Rama Etekallapalli worked as a part-time mold designer in India while studying plastics engineering for his associate degree.
He was an "intern of sorts," pursuing on-the-job training with unwavering interest from the onset, even as his peers were getting into the growing field of information technology.
After a couple years in the mold making sector, Etekallapalli was curious about other facets of the industry.
"I wasn't really happy with what I knew at the time," he said in a telephone interview. "I wanted to understand more about manufacturing — the resins, the process, machining. I needed to increase my skill set. I needed more education."
In 2003, Etekallapalli came to the United States to further his studies. He was about 24 when he started at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees. Then, in 2007, he began working at Arch Plastics Packaging LLC in Chattanooga, Tenn., which makes standard and custom containers from PET and high density polyethylene for mostly pharmaceutical and personal care uses and some food applications.
Now with 10 years of experience there, including eight years as the plant quality assurance manager, Etekallapalli said he still marvels at the industry as he oversees the production of millions of bottles a year. If there's ever a problem, he finds the root cause, corrects it and tries to prevent it from happening again. He also handles some technical sales and is involved with product design.
"When you think about plastics, there are so many elements involved, from raw material to process to quality and shipping," he said. "Imagine one little plastic part has to go over so many fine details in the industry. Helping [others] to understand each segment in itself is a challenge and highlight of my career."
Etekallapalli said another challenge he takes seriously is the dearth of skilled workers joining the ranks of plastics professionals. To that end, he is active with the Knowledge and Technology Committee of the Blow Molding Division of the Society of Plastics Engineers. The committee offers design competitions with monetary awards, education grants to fund equipment purchases, and scholarships to promote interest in blow molding.
So far, the group has given away more than $260,000 in scholarships to 40 students pursuing undergraduate degrees in plastics programs at technical schools and colleges. Two scholarships worth $3,000 each will be awarded from this year's applications.
Etekallapalli's passion about polymers also goes beyond the workplace. He said when people first learn he is a plastics engineer, some are surprised it is an occupation.
"They don't even know it is a thing — and a good thing," he said.
Others want to share negative opinions about plastics.
"They complain about how it ends up in the oceans and landfills," he said.
Etekallapalli said he responds by pointing to another problem: public perception that plastic goods ,are throwaway items instead of valuable resources that need to be handled properly.
"Look at that water bottle. It has a recycling logo on the bottom," ,Etekallapalli said. "Still, a lot of people won't put it in their recycling bin. They put it in the trash — a big no-no. I try to educate my own family and friends about that. Plastic can be reused again and again. Postconsumer resin needs to come back to life. Plastic is fantastic. It is the best material invented."