Interview: Haripriya Kannan ( MME – 2017)

A very brief description of your current research work and background

I worked on thermoelectric materials since sophomore year in NIT Trichy. While there was a blend of metallurgical and materials in my course curriculum during undergrad, I moved my focus towards materials side.

Right now, I’m a doctoral student in the department of materials science at New York University. Currently, I am working on Quantum dots, a semiconductor nanomaterial and hybrid organic-inorganic perovskites, a new class of emerging materials. My intention for this project is of two-fold. One is to improve the X-ray photodetectors using quantum dots. Second, replacing the existing X-ray photodetector materials using perovskites. Providing an innovative solution in this area would help us to identify cancer at an early stage. Usually, as we all know, most cancer cases are detected at the fourth stage. Early the detection of cancer, there is an early chance of curing it.

 

Could you elaborate a little on the qualities a student should possess to pursue a doctorate?

The first step in order to pursue the doctorate is to find out if one is particularly interested in research. There is a trend in NIT Trichy, in-plant training in sophomore year, then an internship in IIT’s/ IISc’s and in the third year, some of them gets DAAD, Mitacs, NUS and few others get internships through T & P. Instead one has to allow some time to find out what they are interested in.

Like everyone else, I was equally confused about whether I want to join the industry or go to an academic institute. So, I tried both.

I allowed enough time to find out what I really want to pursue. I had plans to do MS but never thought of doing Ph.D. until the third year. Fortunately, I got an internship opportunity in Dr. B.S.Murty lab at IIT Madras where I spent my time every vacation and most weekends until my final year. I developed an interest in the research that was happening there. It was a wonderful time to connect with people, create project ideas, and learn about the multiple opportunities that were available.

So, one has to identify whether they like research. This is really crucial. Then one must identify the area of research. In research, things will not happen as planned. Learning and research is a lifelong process. In this field, one must update oneself. In general, people would describe this quality as “T” shape. The knowledge in STEM should be like the horizontal line in “T” meaning it has to be broad, while the depth in what you are interested and working on should be as deep as the vertical line in “T”.

Question everything. You find a proof, either theoretical or experimental, question that as well.

Most times, we try to question big things, but start simple. Always there is the classic example of Newton. He addressed a simple question why apples fall towards the ground, which led to the law the governs the solar system. One other simple question asked by Eratosthenes, about the shadow caused in the well when he looked into it, led him to discover the circumference of the earth in less than 1% error about 2,200 years ago. I would say simple questions and good discussion within a group always help you to think in a direction which you might not have thought of.

“Patience” is an essential factor. But, in my opinion, if you are highly interested and need to know where your question leads, other essential factors like patience and perseverance falls into its place.

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

Once students identify their passion for research, I would strongly suggest utilizing few opportunities in NIT or IIT or IISc or any industries to work and find a particular topic they are interested in. Research takes time. In general, Ph.D. is 5-6 years. Some of my friends, though they were interested in the STEM, they thought funding would be a problem or time might be an issue. Most Ph.D.’s are always funded, also there are other similar opportunities like Schlumberger Fellowship and Fulbright Fellowship.

First, one should decide whether they want to pursue research in India or abroad. There are various factors that need to be considered.

  • Which area of interest?
  • Which professor’s laboratory do you want to work with? Email a few professors at the beginning of the final year, make an appointment and talk with them. Many professors will be willing to help either in India or abroad.
  • Understand funding opportunities.
  • The location of the university depending on jobs or exposure or even climate.
  • Once you have finalized upon a list of universities, contact seniors who are studying or studied in the universities.

Once admits are announced, inform your advisor. Join his lab once you begin the university, and start working. Don’t forget to enjoy the summer before you leave to your destination.

How useful is having work experience before applying for higher’s? Is one year time for work experience enough?

