A Bastion Of High-End Research: Debasish Das
A mechanical engineer of the class of 2009, Debasish Dash rose on to become a researcher at the prestigious University of Cambridge in one of the most coveted and unexplored disciplines of swimming mechanisms of micro-swimmers. In his research experience spanning across six odd years, he has worked with some of the finest minds at Illinois University, where he obtained his Master’s degree, University of California, his PhD institute and Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge, where he currently serves as a research associate. He shares with Team MM his roller-coaster journey so far from an being employee at Mahindra & Mahindra to a researcher.
MM: Tell us about your experiences before NIT Rourkela happened.
DD: I was born and raised in Rourkela. I went to St. Paul's School for my primary and secondary education. All my school life, I had been fond of mathematics, partly because I was naturally good at it. However, I had a wonderful biology teacher in class 10 and suddenly I found the subject much more interesting than anything else. I ended up taking biology in class 12 and considered studying medicine at one point. Then, I realized I cannot dissect a living creature to save my life. This indecisiveness leading to a juggle between biology and mathematics proved costly and ended up in me dropping a year to prepare for IIT JEE. At the end of that year, I found myself at the crossroads again where I had to choose between ceramic engineering at the IIT-BHU and mechanical engineering at NIT Rourkela. Unsurprisingly, I decided to opt for mechanical engineering at NIT Rourkela. Of course, close proximity to home had a major role to play in this decision.
MM: What were some of your cherished memories during your stay at NIT Rourkela?
DD: I was a day scholar for the first two years of my undergraduate studies at NIT Rourkela. So most of my memories during that time are from the time spent at the institute during class hours. I was a back-bencher those first two years and did a lot of stupid things, just being young and reckless. I moved to the hostel for the last two years and quickly got immersed in the hostel culture.
After moving to the hostel, I played DOTA a lot and got good at it too. But at the same time, I also got much more serious about my academic performance. One great experience I had at NIT was organizing a junkyard war for making a 3 legged vehicle during the spring fest in my junior year. One of my friends and I organized the event in a very short span of time and it ended up being the most successful one giving us a pleasant sense of accomplishment.
And of course, the spring fests were very entertaining each year and I witnessed many great performances by the Jal band, Kailash Kher, and K K.
MM: Tell us about your experience in SAE. Being a mechanical engineer, what role did it play in igniting your keen interest in that field?
DD: I had joined SAE quite late actually, towards the end of my final year. It was created by a group of students in my batch and I joined it because I wanted to get into the automotive sector. However, it was in its infancy only to become more active from that year onwards. I happened to land a job in the automotive sector but I think I had not done anything significant as an SAE student member to help my cause.
MM: Were you interested in research right from your engineering days? What motivated you to take up research, especially after quitting a job at Mahindra & Mahindra?
DD: The short answer is no. The first two years at NIT Rourkela, partly due to peer pressure and the surrounding atmosphere around me, I became more interested in things like business development, entrepreneurship, technology management, etc.
Later, I started interacting with students who had done internships in DAAD and were more well-informed and prepared for research than me. I imagined myself in a hi-tech lab doing cool science experiments and working on cutting edge technology and I was fascinated by that idea. Following the crowd, I was already preparing for CAT but I started preparing for GRE as well. Towards the end of the semester, my preferences were clear: a Masters in a reputed engineering university in the US.
I got a good GRE score and an average CAT score. Around the same time, I also got placed in Mahindra & Mahindra and much to my delight, I got into the research and development department. A good CAT score might have landed me in a good MBA school with a very different career trajectory, something which I will never find out.
Since I got into the R&D at Mahindra, my thoughts about doing a Masters changed slightly. I made up my mind that if I liked my job at Mahindra, I would stay on but if I did not like it, I will go for the option of doing an MS. At Mahindra, I got into the most coveted section in R&D, i.e. engines. However, much to my dismay, I realized this is not the kind of research that I had envisioned myself doing. So I started applying to universities for MS. After some torturous weeks of wait, I got accepted into the University of Illinois. My decision to quit was made slightly difficult because the management at Mahindra wanted to send me to Austria for one year to work on the development of a particular engine. However, I decided that a higher educational degree and the exposure in a reputed university like Illinois will go a long way to uplift my career.
