Interview: Vrindaa Somjit(Meta-2016)

Please state your current major and explain the area of research you are currently involved in. Do
state your past research if any.

I am a graduate student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I am currently working on the computational design of hydrogen permeation barriers for steels used in hydrogen storage and transport infrastructure. Prior research experience includes thermodynamic assessment of Z-phase precipitates formed in steels used in boiler plants and modeling of hardening and recovery phenomena in steels. These were during internships I took up in the summer after my 2nd and 3rd year respectively.

 

What was your motivation behind choosing the masters and doctorate program at MIT? What are the
benefits in pursuing a masters degree before taking up a doctorate?

I simply love studying! And it was during my 3rd-year internship that I realized I loved research and that this was how I wanted to spend my time for the next several years (at least). I am in a direct Ph.D. program, which is a 5-year course. In this sort of a program, students can choose to get a Master’s degree at the end of their 2nd year, and at the end of 5 years, he/she gets the Ph.D. degree. But typically, only a few students get a Master’s degree along the way, since the degree doesn’t really make a difference if you are getting a Ph.D. ultimately. Going for a Master’s program before a doctorate has its pros and cons. If one feels unsure about pursuing a Ph.D., a Master’s program can help make that decision because you will get a taste of research and the level of coursework that graduate school entails during your Master’s program. If you plan on switching fields, a Master’s degree can again help by strengthening your knowledge in the new field through rigorous coursework. Getting a Master’s degree from a good university can help you get into a better university if you decide to study further for a Ph.D. But if you are sure that you want to pursue a Ph.D., and know the field you want to get a Ph.D. in, a Master’s degree doesn’t make a difference on your resume, and it doesn’t really add to your credentials. Moreover, Master’s programs are usually not funded, whereas Ph.D. programs are.

 

What should students know before taking up research? How should they pursue their career in
research?

Well, I’m only in my second year of graduate studies, so I am figuring this out myself. Research is demanding, it requires patience and persistence. Every statement/claim needs to be justified. It’s not like taking classes, where you learn a set of material, write an exam related to that material (skip some material sometimes) and that’s it, you’re done. You can’t just ‘skip’ something if you don’t like it- you have to sit with it and figure it out. I think one of the biggest things I learnt here is to never be afraid to ask for help.

 

Research is said to be demanding and sometimes people lose belief in it. How do you think, one can
overcome this fear or lack of motivation?

I think having patience helps. Also having friends/family to vent to, share your frustrations and fears with help tremendously. Getting involved in activities outside of research also can help. Colleges here have many resources for students to go to when they are stressed or overwhelmed, like counselors or other graduate students. Anonymity is retained in such interactions as well if the student desires so. One should leverage these resources if need be. While research is going to always be demanding, I think a major reason behind students getting overwhelmed is having an
advisor whose management style is not in line with theirs. Having a good match with the advisor and group is important!

 

Why are research internships important? How do students hone their skills through these internships?

Research internships help expand one’s knowledge in the field’s current state of the art. Learning fundamentals during courses in college is one thing, but it is only during these internships that you get to synthesize what you learnt and connect concepts learnt in many different subjects to solve one problem. Internships are a great way to learn new experimental/simulation techniques, which one usually does not get to learn during undergraduate coursework. Moreover, research internships are important especially if one intends on pursuing higher studies,
for they show the admissions committee that the candidate has some experience outside of coursework and has had a taste of research, so they know what they are getting into. NITT students are eligible to apply for DAAD, MITACS, S.N. Bose etc. in their third year. Students interested in research should definitely apply for these.

 

What other skills do you think students need to learn before/while pursuing highers in engineering and
sciences?
Effective communication skills (both writing and speaking) play a big role as well.

 

What do you think are the inadequacies in research in India, and specifically in NIT Trichy?

I am not too familiar with the research environment in India, but I do know that it is not too bad. And it is definitely improving. Indian Institute of Science, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, IIT-M, IIT-B, etc. are really good places to pursue research. I think the only drawback is that the number of good research institutes is too few, but I’m positive India will get there soon! As for NITT, I think it is still more of a teaching institution than one of research, given that the population of undergrads is a lot more than that of postgrads (maybe 10 times?). So perhaps comparing it on the same footing as other research institutes would be kind of unfair. Equipment is scarce and precious, but this will slowly improve as the demand increases and more postgraduate students are admitted. It’s kind of a cycle- the quality and number of postgraduates determine the quality and number of publications, which in turn determines the funding from the government and industry, which in turn determines the equipment and the number of students that can be funded for their postgraduate degrees. I do know that clubs like RMI, Spider, 3D take up pretty hardcore projects, so students should try out for such tech-clubs. Ultimately, there’s only so much research one can do as an undergraduate, and given that a majority of the students on campus are undergrads, if the institute doesn’t have all sorts of microscopy tools (for example), I think it is okay.  But I think you will get a better answer if you speak to the students who actually pursue research there, the postgrads.

 

Where do you think, the research scenario in NIT Trichy needs improvement, and how can it be
improved?

I personally feel that more than the research, it is the coursework that needs to be majorly updated. The course feedback forms need to be seriously considered and the syllabus needs to be evaluated periodically to make sure it is relevant. The world is changing almost every day, it will become very difficult for graduating students to compete if the syllabus, teaching and examination methods remain the same. NITT gets some of the brightest brains of the country, students who have studied very hard for >2 years straight to get into such a reputed institute. It is important to keep that fire going strong, and the courses and teachers play a vital role. The syllabus and testing style should
cater to all standards of students and ensure that through the right coaching and encouragement, everyone’s capabilities increase.

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