Not too long ago, SCSer Gomathy Radhakrishna Iyer thought she’d become a mechanical engineer but decided to go down another path at her father’s coaxing, and she’s never looked back. Today she is a Civil & Environmental Engineering Ph.D. and has become deeply entrenched in the world of landfills—human-made formations that she calls “beautiful.”
Dr. Iyer’s work spans research and engineering projects in landfill gas emissions reduction, landfill design, and leachate management. She’s also keeping up with PFAS to be ready for what may lie ahead around these emerging contaminants. “What I’m most into these days is researching and helping clients select leachate treatment systems and doing landfill expansion designs. It’s so mentally rewarding when you find solutions for the client’s problems. They are happy, and you are happy,” says the SCS staff professional.
She is known by more than her work family. Gomathy is a published researcher and speaker, most recently presenting at the Global Waste Management Symposium in February 2020. Her presentation covered one of her pet topics, her Ph.D. focus: using grass clippings and biosolids as biocovers to remove methane from landfills.
Pre-COVID, she spent many of her days in the field. Lately, she spends a little more time anchored to her computer in her home office. There she typically works on a few spreadsheets at a time, maybe as part of a gas emissions report, a stability analysis, or settlement analysis. Then she shifts her focus to her design drawings. Dr. Iyer still manages to break away to put on her PPE – her hardhat, safety vest, and steel-toed boots. She happily drives off in a company truck to the landfill, lugging field parameter testing probes and a 10-pound ISCO to collect leachate samples; or do other fieldwork like locating LFG wells and pipes or other features that help her design.
In the summers, it gets scorching hot. And the winters can be bone-chilling cold, especially for a woman who spent most of her life in India, where she was born and raised. In her last years there, she studied the transport of heavy metals through groundwater. Then, it was on to the University of Texas, Arlington, where she earned her Ph.D. and became set on finding work at SCS, coming on board in 2019.
Among her earliest challenges was communication. “Sometimes I would be in a meeting or having lunch with my colleagues, and they would bring up baseball or other games or a Netflix series. They were new concepts to me, and I couldn’t relate. While I speak English, I was unacquainted with the vernacular. I was like, what is Super Bowl? I thought maybe it was something very big that people eat from,” she recalls. That does not stop a researcher.
Finding a way to become better acclimated became a project of sorts. She started spending weekend downtime in front of the TV to learn about these American pastimes. Baseball still isn’t her first love, but she’s happy to say, “In 2019, I went to my first Washington Nationals game with a big group from SCS, and I had at least some knowledge of what was going on.”
The ambitious civil engineer has pushed past another on-the-job challenge—one brought on by the impulse to know every detail she can nail down before setting to work. “Since I’m from a research background, I tend to dig to the very bottom to try and know the problem completely. Sometimes it’s a good thing. But I’ve had to be conscious of time constraints, gain an understanding of the minimum required to do the job well, and move on,” she says.
What first brought her to the United States was her husband, Ramesh Padmanabhan. He was working on a Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Dallas while she was studying in India, so the relationship truly began as a long-distance one. They got to know each other through a combination of old-world traditions and 21st Century channels. “Ours was an arranged marriage. Our parents introduced us, and for the first year, we met up and talked on SKYPE,” Dr. Iyer recollects. He’s a molecular and cell biologist and sometimes her consultant too.
“In my job, I need to know the biology and chemistry of microbes as they are responsible for breaking down waste, and he is my encyclopedia. I don’t have to Google as much when he’s around.” She adds: “I can’t complete my story without talking about my brother who has given me unconditional support and career advising through my life. These two men are pillars of my life.”
As a woman civil engineer who’s all about waste, she’s in the minority, but she doesn’t feel as if she is because women are moving into waste engineering. She’s one of four women on an eight-person team, who she says is “like my family. And my supervisor is a great supporter of women in STEM (science technology, engineering, and math).”
She hears from many newly degreed civil engineers, including “young ladies” with questions about waste management. They read blogs about her work that originated on SCS’s website and are on social media. “These graduates want to take their career to the next level, and they have a lot of questions about how to start solving waste issues,” she says. She tells them that solid waste management is one of the best and most stable industries they can choose and that the pandemic has driven that point home. “We are reminded through COVID that waste management is an essential business, and there will always be jobs to support it,” she says.
What Dr. Iyer loves most about her job is what she and her team imagine and draft in drawings, keeps developing, and in time, is built. “It’s like giving birth to a baby. Very exciting,” she says. Her groundwater contamination remediation work got her interested in PFAS, even before she finished her studies. “I had a lab mate in school who did PFAS research. That got me curious about these emerging contaminants. I’ve stayed vigilant to keep up with what’s happening with regulations and treatment options under research. If regulations now under consideration are implemented, our clients will have to start thinking more proactively about addressing PFAS. So, we need to learn more on a holistic level about what these contaminants can do and the best way to treat them.”
She tells the story of how her venture into civil engineering started with her father. “He wanted to be a civil engineer himself but was the eighth son, so his parents couldn’t afford tuition, and in India, you don’t go to college once you are grown with a family,” she explains. He wanted his daughter, already drawn to engineering, to pursue what had been his dream and said he thought it would suit her better than the direction she was leaning. “Had I studied mechanical engineering as I’d been thinking of doing, I would not have come into waste.” She is happy with where she’s landed.
“When you work all day and still are not tired –you still enjoy it and are happy to contribute to something good—that’s how you know it’s the right fit.”