MM: What are the possible advantages and disadvantages of taking up research as a career?
DD: On the plus side, you get to work on your own ideas; you have a job that lets you think deeply about a problem; you work on problems that have never been solved by anyone else in this world and when you become more experienced, you will start identifying scientific problems on your own and then try to solve them. If you manage to solve the problem, you will experience great satisfaction and your name will be recorded in the scientific literature for the posterity to witness. Finally, if you find something new and valuable enough for the society, you can even sell your invention.
On the negative side, since research problems are yet unsolved, they can be quite challenging. You usually do not work in big teams like in an industry, so sometimes you will feel isolated. Also, I think one has to be genuinely passionate about science and technology to stay motivated for 4-5 years. Sometimes Ph.D. students get depressed when things are not going very well for them since it is not very easy to abandon the problem and hop on to another one. Finally, a job in research may not be as well paid as other service-based industries like consulting, marketing, etc. since it does not generate a tangible profit straight away. This is, however, not true for some fields of research like computer, data science or biotechnology/informatics. I do not see any disadvantage in doing research in an industry after obtaining an MS or a Ph.D. as opposed to working in the industry right after a bachelor’s degree. However, this does not apply if you are in an industry that has little or no scope of doing research.
Also, after 4 years of undergraduate studies if you feel you do not want to be in lectures any more for learning something new then you should probably head straight for a job.
DD: What advice would you give to the young and budding scientists of our college who want to get their work published and pursue research as their career?
MM: Firstly, let me make it clear that it is perfectly fine not to know what you want to do for the rest of your life.
Try out anything that you find slightly interesting, may be in the form of an internship or talk to people who do this job on a daily basis. MBA or MS is just an abbreviation until you have actually spent time pursuing it. For research in a particular field, use websites like Coursera, MIT open courseware, Udacity, etc. to get a first-hand experience of what subject materials are covered in that particular program that you are interested in. Start early to have a competitive edge. Getting good grades in your area of interest is very important towards this purpose but if you could not manage to get very good grades, it is not the end of your dream.
Look for domestic and international internships in research labs. Start with your home institute NIT, then look for positions in other NITs, IITs/IISc/TIFR, etc. and then look for internships abroad. It is usually easy to find an internship position in that order. If the internship goes well, you may end up with a publication which will be immensely valuable to your MS or Ph.D. application. Since you are an engineer, regardless of what you decide to do in your life, it is important that you learn some basics of programming in a simple environment like MATLAB while you are at NIT. This is very important not just for an academic job but also for many industrial jobs.
MM: What are you currently working on and tell us your experience of having worked as a research fellow at so many prestigious universities?
DD: I am currently working on the mathematical modeling of swimming microorganisms like bacteria, green algae or sperm cells and artificial micro-swimmers actuated by magnetic or electric fields. Understanding these systems is important so that, for example, one day we can use them in targeted drug delivery. Think of Nano or micro-bots that are encapsulated in a pill which when swallowed enters the body and is able to identify diseased cells and administers the drug directly to them thus minimizing potential side effects greatly. I do not do any experiments but only theoretical and computational work that requires quite a lot of programming.
I have had the wonderful experience of working with great supervisors and interacting with many renowned scientists in the field of mechanics and applied mathematics and physics. The student experience in a US university is great because you meet people from all over the world. It is a very enriching experience that really widens your horizons of thinking on both an academic and personal front. I also get to travel to conferences to present my research to the scientific community which is very satisfying, particularly when you are commended on your work.
MM: Having done your masters at the University of Illinois and Ph.D. at the University of California, what difference did you witness in their system of education as compared to ours?
DD: I think in the US, the syllabus in the high school is a little easier than what we have. However, they make up for it in the first year of their undergraduate studies. There are a lot more assignments, sometimes every week and frequent tests to evaluate the student's understanding. The relationship between the professors and the students is very informal and the professors are called by their names. I think the Indian engineering system was originally based on the English system but then later changed to the American system so there is not much difference in the underlying philosophy. Like everything else in the Indian society, there is a lot of hierarchy in the educational system as well and I find this in the English system as well. This is, however, almost absent in the American system.
