A Strong Bonding with Research: Bharath A B
Debabrata Malik | Nov 18, 2019
A guiding light is all that you need in life. With a perfect amalgamation of hard work, persistence, guidance, perseverance the recipe for success is prepared. And this recipe has been well-fed in Bharath A B’s life. The journey from God’s own country to the “City of Spires”-Copenhagen, his journey has been incredibly scintillating and interesting. After bagging some of the most prestigious internships, he gets a prestigious admit for PhD at the University of Copenhagen. Here is an excerpt from the interview.
Monday Morning: Tell us something about your childhood. How did Chemistry at NIT Rourkela happen to you?
Bharath A B: I come from a humble joint family in a small village named Vithura in God’s own country Kerala and my childhood was spent with mother nature at its best. I am grateful for the stimulating atmosphere that my parents and family members created with education being the prime focus. I still remember my grandfather asking me questions from the newspaper to check my general knowledge back then. My parents recall that I learned to count at our paddy field with stork as the subject. I had to give up the luxury of exploring the vast greenery around my ancestral house at the age of 11 as I joined Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya, which I regard as a turning point in my life. Following the traditional Gurukula system of education, I enjoyed learning everything that ranges in this ‘linked set’: science to mathematics to sports to music (well, in simpler words, curricular and extracurricular activities). Navodaya system transformed me into a self-reliant, responsible, and composed human being.
Coming to chemistry at NIT Rourkela, it was unexpected. I had multiple interests that I wanted to pursue after class XIIth and had gotten admits to various institutes for engineering and science. After a session of brainstorming with the so-called experts, I concluded to pursue chemistry at NIT Rourkela. The factors which led to this decision were my participation in science camps & exhibitions, olympiads, and other nationwide aptitude tests. Specifically, the DST-INSPIRE summer camp was motivating and encouraged me to learn by observation and inquiry, which I enjoyed. Turns out that digging deep to get a grasp of fundamentals needed knowledge not just in science, rather arts and philosophy. I suppose the ‘mind-seeds’ to be a scientist were sown during that time.
MM: What all clubs were you a part of and how helpful was your involvement in extracurricular activities?
BA: I was part of two clubs- the NITR Chemistry Society and The Science Club, NITR. I regret not being an active club member. I vividly remember that we had organized an event titled ‘Kaun Banega Chempati’ with my classmates back then. It helped me in multiple ways like:
- Enhancing group discussion and communication skills
- Taking part in constructive and collective brainstorming
- Improving my presentation skills
- Nurturing a co-operative group mentality
The Science Club, which currently might not be in the SAC’s current list of clubs, had a positive impact in my professional career, especially in networking to work out potential collaborations. It was founded by some of my batchmates in physics and the motto, in the words of the creator, goes like this: “To promote scientific culture and logic in our institute NIT Rourkela. A society for sharing knowledge by giving lectures, asking questions and loads of nerdy fun”. I enjoyed the lecture sessions and group discussions with my friends but we failed to make it a registered and permanent club, which of course is another thing I regret.
MM: Given the fact that the academic curriculum wasn't flexible, how did you manage to strike a chord with your grades, projects and other things?
BA: When you travel miles away from your home for professional studies, you have the spirit to excel in academics, ‘to prove yourself that the choice was worth it’ sort-of mentality. During the first 3 years of my studies, I gave priority to academics as advised by my mentor Dr Supratim Giri (Asst Prof at NITR) to first gain ‘some’ knowledge in the vast subject of chemistry and then delve into working out research problems. After regular academic hours, I used to spend some time in the lab to develop skills and understand how PhD scholars design a research problem and conduct studies. I am thankful for the support from Mr Balmiki Kumar (currently a postdoctoral research scholar at the University of Toronto, Mississauga) in this regard.
I tried to find the right proportion of consistency, hard work, determination and perseverance to excel in academics and research and I guess that’s how striking chords with grades and projects were attained.
MM: You have interned in some of the prestigious institutes in India such as IACS Kolkata and abroad at Weizmann Institute of Science as well. Walk us through the process that led you to bag these scholarship programs. Shed light on your internship experiences.
