As a toddler, Greeshma Gadikota was drawn to chemistry by the smell of acidic fumes from her father’s company. While they may not have been the healthiest exposure, those fumes became some of her earliest and most powerful childhood memories. She also found it fascinating to watch the mixing of massive amounts of material in boilers and reactors and the transfer of fluids from one tank to another.
“Chemical engineering was something we talked about at the dinner table,” remembers Gadikota, who joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison in June 2017 as an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and faculty fellow of the Grainger Institute for Engineering. “Between smells, sights and evening discussions, I knew at a pretty young age that my own career would also revolve around chemical reactions.”
Gadikota spent the first 17 years of her life in Hyderabad, India’s fourth-largest city. Along with her love of all things chemical came an early appreciation for financial accountability as she was expected to help with billing and administrative tasks for the family business from time to time.
Outside of school, Gadikota enjoyed creating art and writing prose. Having excelled in high school math and chemistry, she set her eyes on American colleges and left India at age 17 to study chemical engineering (with a minor in economics) at Michigan State University.
With a bachelor’s degree in hand at age 21, Gadikota wasn’t ready to commit to an academic career just yet. She moved to New York City for a master’s degree in operations research and spent a few years working on Wall Street. The maturity she gained from this experience served her well in graduate school. “I brought the same work ethic I learned at my Wall Street job to pursuing my degrees at Columbia University,” she says.
That work ethic helped her juggle a full plate of research and teaching duties, as well as mentoring undergraduate and master’s students, while completing a master’s and PhD in chemical engineering. Like her graduate advisor Ah-Hyung (Alissa) Park, Gadikota chose to apply her chemical engineering skills to energy and environmental topics.
For the next 18 months, she stayed at Columbia as a postdoctoral researcher with a joint appointment in chemical engineering, earth and environmental engineering, and the National Institute for Standards and Technology. Next, she moved to New Jersey for a second postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton University. Her goal was to understand the chemical nature of global environmental problems with tools ranging from the nano- to the macroscale.
“At Columbia, I concentrated on experimental chemistry, and at Princeton, I did more computational work,” Gadikota explains. “Those different angles, and some valuable time for soul-searching, helped me articulate the research questions I now want to tackle as a junior faculty member.”
In a nutshell, she studies the materials we use to produce energy and consumer goods in order to close elemental loops with more sustainable chemical reactions. A prime example is the carbon loop: It starts with extracting carbon-containing fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) and burning them to generate energy, and ends with releasing carbon dioxide and other gaseous forms of carbon into the atmosphere.
To reduce the detrimental impact of the resulting carbon imbalance, Gadikota is pursuing two distinct strategies for closing the loop: integrating carbon dioxide into construction and pavement materials, or putting it back underground with carbon capture, utilization and storage technology. The latter is a long-term strategy that removes the majority of carbon dioxide from industrial and power plants to either inject it back into geologic formations or use it for other commercial purposes.
Gadikota also studies hydraulic fracturing (fracking) technology for natural gas extraction, which relies on high-pressure water injection into drilled boreholes to create fractures and fissures in gas-bearing shale formations. Replacing some of this water with other fracturing fluids would reduce fracking’s environmental impact. Last but not least, she researches how to close elemental loops for rare earth metals in consumer goods with new urban waste recycling pathways.
All of these interests are a great fit for UW-Madison’s Environmental Chemistry and Technology graduate training program, which Gadikota joined this summer, and for the class on sustainable energy and resource recovery she is teaching in fall 2017. Knowing that it takes a lot of people power to bring her ideas to life, she had already recruited her first PhD student before she even moved to Madison with her husband, an engineer at Exact Sciences with experience in strategic marketing, and their 3-year-old son.
The decision to come here was an easy one. “For me, UW-Madison was in many ways a one-stop shop,” she says. “I think a large public Big Ten school provides more program stability than many smaller private schools, along with a wealth of other resources, regardless of whether I decide to focus on research, teaching or commercialization of my research findings—or all of the above.”
Author: Silke Schmidt