Climbing the ladder of Success, One step at a time: Rajeswari Das at University of Arizona

Climbing the ladder of Success, One step at a time: Rajeswari Das at University of Arizona

Kunal Singh | Oct 28, 2019

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NIT Rourkela has been a breeding ground for many research aspirants over the years and never fails to give unparalleled results in the research field. One such meritorious student is Rajeswari Das, who completed her Integrated MSc.in Chemistry from NIT Rourkela and is currently pursuing her PhD from the University of Arizona. Rajeswari Das, who was confused to take up research as a career at the beginning, does not regret her decisions throughout her academic journey and has achieved quite a lot in the research field. Monday Morning recently caught up with her and brings you the story of her admission to the prestigious university. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

MM: Tell us something about your life before joining NIT. How did NITR happen to you?

Rajeswari Das: Right from the beginning I wanted to pursue science. Most preferably, physics or chemistry, instead of engineering. I was selected for studying physics in Miranda House, DU but the JEE results came out at around the same time and I decided to take up Chemistry and eventually I decided to enrol in the Integrated MSc program in Chemistry at NITR.

MM: Tell us about your internships and how did your internships help you with the decision to pursue research over a job?

RD: My internships at various research institutes played a pivotal role in making up my mind for pursuing a Ph.D. degree in Chemistry. Even though that was the motive with which I entered the program but I was not quite sure of it in my first two years. I started working in various labs during the summer vacation which elevated my interest in research all the more. I did my first internship project at CSIR IMMT in 2015 where I worked in the Nanorod synthesis which was quite interesting for me as a second year. I did my next project in 2016 under Dr. C.S. Purohit at NISER where I got an insight on how to pursue research as a career along with the discipline and precision needed to carry out research work. I worked on supramolecular capsules in that project.

In the summer of 2017, I got selected for the Indian Academy of Sciences Summer research fellowship program (IAS-SRFP) and was assigned to work under Dr. Sayam Sengupta at IISER Kolkata. I was working on photochemical oxidation of benzyl alcohol by the FeTAML catalyst. The project was comparatively new and I worked in close association with the lab members which helped me understand the dynamics of working in a research group but still be able to express your ideas and modify the experiments involved.

 I guess this internship played a major role in deciding that I didn’t want to go for a job right after my masters. Mostly the exposure that I have had and the people that I met during these internships inspired me more to take up research instead of a job.

MM: Was pursuing a Ph.D. your initial career option or there was something else you had planned for?

RD: That’s something I did know I wanted to do from my first year but I did consider having jobs as an alternative plan. I was still figuring out what to do in my initial years at NIT. Honestly, I could never see myself working in analytics or an IT company or any company that came to NIT for that matter. That's one of the reasons I stayed away from the placement scenario in my final year. I always imagined myself working in the R&D department. And there were not many job opportunities in that section after Masters in India. I weighed all my options that I could pursue after my masters which were not many and consciously saw enjoying my work as a graduate student more than anything else.

MM: Tell us something about the research and projects you will be working on at the University of Arizona?

RD: Since I am in my first year most of my time is spent on coursework and teaching. I am in the inorganic division of the department here and have taken the advanced inorganic courses so I want to get into one of the inorganic/materials labs. The PI selection process is almost the same in all US universities. We had to fill in three PI names with whom we are interested to work before October 15. I talked to 8 professors in the department based on my research interests and their profile. I have talked to the group members and have attended the group meetings and finally come up with three names. I am still awaiting the results for the PI selection so I can’t say which group I am joining as of now but I know which division I want to be in.

MM: What were the other universities that you applied for? What procedure did you follow to list out the universities?

RD: I was working as an RA at IISc Bangalore after graduating from NIT. I was working in a Nano Biomaterials lab and I thoroughly enjoyed the work that I did. So I applied to different projects in that particular field all over the world. I initially was trying to get into a European university before I started applying for the universities in the states. I got selected in a few initially but got rejected after the final interview because of a lack of enough positions and other reasons. By November I was ready to apply to American Universities and I had shortlisted universities based on my research interests, groups and ranking mostly. I had to also think of my overall profile while applying which included my CGPA, research experience, GRE score, LORs. The shortlisting was quite a long process for that matter and after a careful overview, I shortlisted 8 universities in the States. I had applied to Penn State, Ohio State, University Of Pittsburgh, University Of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Purdue University,  Iowa State University, University Of Arizona Tucson and Georgia Tech.

MM: How was your experience pursuing MSc at NIT Rourkela and tell us about your research and project works you worked on?

RD: Pursuing both BSc and MSc was quite an experience at NITR. Even though it is primarily a technical institute and research is not as extensive as other premium research institutes in India like NISER or IISc, the science stream had done well in the past few years in terms of research.

It was both an exciting and exhausting journey with the number of theory and lab courses from the first till the last year. But that’s what helped me build a strong foundation in all the aspects of chemistry, physical, inorganic and organic, especially in the last two years. In my final year, I worked in a materials lab mostly in the synthesis and characterization of nanoparticles.

