Graduate student Nidhi Juthani was not content with just one graduate degree. Instead, she decided to earn two in one fell swoop, through MIT’s PhD in Chemical Engineering Practice (PhDCEP) program, which allows her to earn both a Ph.D. and an MBA simultaneously. This combination is a perfect fit for Juthani, who wants to pursue a career at the crossroads of scientific research and industry.
An undergraduate internship sparked her interest in combining the two fields. As a chemical engineering manufacturing process intern at Procter and Gamble, she worked in the business unit that manufactured feminine care products, beginning her days on the manufacturing floor at 6:30 a.m. There, she acquired an assessment of efficiency, procedures and processes. necessary for the manufacture of a product. “I was also able to see how a material [the absorbent core of the pads] it was conceivable once a lab project maybe 10 years ago needed to be scaled up for mass production,” she says.
Now in her fifth year at MIT, Juthani has already completed her PhD, working in the lab of chemical engineering professor Patrick Doyle. His research focused on the design of a microRNA-based diagnostic that could potentially aid in the early detection of certain cancers.
Juthani started the MBA portion of the program at the Sloan School of Management last fall. She misses the freedom she had as a doctoral student to work on her own schedule. But the experience is worth it. “My view of the world has definitely been expanded,” she says. “I learned about different industries and fields that I didn’t know existed, I learned about different cultures and countries, from Brazilian New Year traditions to how the hierarchy works on board a Navy ship, and I have developed a great support network.”
Finding a “Perfectly Fit” Graduate Program
Originally from Waterloo, Ontario, Juthani knew early on that she wanted to pursue a PhD. When he was 16, his family attended an open house at the new Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. The connections she made there allowed her to work in Professor David Cory’s lab as a high school student. She credits Cory, a chemical physicist, with “opening up all this academia for me, [a world] which I literally didn’t know existed before. Moreover, he planted the seed in her mind that she should pursue engineering studies and possibly a Ph.D. He even suggested she consider MIT, a school that seemed out of reach for her at the time.
Juthani then studied chemical engineering at the University of Waterloo. She was particularly captivated by the school’s co-op program, which allowed her to try out various careers. “You get to know what you like, but more importantly, you get to know what you don’t like,” she recalls.
Her first internship took her to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she conducted research at the Aizenberg Laboratory at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. “I had immense freedom to structure my whole project,” recalls Juthani. She immersed herself in her work, which eventually contributed to the publication of two articles.
Employing a different skill set, Juthani worked in a materials science and data analytics startup focused on the energy sector, spun off from the Aizenberg Lab. As employee number five, she learned to be a jack-of-all-trades doing anything and everything, including taking 6 a.m. calls from customs officers to make sure orders arrived on time. . (Luckily, she also met her husband that summer, at another startup in the same building.)
In all, Juthani completed five separate internships during his undergraduate career. Although each helped her reflect on her career path, there was no doubt in her mind that she still wanted to pursue a PhD after graduation. However, she also acknowledged that a lifelong research career would not fulfill her. She desperately wanted the scientific basis that can only be provided by a doctorate, but hoped eventually to focus on the business management of science. To succeed in this kind of career, Juthani wanted to learn to be “bilingual” in both the language of science and the language of business, so that she could act as a bridge between the technical and commercial teams on a project.
A friend suggested that MIT’s unique Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering Practice program would be a perfect fit. The program is very small, with only two to four students per year. “It’s so specifically designed for people who want to go into business after a PhD that it just made sense to me,” says Juthani.
Make every minute count
Asked to describe her research, Juthani enthusiastically launches into a detailed technical discussion, noting that she was not able to explain her work in such depth to fellow MBA students. His PhD focused on the development of hydrogel microparticles for the detection of microRNAs and extracellular vesicles (EVs), both of which serve as biomarkers for various diseases, including cancer, and can make cancer detection possible. before it manifests in a tumor. “There’s a need for better tools to enable research and diagnostics with electric vehicles because it’s such a nascent field and there’s a lot to learn,” she says.
Juthani has developed a colorimetric test using microparticles, whose different shapes allow the simultaneous detection of several targets. Round particles can be used for a specific microRNA, and cuboid particles can be used to identify a different microRNA. In addition, the method does not require specialized equipment; particles can be imaged with just a phone camera. His lively description of the color theory involved in creating “perfect images” of microparticles for his thesis is just one more manifestation of his many diverse passions.
Since arriving at MIT, Juthani has had to contend with the aggressive deadline of the PhDCEP program, which typically requires completing the doctorate within three years. Despite a year of setback due to the pandemic, she argued last August and started the MBA in September.
The gear change was telling. “The MBA experience has been completely different from anything I’ve experienced in engineering – graduate or undergraduate – and research,” she says. “The focus is on group work, discussion-driven learning, and learning from each other’s experiences…and I’ve also learned to think in a more systematic and framework-driven way.” After graduating, Juthani plans to consult in life sciences or venture capital, so she can utilize her business background, satisfy her scientific side, and be exposed to a wide variety of businesses and ventures.
Outside of the lab and the classroom, Juthani seems to make the most of every minute. She’s attended countless seminars, taken pottery classes, participated in MIT figure skating, joined a Bollywood dance group, and made time for coffee with friends. Yet his advice to other students is to “take the time to look back and see how far you’ve come.” It’s a practice that has served him well. During a difficult few weeks of her PhD experience, as she was overwhelmed with sets of seemingly impossible problems, she slowly wandered down the Infinite Hall. She says seeing the flood of flyers lining the walls made her savor all the possibilities MIT has to offer — and remember how lucky she is.
“I have this great opportunity to be here at MIT, and I want to try to do as much as I can,” she says. “I want to come out of MIT satisfied that I’ve learned and tried new things.” True to form, Juthani politely says goodbye and rushes off to her glassblowing class, one of MIT’s most iconic experiments.