Work experience in industries (other than R&D sectors), as far as I interacted with professors or graduation committee in my university, isn’t very important. Work is different from research. In one way, working before pursuing research might help financially, to obtain good recommendation letters and provide sufficient time to find out which area one might be interested in. I would strongly suggest the people who have good CGPA, projects, and recommendations to apply directly to the university to pursue a Ph.D. But if anyone feels that they need a better profile to enter one of the best schools abroad, one can work as a research assistant in universities in India or abroad (most times, it is self-funded) and apply to universities or do a Masters degree (Thesis), try to publish your work and then proceed to apply to universities. But, I wouldn’t say work experience in any industry or company will be having a high impact for a candidate selection into university.

How is pursuing a Ph.D. different from deciding to do a masters degree?

Master’s degree is again divided into two: Thesis, non-thesis. MS Thesis is for people, who would like to pursue Ph.D., or work in an R&D sector, who are interested in a deep knowledge of one particular subject. This would help to find a job related to the field you are interested in. MS (non-thesis) would help you to gain a wide knowledge of different projects and increases the chance into an industrial sector.

Ph.D. is devoting your time entirely to research. Comparatively, a person who spends 5 years on a topic would have gained more than a person who has his Master’s degree (Thesis). Completion of Ph.D, does not necessarily mean you need to join academic institute as faculty.

Every company has an R&D sector, we have in India- DRDO, ISRO, similarly in abroad NASA, SpaceX, automobile, and oil industries. Now, there is an increasing trend of Ph.D. entrepreneurs like Saule Technologies.

Ph.D., I consider, opens doors to many possibilities like our former director Srinivasan Sundarrajan, who was able to work in big mission for our country and in our university.

 

What are some things you didn’t anticipate about your career choice but realized only after you started pursuing it?

I am in the early stage of my career. Maybe, it is too early for me to say anything about this.

 

Research is usually constituted by large periods of strenuous work that might not yield results all the time. How does one stay motivated in such an environment?

This one is a great question. Conducting an experiment for 6-7 hours, at times grabbing a bite in a hurry in the middle of the experiment, and in the end if it is not what I expected, can actually lead to mixed of feelings. Usually, I start to think what went wrong, list it down, and find the possible solution in the experiment. Sometimes, rectifying the entire process and taking care of minute mistakes, yet will not make much difference. As much as it is tiring, it is fun too. In my case, naturally I will be like smiling at the computer screen with my results. I synthesize quantum dot or perovskite thin films almost every day, and I need to characterize whether I have synthesized what I was expecting using sophisticated instruments like scanning electron microscope or transmission electron microscope. When the results from these, turns out to be negative, all I think is, some were able to do something this sophisticated to characterize such a small compound I make. So, eventually I tell myself, I will get the expected result over time. I discuss my results with fellow PhD students and advisor and they will share their stories of how many times they repeated an experiment. Most times, once the experiment is done, it is always fun when you say it to others or think about it in your head.

In research, you are not alone. Everyone has their share of story how many times they failed. More than successful experiments, failed experiments bring out a smile, at least that’s how I feel.

It is an inevitable part of research. Accept it, do not compare failures with someone else success and more than anything, do not be hard on yourself. My professor once said, “if you want your experiment to be successful in the first attempt, you will not be able to cherish the journey that leads to it.” In my opinion, I don’t even stress myself to be motivated. I think it happens to be a natural behaviour in a research atmosphere.

I remember a similar question asked during Pragyan Guest Lecture given by Nobel Laureate Ada Yonath. Her answer was very simple, “curiosity”. I totally agree with her. Curiosity carries you forward.

 

Apart from academia, what are some career options open for Ph.D. graduates? Do use your own field of study as an example.

As I work on identifying cancer at an early stage, the people I can collaborate with are radiology, physics, materials, and medicine. Ph.D., as I said earlier, possess a wide range of advantage. Interested to become an entrepreneur? Sure, you can. If I could bring a possible solution to my research, I can patent it, build up a start-up. Most universities have this option, where they provide funding for your research to build a team. In New York University, InnoVention is such a competition which provides this kind of support.

 

What are the challenges faced during learning new skills and adapting to new environments?