BA: I heard about IAS-SRFP from my seniors and back then, by the looks of it, this was quite difficult to ‘bag’. The application procedure that follows the general workflow of preparing a CV and SOP was quite daunting in the beginning since I was new to it. Having developed an interest in soft materials based on nanoparticles, my SOP was based on that. As always, the prospective internship supervisors were shortlisted based on my research interests but not the host institution. I got the IAS-SRFP (Indian Academy of Science-Summer Research Fellowship Programme) in 2016 to work with Prof. Arindam Banerjee’s research group on functional soft materials at IACS Kolkata. Herein, I worked on developing short self-assembling peptide sequences that have potential applications in biomedicine.
It is from Prof. Banerjee that I heard about the Kupcinet-Getz international summer school at WIS, where he had done his post-doctoral research. WIS is excellent in fundamental research and that’s the thing that caught my attention. I guess I was lucky to be 1 among the 4 students selected for this program from India. I met amazing people from all around the world who became good friends in life and weirdly, science was the medium of communication. The short term research in Israel was a life-changing experience that gifted me with a plethora of ideas and perspectives. I worked in the group of Prof. Rafal Klajn, an excellent scientist who worked with Prof. Fraser Stoddart, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2016). I was humbled by this opportunity and worked hard to get the best out of it. I worked on selective self-assembly of photoresponsive nanoparticles.
Before IACS and WIS, I did an internship at CSIR-IMMT Bhubaneswar in 2015 with Dr Y S Chaudhary and I am thankful to Dr Rabindra Kumar Behera (Asst. Prof, NITR) for helping me in getting that position even though it was unpaid. I got the right exposure here which later on helped me bag the scholarships at WIS and IACS.
MM: How do you think these internships enhanced your research rationale and helped you bagged a PhD at such a coveted institution?
BA: Getting selected for these prestigious internships under the guidance of world-class scientists was an important breakthrough in my understanding of science and research. The work environments were conducive to perform research on fundamental science. Working alongside an internationally acclaimed ‘scientific arena’ improved my critical thinking ability and most importantly, drove my mind to aim high. Constant interaction with fellow labmates inspired me to work hard and helped me learn about time management in research. Giving birth to an idea to obtaining ‘desirable’ results seemed simple at first sight, but as I experienced the complex intermediate stages which involve trials, failures, brainstorming, etc., it helped me grow as a researcher.
MM: Tell us about your PhD admit at the University of Copenhagen. What were the procedures entailed for it?
BA: The PhD admit at the University of Copenhagen was unexpected, which further strengthened the uncertainty of events in my life. I had applied for this position in the 1st quarter 0f 2018 and got a positive reply in the 3rd quarter at which point I was almost ready to join the University of Montreal, Canada. After an ‘informal’ video chat, the panel decided to fly me over to Copenhagen for 1 week to undergo the ‘official’ interview. With travel and accommodation are taken care of by the university, I decided to give it a chance. I mean, why the hell not, it’s a free trip to Europe. During this one week, my prospective supervisors explained my project, gave me a tour of the labs and interacted with the group members to see if this position suited me. Having had close interaction with my prospective supervisors about science, research, and life, I got the green signal. Hence I chose to join UCPH under TALENT Doctoral Program where 20 got selected out of 1000 applicants worldwide. Once again, I felt extremely lucky and super humbled by this chance that got ‘created’ via this unexpected turn of events. (My supervisor calls this “An Odd Interview”!)
Many a time, I was confused between what is the main criteria for choosing a place for my PhD PhD is about your overall development as a researcher and one should always remember that he/she is not working for his/her supervisor. You evolve during your PhD and you want the right environment which is mainly constrained by your supervisor and research group. You would want to find a good supervisor who has the right proportion of mentorship and excellence, ideally. You always have to strike a balance!
MM: What other universities did you apply for? How did you shortlist the universities?
BA: I had applied for universities all over the place! As far as I can remember, the University of Oxford, University of Copenhagen, Purdue University, University of Montreal, Emory University, et cetera.
