from her male colleagues. 

I have mostly received equal, if not more, support from my male colleagues, mentors, managers, and team members.”

However, she acknowledges the challenges that women often face in ascending the corporate hierarchy, particularly at senior leadership levels, where the need to be constantly proving themselves can take a toll over a prolonged period of time.

Her advice to overcome these challenges is to internalise sponsor culture; she believes that this can be highly advantageous.

Times have changed for the better and many external leadership resources are now available to empower women and drive workplace change. It would be conducive to fostering an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and has equal access to high-impact opportunities. This can unleash the full potential of a diverse workforce, driving better decision-making for sustainable growth and success.”

Collaboration is the key to success

Networking and collaboration are the keys to success.” This simple yet valuable advice was given to her during her early student days while presenting her work at a conference.  

Over the years, I’ve realised the value of cultivating meaningful connections that evolve into strong relationships through empathy, effective communication, and collaborative problem-solving. Relationships founded on mutual trust, growth, and shared goals are vital to promoting sustainable and rewarding connections.”

Gayatri has applied this advice consistently throughout her career, especially during her consulting tenure.

I have prioritised transparency, openness, and collaboration in my interactions, applying this advice consistently. It has allowed me to cultivate robust, long-lasting relationships, contributing to the success of projects while nurturing valuable professional connections.”

Fast Company Executive board expert panel
Sharing insights with some of her fellow Fast Company Executive board members

The materials revolution 

Gayatri is very positive about the advancements in the field of materials science and is witnessing a biological revolution centred around next-generation designer materials and processes. 

Machine learning/AI, computational design and automation are accelerating the development of new materials and the precise recovery of existing ones. Through precision fermentation and digital manufacturing technologies (Industry 4.0), microorganisms such as algae, fungi, and proteins are emerging as alternative building blocks for creating enhanced versions of synthetic materials, chemicals, or entirely new biomaterial categories with programmable features.”

She also states that sustainability is a critical issue and we need to address this as it as the need of the hour!  

The future of advanced materials is smart and circular. We need to realise the importance of material-driven design in developing regenerative business models that support application-specific longevity while advancing the decarbonisation movement through supply chain transparency.”

Advice for female engineers 

Gayatri offers some invaluable advice for female engineers. “Own your achievements to build credibility, embrace discomfort as the catalyst for transformation, and identify sponsors who will advocate for you and amplify your impact.” However, her advice to future material scientists is not limited to women. She believes the materials science and engineering field is open to everyone with the right skills.  

She is looking forward to her journey in the field of advanced materials and encourages the prospective materials scientists to look at the unique opportunity to create thoughtful experiences that engage the diverse audiences while driving positive change.

Material science is the invisible architect, shaping every aspect of our lives, from everyday products to cars, electronics, buildings, and infrastructure. It is time to engage in the material transition and celebrate diverse perspectives to prioritise value-driven decisions. We need to meet evolving consumer needs while building a more resilient, inclusive, and thriving ecosystem.”

Cover photo: Gayatri Keskar.

More information www.fastcompany.com