It’s a huge change. Living with family till 12th grade and in hostel knowing that you don’t have to cook, I did not actually face many issues as such. But moving here to the new city, especially a place like New York, where it is freezing cold for 8-9 months, one of the most expensive city in the US, finding accommodation and to cook on my own, everything felt like a challenge. To me, it took months to get adapted to the new place and climate, but we always have friends who make life much better.

The challenge that I faced was during learning new skills.

There is a psychology concept called Dunning-Kruger effect. When one learns a new skill, one would be excited and as a result, thinks that the skill can be learned in a less time. But over the time one tends to see its toughness, and eventually over sufficient time one actually masters it.

I remember first few times, when I got trained in Electron microscopes, an expensive instrument, I experienced similar phase. One thing, I would say I didn’t do was not experimenting variety of topics in my undergrad. I worked on thermoelectric energy material for 2 years which has its pros but if I would have worked on multiple different projects, I feel that I wouldn’t have faced the challenge of taking sufficiently long time in learning new skills as the exposure would have been broad.

 

What must one do after getting admitted into college? i.e. How do you feel time must be utilized post-admission?

Let’s divide how each year should work to get admitted into college (I hope what you are asking is in undergrad. But my answer holds true for both undergrad and grads).

First-year students: New to NIT, one of the top 10 institutes in India, we tend to explore different things. The first year is the time to do it. Join the clubs which you are interested in. Contact different people, connect to a network of people who have similar goals or plans. How much ever one may explore the university life, CGPA is highly important. It shows that the person is dedicated and disciplined in what he/she does.

I would strongly suggest meeting people with vision. Read a variety of topics. Do not hesitate to start a conversation. It could be anyone.

I remember one day, there was this student in our university, talking about politics to the cycle repair shop anna in the shopping complex. It was just a random conversation started after listening to the news in FM in his shop. But both had a point and different way of approaching the same scenario. Start a conversation in the classroom, among friends and enjoy different opinions.

Second year: With the knowledge gained in the first year, try to find out an interest. In-plant training, internships or a mini-project, can assist you to decide what you are most interested in. I would say CGPA of 8.5 or more is good. But if it is not met, the second years have two semesters to raise the CGPA before applying to post-graduate or job.

The third year: Pursue your interests through internships. If CGPA is not high, make sure you have good projects, if possible, one can take certified courses online.

In the first three years, try to utilize the opportunities like OPJEMS, Cargill scholarship, and IET awards. In general, in my experience and from my seniors, in order to get admission in top universities abroad, CGPA, publications, projects, recommendation letters, SOP, fellowships/scholarships, Extra-curricular activities, TOEFL and GRE matters (more or less in the same order I mentioned).

Finally, during the final year, apply for the universities or job and hope for the best.

 

Is there something more that the T and P cell can do for the students?

CIC Reps in Training and Placement department try their best to get internships and jobs in dream companies. Mostly the research internships are pursued individually by students. While for some with high CGPA have higher chance to get internships in their second and third years, for some it’s hard to get. T and P and professors in our institutes can connect students (who are highly interested in research but couldn’t get an internship) to their friends or mentors in different institutes. Let’s say we can have a database of professors in other universities or research laboratories with their research area and have a point of contact in our university and connect the students who are interested. Similarly, a database for fellowships and scholarships, NIT students can apply. In my opinion, along with internship selection for third years, internship opportunities to work in research laboratories in India, if possible can be arranged. Students can also contact the scientists in person may be meet them in conferences, get an appointment to meet in their office or arrange a phone call. This has its advantage of its own, makes you stand out in the crowd. My friend was a CIC Rep and I have seen her working day and night, taking calls between the exams and classes. T and P does a great job always.

Is there anything students can take away from college genuinely on a qualitative basis? What advice would you give to engineering students?

All I could think about is memories. Keep yourself busy with activities that are productive. Sometimes when I am not working, I remember those busy days, a throwback that brings a smile to my face and to create more.

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