Kerafast Community Profile: Vir Sagar at Louisiana Tech University

At Kerafast, we understand that lab managers play a vital role in the research community through their indispensable contributions to the lab. This past quarter, we invited our community of scientists to nominate their lab manager to enter a random drawing for the chance to win a $1000 gift card plus $250 for their respective labs. One of our two winners was Vir Sagar from Louisiana Tech University.

Vir is a lab manager in the Biomass Lab at Louisiana Tech University. The lab focuses on utilizing waste biomass to enhance their value either chemically or energetically. Vir currently works with the biomass of Shrimp shells, Rice husks, and Corn stover. With a total of 15 undergraduate and graduate students in the lab, they work on various aspects of the bioenergy such as analyzing biomass properties, utilizing environmentally safe extraction solvents, characterizing the products of extraction, and enhancing biomass energy value by physical treatments. We focus on three important parts in any biomass, viz., cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. From these parts in a specific biomass, we derive valuable components to propose novel solutions to energy and environmental challenges of the 21st century.

We spoke with Vir to learn more about his role as a lab manager in the Biomass Lab. He shared his passion for research, reported on recent trends he has seen in the field, and advice he has for young scientists.

See below for his full interview

  • What does a typical day look like in your position?

My mornings are engaged in learning coursework, researching in the literature, and drafting manuscripts. I also work on putting together data from different researchers during the mornings. In the afternoons, we conduct our most intense research activities, such as trying out new ideas, conducting routine protocols, and repairing broken equipment in the lab. I maintain an open approach to my schedule to incorporate unexpected changes and be adaptable to include new tasks as deemed fit for project progress.

  • What area of research does your lab focus on?

Our lab is interested in any waste biomass that gets thrown into landfills, for which we find alternate purposes. We utilize techniques such as hydrothermal carbonization, Soxhlet extraction, rotary evaporation, vacuum evaporation, pyrolysis, and others to conduct separation or pre-treatment of the biomass. Biomass consists of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. Each of those can contain potentially valuable precursors to many useful industrial chemicals and we try to extract them in our lab. We focus on sugars for ethanol and butanol production from biomass in accordance with NREL protocols and we are looking at other uses for lignin as a binder.

  • Why did you decide to pursue a career in research? What do you enjoy about the field?

I like to figure things out and I have always had a curious mindset when working with things. Ever since I was able to comprehend and learn, I have tried to ask questions and toy around with things in an effort to make them work. Science comes naturally to me and research using scientific methods fulfils my curiosity. The questions of “Why” and “How” come more often to my mind than “When” or “Where”. I would like to admit that I find challenges in research difficult but rewarding. These obstacles and overcoming them through brainstorming provide accomplishments in my career like feathers in my cap. My chosen field to work in, Energy and Sustainability, provides me the most joy in my work since I am working for a better environment while looking for new advances in science and engineering.

  • What are some recent trends in your field of research, and where do you see future research moving towards?

Energy and sustainability research is a very dynamic field and energy policy is a hot potato in political debate as everyone is concerned with energy security, but sluggish action is a fact. Given the latest IPCC climate report findings and leading scientists’ research works, the new recommendations lead us into a quick plug and fix renewables until long term solutions, such as green hydrogen or nuclear fusion, can be put to use for mass energy needs. Our lab focuses on bio-renewable energy sources, such as biofuels and chemical precursors that are green and derived from biomass. We research on second generation biofuels that do not compete with the food chain and provide significant energy values to meet the challenges of the energy dense times we live in. These in addition with efficiency improvements using engineering and design can assist in mitigating many of the challenges of CO2 emissions and other pollutants.

  • What advice do you have for young researchers looking to pursue this career?

Research experiences for undergraduates and high school students is a central feature of our Biomass lab. We highly value early STEM research skills and hence provide various opportunities for undergraduate students to work in the lab year-round. Female students and minority students are encouraged even further and provided scholarships to work in the lab through grants and other resources. Mentorship has been a cornerstone in my research career, and I have made it a key element in the research experience in Biomass lab as well.

My specific advice to young researchers or anyone in general would be to try out doing some research work as part of their college experience in an area they are interested in by reaching out to the professor during their sophomore or junior years of college or high school. Most research opportunities are not as difficult as they appear to be and when you are working with a team on a project you can gain valuable skills that are relevant in professional roles. Researchers don’t always spend their time in labs, and they can achieve valuable roles in industry as CEO, CTO, CIO, or even leaders of our world such as presidents.

  • What is a technology that interests you that you wish you knew more about?

One of my goals in joining the Biomass lab at Louisiana Tech University was to learn more about the different kinds of biofuels that are possible to be utilized and understand their applications in detail from my PI – Dr Joan Lynam. I am particularly concerned with the technological difficulties in scale-up and mass production of biofuels from resources such as waste crop stalks, algae, and yeast which are plentiful. I am interested in single cell life forms, the first complex chemical forms on earth, and how they can be a valuable resource to produce energy and other precursor chemicals using Bioprocess Engineering, since they have a wide presence in harsh environmental conditions.

  • What activities outside of work are you passionate about? What do you like to do in your free time?

Free time is hard to find in the busy quarter system at LA Tech with high academic demands while pursuing an active full-time research program. But I like to engage in recreation and sports in my free time. I play soccer, volleyball, and pool in my free time whenever I can. I also like to read books and life improvement articles. I have recently started to bike around town to engage with my environment. I have tried gardening and I am trying to do more of it as well (if I succeed!).  

  • Who is your favorite scientist, and in what ways are you inspired by them?

This is a difficult question as I tend not to pick favorites or rely on one person solely to define direction. I am more inspired by people I work with and all my professors who inspire me to do more science every day in a collegiate environment. There are a few renowned scientists, though, who have been my inspiration, such as Dr Albert Einstein, Dr Homi Jehangir Bhabha, Sir C V Raman, Sir Isaac Newton, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, and Nikola Tesla. I look upon the foundational and inspirational work of these scientists spanning the fields of physics and applied sciences to better understand the rigor of science and critical thinking required to develop solutions to current problems. I am also inspired by their inter-disciplinary work and openness to collaborate with people from all fields to develop solutions to the questions they deemed interesting without regard to strict disciplinary boundaries for the sole purpose of science.

  • How would your friends describe you?

I think my friends would describe me as meticulous, knowledgeable, suave, and ironically funny. I would like to think I’m funny, but there is so much out there that I yet do not know about so not fully knowledgeable. I also think my friends would describe me as dependable and social as I tend to be available when they need me, and I am good company.

  • Lastly, what would you say is the most important part of being an effective manager?

Being an effective manager means to me that the organization is running smoothly with the least effort, thus I prefer not micromanaging on day-to-day basis. I like to put systems and checks in place as a culture of the team to ensure that lab operations, equipment, inventory, databases, etc. are up to date, operating normally, and conveniently available to everyone on the team. Effective and prompt communication is another aspect that helps run my team smoothly and I ensure everyone has access to information as needed. As a manager, I also make myself available to my team at all times to resolve queries, take suggestions, show them experimental methods and protocols, and equip them with the best research experience in our labs for them to enhance their college and professional lives.

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