Akanksha Garg, 33
Associate Research Scientist, Dow Chemical Co.
Akanksha Garg grew up in India and received her engineering degree from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University.
Her first plastics job was at FM Global Research, where she "revised guidelines and recommendations for ensuring the safety of polymer and metal products."
"Through this experience, I learned about many different types of plastic and how the plastics offered different balances between cost and performance," she said. "After having worked to develop evaluation standards and a variety of approvals for polymers, I wanted to delve deeper into the fundamental science of polymers and to develop new polymers."
Now, as an associate research scientist in the packaging and specialty plastics product research and development group at Dow Inc. in Houston, Garg can utilize the diverse skills she gained in mechanics and materials science "to develop new molecular architectures and packaging structures for different applications."
"In my current role, I lead a team that studies the use of computational modeling to streamline R&D activities and to make them more efficient. Another goal is to predict material performance in a variety of applications for a faster product development cycle," she said. "At present, I am interested in the growing penetration of data science and computational modeling into a diverse range of fields. More specifically, I am curious to learn how these technologies can affect the development of new molecular architectures for plastics, packaging structures, and designs. This would also be helpful to develop solutions for unprecedented challenges, such as the ones presented by COVID-19, where new products may be needed at a much faster pace."
Garg is president and board member of the Indian Institute of Technology Alumni of Greater Houston nonprofit organization; Society of Plastics Engineers' Product Design and Failure Analysis Joint Session chair for Antec since 2018; mentor and speaker with the Society of Women Engineers; and member of the Materials Research Society.
"Throughout my professional life, a primary source of my inspiration has been the entrepreneurial spirit that runs in my family: My father started his first business at the age of 21, and my mother ran her own small business from our house while I was growing up," Garg said. "I was always inspired by the technology used in these businesses, which prompted me to pursue engineering as a career."
Teresa P. Karjala, principal research scientist in performance plastics R&D for Dow Chemical Co., nominated Garg for Rising Stars.
Q: What has been the biggest impact/challenge on your career from the coronavirus pandemic?
Garg: Similar to everyone, 2020 was an extraordinarily challenging year for me. In my case, the biggest challenge was coping with the uncertainty of my family's health, as they live outside the U.S., and being unable to travel and visit them. Thanks to a strong support network, I became more resilient. I found new ways to connect with family and friends, with whom I had lost touch, and at the same time I made new connections while coordinating a fundraising effort by IITAGH to fight COVID-19 for the greater Houston community.
Professionally, I was able to deliver new ideas related to the development of polymers for more sustainable nonwoven fabrics that have numerous applications, such as filters and disposable items for healthcare professionals. I believe the development of such fabrics is even more important for the safety of the first responders and health care professionals in the presence of highly contagious diseases such as COVID-19.
Q: What is your greatest achievement?
Garg: I am proud of the diverse skill set that I have developed over the course of my career while solving increasingly challenging problems. As Charles Darwin once said, "It is not the strongest species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change." I have attempted to follow the same philosophy in my own development.
In graduate school, I solved a challenging interdisciplinary problem related to the prediction of the onset of plasticity in metals that is relevant to metals used in nanoscale applications. Researchers have tried to solve this problem for two decades prior to my work. In this case, I worked with multiple physics, materials science and mechanical engineering Ph.D. advisors, and evaluated the problem at different length scales from a physics and engineering perspective, which ultimately led to a solution.
More recently, I am proud of my work in the nonwoven fabrics area, where I have worked on the development of polymers for a new lofty fiber/fabric nonwoven technology. This was also a complex, interdisciplinary effort requiring an understanding of the mechanics and performance of the final product; the viscoelastic flow, and crystallization of polymers during the nonwoven article fabrication process, integrated into the development of the molecular architecture of polyethylene polymers suited for this application. These loftier nonwoven fabrics reduce the weight of the nonwoven layer, making them more sustainable. As a result, less material is used while maintaining the resiliency and softness of the nonwoven. This work has led to four patent applications in health and hygiene applications.
Q: What is your biggest failure and what it taught you?
Garg: Although I firmly believe that our failures are our biggest teachers and enable us to grow as individuals, I have been fortunate to not have had any major failures in my professional life. However, there have been several moments of learning for me. One such example was my short post-doctoral work experience. After starting the post-doctoral work, I realized fairly quickly that this was not the career path for me and I decided to move to an industrial R&D position. Looking back, I now realize that I was always more interested in working in industry. One of the most important lessons I gained from this experience was the value of mentorship. I believe if I had external mentors during my doctorate work, I could have better understood the value of a post-doctoral research assignment to my career as compared to directly moving to industry.
Q: What is the best advice you have ever received?
Garg: My parents always used to tell me "When you know better, you do better." This simple statement has become my life's motto and has motivated me to continue learning and exploring different areas. This enabled me to deliver the best of my abilities, to stay inquisitive and to constantly improve myself.
Q: What job do you really want to have in the future?
Garg: I love assignments that require some creativity and go beyond assigned duties and responsibilities. This allows me to grow while developing new skills, as needed, to perform the task at hand. Along those lines, I look for roles where I can work at the intersection of the business skills that I gained from my family and using the scientific approach that I have developed through my education.