MM: Shed some light on the application process for your Ph.D. Did you undertake any mail correspondence with the professors there before applying formally?

 RD: The entire application process is long and overwhelming in itself. Right from the preparation for GRE to the shortlisting of universities can take up most of the time without a guarantee of getting there. So I think its always best to mail some professors to see what they say about being a good fit in their lab and the university as a whole. I did mail quite a few professors before applying formally to the graduate programs. I got some positive responses which are why I went ahead in the application process. 

MM: How did you prepare for GRE? How did you strike a fine balance between your preparations and regular studies/projects and what tips would you like to give to the future GRE aspirants?    

RD: I took my GRE in October 2017 in my 9th semester. I started studying from the summer that year but I prepared myself a lot in the last month before the exam. Quantitative part was easier to prepare. As for the English part, I had to get all the probable GRE words correct with their meanings and that took quite a time. I went through a vigorous process of writing down words with their synonyms in my GRE notebook mostly from Manhattan prep and Princeton. During this process, I was working simultaneously on my Reading comprehension part, which for m,e was the most difficult part of the exam. I remember trying to work all the RCs from all the books I had. I took my first official ETS test a month before the exam and I used to take frequent tests every week to see if I had improved. For books, I had the official ETS book, the Princeton review and the Manhattan 5lb book which had a lot of question sets.  It is extremely important to take frequent tests and sit through the four hours of the exam to have a general idea of what might go wrong or right.

So those initial few months in the semester I was preparing for my GRE mostly, except for in mid-September due to the midterms. Looking back it was quite tedious to strike a balance between both coursework and lab work and GRE preparation but I am happy the way things turned out so it is fine. 

MM: What all scholarships and other stipends and assistance you would be receiving while studying abroad?

RD: At the University Of Arizona Tucson I will be receiving a full tuition fee waiver for the entire duration along with a Teaching assistantship for the first year which will change to research assistantship in the coming years.  I got a Gregson Chemistry fellowship from the department after I joined the university along with my TA which was quite a surprise. I had not applied for the Gregson scholarship but my graduate coordinator told me that I was selected because of good academic credentials. So as of now, I have a TA stipend along with the scholarship.

MM: How can the course curriculums of the department be modified to encourage more students to pursue higher studies abroad instead of passively giving into jobs in the non-core sector?   

RD: I think research is not given that much of an importance in NITR compared to the research institutes in India like IISc and IISERs. I mean it is a technical institute but research is something that should be a viable option for students who don’t want to join a non-core job after their Bachelors and don’t have a good research profile to carry out further research and end up taking a 9 to 5 job much to their dissatisfaction. So I think the coursework can be modified to accommodate more research work. For example for the Integrated MSc students, we study a lot of other subjects in our first year which is not essential for us because we are never going to use them in the future. And instead of adding courses from other departments I think the coursework and lab work should focus more on the core subjects in which the student enrolled. This way they finish a major chunk of their subject in the initial years and have enough time for research in their last two years Along with the modification of coursework, faculties play a major role in inspiring the students to take up research. Right from the start, they should give an idea of what research means and how useful it is for students who don’t want a job right away.

But in general, from my experience, I would that research and development in India is an underdeveloped sector which is quite an irony. A lot of issues starting from funding to placements have hindered its progress and have made students drop out of research which is not a good sign for a developing country like us, especially when we compare ourselves with the USA, Europe, and the Asian countries.

MM: Where do you plan to see yourself after completing your Ph.D.?

RD: I am a person who takes one step at a time. Since I am just in my first semester of Ph.D. and the research work hasn’t started, I am not sure as of now if I want to continue my career in academics or go for industrial research. I am guessing I will figure that out in these five years.  It also depends a lot on the research that I will do and the job opportunities in the university. My university has great industrial collaborations in the US as well as other industries in the world; so definitely, an R&D scientist in one of the industries is an excellent option and so is the satisfaction of working as an independent researcher in the top universities of the world.

MM:  What message would you wish to pass on to your juniors that will guide them in their quest to success?

RD: Well I would say that people who want to go for a PhD should start building up their CV accordingly by working in various labs in their institute as well as by going for internships in India and abroad. If you plan on working in India start preparing for GATE and NET early on. But if you do want to pursue research abroad, a strong research profile is very important. I don’t want to burst the bubble for the undergraduates but CGPA matters in every corner of the world. Start preparing for GRE and TOEFL the minute you make up your mind for coming to the US even if you don’t apply until later. Always keep good contacts with your research guides, your professors and the people who you meet in your internships and never hesitate to seek help.  Good Recommendation letters are extremely important. And for students who don’t get admitted in their first chance, work on where you lagged out and improve your CV. Take up projects, work and apply again.   

Even though Ph.D. is not a high paying job, but if a Ph.D. pathway is what you chose to go, you might have an annoying day but you will be satisfied with yourself at the end of the day. The world works on decreasing the potential energy of the system in everything we do. Ph.D. will certainly increase your potential while decreasing the potential energy at the same time. So you know you’ll be fine.

Monday Morning wishes all the success to Rajeswari Das for her future endeavours.

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