Navy Chemical Engineer Started in the Family Kitchen
The mixing, stirring, baking, and curing of explosive and propellant materials at the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Indian Head Division proceeds under the guidance of a team that includes chemical engineer Tom Pelathra. His career is not such a far stretch for a guy whose dream not long ago was to own and operate a cookie company. When he was a kid, Tom loved to bake with his mom, and he had a strong curiosity about the ingredients and additives in food products from the grocery store. How do Twinkies stay so soft? How do you make sure there are 1,000 chips in every Chips Ahoy box? What is the perfect recipe for the best cookies ever baked?
Palathra’s natural interest in food could have led to a career as a baker or chef … or a cookie entrepreneur. But Palathra was also academically gifted in math and science, and his parents encouraged him and his siblings to study hard and develop their innate talents. His parents were first-generation immigrants from the Kerala state in India, historically a major spice-trade center. They came to America in 1977 in search of opportunities for themselves and their future children. Palathra’s mom is a nurse and his dad is an accountant. Like many foreign-born parents, they strongly believe in the importance of education.
“I was born in 1984, the third of four kids, and was raised in a traditional Asian household,” Palathra says. “My parents had a strong work ethic, and they taught us that when you see an opportunity, you go for it, you stick with it, you work hard and do your best.”
Palathra was always a good student, but it was not until he was a senior at a parochial high school on Long Island that Tom discovered his intellectual niche. In AP chemistry, Tom was exposed to high-level chemistry, the science that investigates substances and the way they interact, combine, and change. “My teacher, Dr. Kopp, suggested that I might want to major in chemical engineering in college,” Palathra recalls.
He attended Manhattan College’s school of engineering in Riverdale, N.Y. With great study skills and a lifelong interest in the building blocks of matter, Palathra excelled in college and graduated in 2006 at the top of his class. He also received the Prutton Medal, awarded to the top student in each major. With the wind of a strong academic record at his back, Palathra decided to go right into a master’s program at the University of Maryland, College Park, one of the country’s premier engineering schools.
Besides the opportunity to work with Dr. Ray Adomaitis in the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering, Palathra knew there are a lot of jobs in government and military labs near the university. When he completed his M.S. in chemical engineering in 2008, “NSWC Indian Head hired me right out of the gate.”
The laboratory in Indian Head, Md., is the Navy’s primary source for energetics, a broad discipline that encompasses explosives, propellants, pyrotechnics, reactive materials, and highenergy chemicals and fuels and their application in ordnance and propulsion systems. “Navy chemists develop energetic materials at a very small gram scale, but before the materials can be tested or used, they must be scaled up to larger amounts. That’s where I fit in,” says Palathra. “I’m part of the chemical scale-up group. Our job is to make larger quantities of an energetic material — reactor sizes up to 50, 100, or 500 gallons — for large-scale testing and to provide to the fleet.”
To manufacture these larger batches, he says, “We use horizontal and vertical mixers much like those in the food industry, which is kind of fun. We even use coating barrels similar to what candy manufacturers use. Our team also subjects the materials to heat and cooling, and we monitor their pressures and temperatures during processing.”
“It’s like baking a cake, only we’re working with dangerous materials,” Palathra continues. “It’s pretty awesome. A lot of people might be wary about working with hazardous materials, but I find it very cool. And so soon after graduating, I’m doing work that is critical for our country. It’s kind of surreal sometimes.”
Along with that feeling of good fortune has also come a desire to help other young people find their own best futures. Palathra volunteered in Washington, D.C., for a program called “Coaching for College,” aimed at disadvantaged youth. He also came to the attention of Indian Head’s Ray Gamache, who helped establish an educational outreach program for middleschoolers at Indian Head under the National Defense Education Program (NDEP), an initiative of the Department of Defense STEM Development Office. Palathra now serves as Indian Head’s site coordinator for NDEP.
But how does he find the time to lead STEM outreach at the lab? “Ray Gamache roped me in,” says Palathra. “Ray has an infectious personality and is passionate about what he does. If you get anywhere near his radius, he’ll grab you.”
It sounds like a theme of Palathra’s own life in which parents, teachers, mentors, and role models pointed him to a fantastic career and an avocation inspiring young people to work hard and do their best.