Of course, the labs in the universities are state-of-art and there are plenty of lab equipment so that only a few students have to share the same resources. One major difference is that undergraduate students have access to help from "teaching assistants" who are usually graduate students. These teaching assistants are the first line of help for the students. They are primarily responsible for grading the assignments and helping the students with difficult concepts. This is very helpful for both the teacher and students particularly for large classes.
MM: Were you inspired by any of your teachers?
DD: The short answer is yes. At NIT Rourkela, fluid mechanics taught by Prof. P.K. Ray was my most favorite subject. He taught in a very lucid manner and the contents in the syllabus were very well organized as a result of which I did well in fluid mechanics. This enabled me to choose it as an area of specialization and mention the same in my statement of purpose strengthening my application for MS.
MM: What does it take to be a professor? What kind of a professor will you be and what changes will you like to see in the current education system of the country?
DD: Think about all the qualities that a CEO needs to run a company successfully. A good professor needs all those qualities as well. Running a research lab independently is not just all about science. It is also about getting funding to run the lab and managing resources and people. Identifying new areas of research and generating new ideas is perhaps the most important job of a professor. Finally, a good professor is also one who cares about students learning and is able to break down complex ideas into simpler ones for their understanding.
If and when I become a professor, I would strive to achieve all those qualities. While my primary goal would be to get a faculty job in a reputed university, I would also be open to working in a research facility. I enjoy teaching but I got into academic research in the first place because I enjoy doing research, so as a faculty I would be happy if I get ample time to conduct my own research apart from teaching.
Our country does not have enough funding for academic research which is a massive problem. The solution is not an easy one either because we are still a developing country and need to invest in infrastructure to fight poverty. We need to build more universities and research facilities without sacrificing quality and attract faculties from all over the world by giving them incentives. I am not just talking about personal compensation but help in setting up their own labs, providing funding for sustaining the lab, setting up funding agencies etc. In primary and secondary education system, I think we need to complement our rote-learning methodology with creativity-based learning. While being able to remember and reproduce is essential, we also need our students to be able to generate ideas on their own from a young age or at least be aware of the importance of being creative.
MM: What changes would you like to see in NIT Rourkela and in the engineering fraternity of this nation?
DD: I visited NIT Rourkela a few months back and I was amazed to see the improvement in infrastructure. One thing that NIT Rourkela could do, is developing partnerships with other institutes and universities for student exchanges not just in India but around the world. I think some students try to do this on their own which is extremely difficult. But if the institute does this in an official streamlined manner, it will be very beneficial for the students. For example, NITR could partner with IISc/IIT or an American or German university. Students could then apply and get selected in a systematic manner. Since funding is always an issue, the institute could fund a few students, fully or partially and the rest could find their own funding. Student exchange programs are something which we are completely missing out on.
In general, I wish to see more technological inventions and scientific breakthrough coming out of Indian universities and research labs. However, this requires helps from the government. Unfortunately, India's expenditure on R&D per capita is much below that of the western countries and China.
MM: Any final message for our readers?
When I was a student at NIT Rourkela, I could find resources for many different career questions that I had. However, when I wanted to ask questions about higher education, I realized I could not talk to anyone. I struggled to find alumni who had done their MS or PhD at reputed universities that I could network with and who could answer my questions. Hopefully, this has changed or will change over the coming years and students who seek help and guidance will find it easy to get their answers. Every year when I go home I try to give an informal talk on this topic. There are many people like me who are willing to help and provide advice to MS and PhD aspirants. I wish to see more students from NIT Rourkela doing higher studies in reputed universities in India and abroad leading to a career in scientific research. As a nation, we cannot dream of being a superpower without being a leader in scientific research.
Lastly, I would again like to reiterate that it is perfectly fine if you don't see yourself somewhere in the near future. There is no need to despair but at the same time, keep your eyes and ears open so that you have access to as much information as possible. Try out things that seem interesting and if they don't work out move on to something different.
Note: You can connect with him via LinkedIn: DebasishDas