A Sojourn To Seek Stars: Ramlal Unnikrishnan
Uprising tales of students in NIT Rourkela are manifold. One of the stories is that of a nonchalant starry-eyed final year student of the department of Physics, Ramlal Unnikrishnan who happened to intern in the eminent Max-Planck-Institut fur Radioastronomie, Germany in the summers of 2019.
Team Monday Morning caught up with Ramlal for a candid interview about his rendezvous at Max-Planck Institute.
Monday Morning (MM): How did NIT Rourkela happen to you? Was Physics a choice or fate?
RLU: I was determined to pursue physics after my schooling, astrophysics to be precise. So, I appeared JEE like everyone else but unlike most who wanted to pursue Computer Science or other engineering branches, I chose Physics.
MM: Shed some light on your budding days prior to NITR. How did you develop a love for Physics?
RLU: Life before NIT Rourkela was completely different (smiles cheekily). This was a major turning point in my life. In my school, we followed a different culture, were surrounded by different people and practiced a different language. I was specifically leaning towards Astrophysics and didn’t find the rest of its aspects too interesting. Being from a place like Kerala, there were people who had a flair for Astrophysics. One of my father’s friends is a researcher in the same field and works in the US, so I was influenced and guided by him. He asked me to first get into a good and reputed college and thus, that was how my journey began. He also helped me through internships after my sophomore year.
MM: How did you happen to develop a keen aptitude for research?
RLU: Before coming to NIT Rourkela, I didn’t exactly understand full-fledged research. I got a taste of it when I first interned at Raman Institute, Bangalore. That’s where I grew a knack for research. I don’t see myself completely dedicated to research since my passion is to teach.
MM: How did you bag such a coveted internship in the Max-Planck institute? What was your intern project?
RLU: There is as such no official process to get one. It so happened that my supervisor from my previous internship at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research recommended me to Max- Planck institute in Germany. I was lucky to have got into a cordial relationship with my supervisor and so she had asked me to mail the director of the institute in Germany. She supported my application and I also had a chance to converse to him thereafter, which the director was interested to let me work on a project.
Following a Skype interview with the director, I was assigned a project to work on the formation of stars. I was given observed data from a telescope from Chile that is partly owned by the institute. I had to analyze fresh data from a Protostar, a stage just before the actual star is formed when the nuclear reactions start. This star has certain strong outflows from both its poles, what looks like magnetic field lines that we observe. So, I had to analyze these outflows using software and determine its chemical composition and conditions like the temperature of the outflow. I also had to work on simulations to match the outflow and then compare the observational and obtained pictures for consistent results.
MM: Any particular field in your domain that you are interested to explore further?
RLU: I have worked on star formations and analysis of outflows as well as the study of molecular clouds and mediums. I would continue working in some of these fields itself. My Master’s project here is on Ultra-violet astronomy which is completely different from the aforementioned fields. So, this is also a new interest for me. After the project, I may shift to some other projects.
MM: How would you describe your experience in Max-Planck?
RLU: It was a bit nerve-cracking at first to work and stay in foreign soil and foreign language. But the experience was completely different. Most of the people spoke English in the institute and the streets. So, I could communicate freely with people. I tried learning German but gave it up soon (laughs). I found the culture and the people there liberal and eccentric than what we have here. That is added advantage to society as no one judged anyone. In a nutshell, I enjoyed my stay.
MM: Interning in an institute in Germany, you might have come across the difference in the educational curriculum. How is that different from what we have here?
RLU: I don't have much experience with the academic curriculum there, but I can surely mention one difference that I found there. I am now in my final year of study here. Still, I have four courses this semester and four courses the next semester including an open elective along with my project work. So I will be studying humanities along with my project which is completely unnecessary according to me. Not only the humanities course but also the structure of the whole study course is not suitable for good research work. What I found there is, they have those Extra courses in the first year of study only and from 2nd year onwards there courses are only devoted to research and project works. This system provides them with a lot of time for good project work. One more thing is that the educational curriculum there is much tougher but more flexible in comparison to our educational system here. Here the structure of the course is so rigid and we don't have that much freedom of selecting the courses here. But comparing the educational curricula of both countries is completely unnecessary. Because we have different conditions here. But I hope, someday our educational system may change and provide us with more educational freedom as I found there.
MM: Tell us about your previous research experiences at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and Raman Research Institute.
RLU: Interning at Raman Research Institute, Bangalore was my first research experience. The project that I got to work there wasn't a high end one. It was all about how one can study astronomy on a scientific level. But the project I got at TIFR was quite rigorous. I started the work in summer and again back in December to continue the project. I was lucky enough to get a wonderful supervisor there and she is the reason behind the motivation of continuing work in this field. My stay at both Bangalore and Mumbai was quite amazing indeed. I think without those experiences, I could have never get into Max Planck.
MM: How would you describe the internship scenario at NIT Rourkela? Is there anything that needs to be changed here?
RLU: From the first year itself, everyone is so much interested in internships. So, the word, 'Internship' is quite famous here and that is a very good thing for a healthy educational environment. There are a lot of internships to apply. Internships basically help you to identify your interest in a certain field and describe your research aptitude towards that field. One more thing I would like to mention here that, being a student of NITR, the tag helps you to bag any research internship in India but for abroad internships, you need to develop a lot of things and sharpen your skills. The institute provides a lot of opportunities, still, it should focus more on publicizing more no. of research opportunities within India or abroad so that every student can utilize the opportunities to the maximum extent.
MM: What are your hobbies or activities that you like to pursue in your leisure hours or to get a break from your academic life?
RLU: There is nothing like extracurricular activities for me. I used to play football in my second year and I was a part of the Institute Football team but eventually, I discontinued practicing due to my laziness and time constraints. Till last year, we had a lot of time to go out and have fun. But now my life is kinda boring as I don't get enough time due to project works and some other academic works. But still, I am learning how to have proper time management. Nowadays, I am only playing badminton at night when I get some leisure time. I don't think, there is any extracurricular thing for me to do apart from that.
MM: Now the internships are very much compartmentalized. What are your views on it?
RLU: I would say, before applying for internships one must be sure of that where his or her interest lies. You will get a lot of time to explore your interest as a student here at NIT Rourkela. So, after you find your interest in a certain field, explore that field and look for suitable internships. It won't be an acceptable thing to compare different internships as each internship is based on a certain field of study.
MM: What are your future plans?
RLU: I am now looking for a Ph.D. degree abroad mostly in Europe. In Europe, most of the Research Institutes prefer interviews as their selection criteria rather than a typical selection exam, as we have in India and their interviews are purely based on your research experience and related to the field of your study. After completion of Ph.D., I would like to be a faculty member at any prestigious research institute in India.
MM: What message would you like to give to the students of NIT Rourkela?
RLU: Every year a lot of students come here with a lot of dreams and assurances. They must utilize their stay here effectively. My message for them is,
If you are here at NITR, whether you chose it or not, utilize your 4 or 5 years of stay here wisely. Enjoy your life to the fullest and at the same time, focus on your future goals as well.
Team MM wishes Ramlal good luck and success in his future endeavors!