I shortlisted the universities based on:
1) my research interests, and
2) excellence of the research group which entails the quality of work, collaborations, and placement of former group members.
MM: What are the areas that you would be working on as a graduate student at the University of Copenhagen?
BA: Broadly the area is palaeoproteomics; an up and coming research area that focuses on applying proteomics to learn about ancient life. Specifically, I am working on a fundamental question relevant to palaeoproteomics - modelling protein decay using a statistical model.
MM: What all scholarships have you been a recipient of?
- TALENT Doctoral Fellowship at the University of Copenhagen in 2019
- KGISS Fellowship at the WIS, Israel, in 2017
- IAS-SRFP at the IACS, Kolkata, in 2016
MM: Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?
BA: Honestly, I don’t know (As you probably saw in my answers a pattern of uncertainty and a lot of unexpected happenings!). But as of now, what I do know is that after the successful completion of my Ph.D., I want to spend some time in the industry to learn their research workflow which is different from academia. If things go as planned, I see myself as a scientist working for the betterment of society be it in academia or the industry.
MM: Science at NITR is not much celebrated and there are often redundant opinions about it. What is your opinion on this? Has it even deterred you from achieving what you had eyed for?
BA: I guess science was well celebrated among a few students and faculties. Well, the way I looked at it back then and even now, there are two different perspectives:
Perspective 1: My glass is half full
It was my choice to join NITR. I accepted the situations the way they were and made the best out of it. I wouldn’t have gained knowledge if it wasn’t for some good lectures at NITR. I wouldn’t have gotten these scholarships if it wasn’t for the advice I received from Prof. Supratim Giri & Prof. Rabindra Kumar Behera. Chemical Biology lab (in our 2nd year) instructed by Prof. Behera was different in the sense that it motivated me to ask questions (which I am still working on) and they were well received. The experiments were designed in such a way that they inspired us to think critically and come up with solutions on our own. These elements were major factors in my growth as a researcher.
Perspective 2: My glass is half empty
- About the course work which could have been polished by deleting unnecessary credit additions from other disciplines. Onto the 2nd year of our studies, some of us tried to act on it by filing a complaint with proof from how Integrated MSc courses are designed elsewhere in India. Though it did not change anything, we had full-fledged support from most faculties from the chemistry department.
- Common laboratory space was really poor and needs reconstruction with better infrastructure equipped for performing a quality M.Sc. level experiment. Fund allocation is a matter of serious concern in this regard, as has always been.
- Master’s project which was composed of only 4+4 credits in the final 2 semesters was not enough in my opinion, which is important for students focusing on pursuing a PhD.
Given the fact that I had dual perspectives, I found a fine balance following a holistic approach. Of course, I am not a perfect NITR Integrated MSc Chemistry graduate, but I did manage to secure a decent PhD position as did a lot of science graduates from NITR. So the answer to your second question is no, it has never deterred me from achieving what I had eyed for. I believe that there is a way around every problem, you just have to be patient and composed to find the right way. And that’s exactly what I did.
And though science is celebrated amongst a small fraction of people in NITR, we do it with JOSH.
MM: Enlighten our readers with your success mantra and the templates they should follow if they want to succeed in the field of research.
BA: Let me start with the saying “Knowledge is power”. In any field of research, understanding the fundamental concepts is important and at times like these where we have unlimited access to knowledge; this is easy given that you are motivated to burn some extra calories. Once you feel you know “something”, talk to faculties or research scholars or even better, write to someone who is sitting miles away asking for opportunities just to see their response. Be it positive or negative, you would get a grasp of your level, then you improvise from there. There are a lot of chances out there and you just have to find them and apply. Learn from every rejection and work hard to fill the gap, only to come stronger and well equipped. Get as much exposure as possible during these 5 years and most importantly, develop connections. If you have an idea, talk out loud among the crowd so they listen to you! Let your research work show who you are, professionally.
Monday Morning congratulates Bharath A B for his achievements in research and wishes him for a bright future in his field of research.