The Art of Inspiring Young Minds: Ajeet Kumar

The Art of Inspiring Young Minds: Ajeet Kumar

Since its inception, the NIT Rourkela fraternity has proved its mettle and dominance in the academic and research sector. Dr Ajeet Srivastav is one of them to make the institute proud. After completing B.Tech. from the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, NIT Rourkela, in 2006, Dr Ajeet was awarded the DAAD Fellowship to work at IFW Dresden(Germany). He completed his Masters and PhD from reputed IITs and joined VNIT Nagpur as an assistant professor. After winning awards like the Early Career Research Grant, SERB-DST, and Core Research Grant, he was recently selected as the 2021 Crystal Growth and Design Emerging Investigator Award to get featured in a virtual issue by the American Chemical Society. 

Team Monday Morning reached out to him to know more about his journey, achievements, and his plans for the future.

Monday Morning (MM): Tell us about your childhood, schooling, and education.

Ajeet Srivastav(AS): I grew up in a small town named Dostpur in Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh. I obtained my primary education from a government school in the same town. In 2002, I joined the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, which happened to be the first Metallurgy and Material Science batch of the department in NITR. The same year REC Rourkela was renamed NIT Rourkela, and Professor Sunil Sarangi joined as the first director of NIT Rourkela.

The following four years were an essential learning experience for me. In my third year, I bagged a summer internship at NML Jamshedpur, a CSIR laboratory. Followingly, I joined Prof B.C. Ray’s lab for my final year project work. Fortunately, for the first time, I got a taste of what research is all about, and we tried to do the best we could have done at that time. There was great support and constant motivation from my supervisor. I remember one critical point that I even tell my students now: “don’t let it go if you have some stimulating results” and hence after finishing all the coursework when all the students left the campus, I stayed almost two months in the lab itself. I was trying to understand the results in-depth, and those two months were very fruitful. I wrote a manuscript, and while leaving, I gave it to my supervisor, and he refined it. Together we published it in an international journal, “The gel of reinforced plastics and composites.” That gave me a lot of encouragement and motivation to pursue higher studies. 

Then I moved to IIT Kanpur for  MTech in Material Science and Engineering, and by the time I finished my first semester, the paper came online. Around that time, everybody was applying for the DAAD fellowship, which is generally referred to as the DAAD-IIT master sandwich program. I had the edge over other students due to that publication. Fortunately, I got selected along with three other students from IIT Kanpur. To complete my thesis work, I stayed under that DAAD IIT master sandwich program at IFW Dresden, Germany. Again, that was a great learning experience because it was my first international research program, which was fascinating. Once I moved there, I noticed that there was a difference in working culture. By the time I finished it and came back to India, I had gained vast experiences in the technical domain and my attitude towards research. At the same time, I was a bit more mature as a person.

I came back and decided to join Prof B.S. Murty at IIT Madras for my PhD because he worked in my area of interest, Thermodynamics and Phase Transformations. In 2014 I completed my PhD degree. I worked at NIT Warangal for a concise duration, and then I got an assistant professor position at VNIT Nagpur. I am continuing the same and am currently busy with academic and research activities. I have formed a small group, and I’m trying to deliver my best in research while teaching and helping the next generation in the best way I can.

MM: What made you pursue Metallurgy and materials Engineering for BTech in NIT Rourkela?

AS:  When I was filling choices for my BTech degreeI applied for Chemical Engineering and Metallurgical and Materials Engineering in the first seven positions. I did not have much idea about metallurgy. Still, it was clear to me that I wanted to pursue a chemistry-related field. I have always been inclined towards research in the chemistry domain.

I didn’t have a clear idea, but I knew that this branch was more research-oriented somehow. So, I filled these two branches for my BTech, and then, fortunately, I got the Metallurgy department at NITR, and later I felt that this was the perfect choice for me. Even now, I have that excitement for the branch that I pursued at that time. Metallurgy is a branch that people think is related to all the furnaces and those things, and yes, it is. But, many other things are involved in the background where we design materials for various applications like structural and functional applications, which makes the whole thing very exciting. Whether it is material that will be used for electronics, energy materials or any other sort of materials, this is a fascinating discipline to pursue.

When I teach my students, I always try to make this thing very clear to them as to why this branch is so special to me. I give them examples from the newest developments in the discipline to increase their curiosity.

MM: Share with us your experiences at your Alma Mater. How has NIT Rourkela contributed to your accomplishments?

AS: I remember that it was the third or fourth semester when there was a course Metallurgical Thermodynamics’, taught by Prof. Mithlesh Kumar, and that’s when I got interested in Metallurgy. That course gave me a lot of confidence as before that I was not that much into academics, and my performance was not that good but, once I got into the fifth semester, I started developing an interest in the topics. I remember there was a very famous book by George E. Dieter for Mechanical Metallurgy. Whenever I used to go to the department or anywhere, I kept that book with me to understand what to go through. In the fifth or sixth semester, there was a course for Testing of Materials laboratory. On the very first day, the faculty coordinator of the lab, Prof. B.B. Verma, asked us one fundamental question regarding Tensile Testing. Nobody answered that question, and he got so angry, but I had gradually gotten the hang of the fundamental things by then since I liked the course and went through that book very carefully. I answered his question. He came out when I was leaving for my hostel (he used to come with his hero majestic luna he had that time) and called me. He told me that marks also matter, and he felt that I was not bothered about the marks, but I should. I was motivated when he said these things, and then that gave me more confidence to understand the theory, and the journey continued.

I used to write mostly as bulleted points as I was unable to write long sentences due to English language problems owing to the Hindi medium background. For the same reason, I used to finish my question paper very fast, in two hours or so. I remember that Prof K.N. Singh taught the Iron and Steelmaking course, and he felt happy that my way of answering was so precise, so he just waved that answer book in the class and told everyone that this is how you should write. That was again a very encouraging point.

MM: What captivated your imagination to work in the field you are currently in, and how did NIT Rourkela help you realize your vision?

AS: The first thing I want to mention is the experience that I got during my BTech project work gave me clarity regarding whether or not I should go for higher education in academics and research. Hence, I immediately joined the MTech program at IIT Kanpur, and I did not have any second thoughts about anything else. So definitely, that clarity came to me when I was in my final year at NITR. When I was doing my summer intern at NML Jamshedpur, I had to make a Quasicrystal Reinforced Aluminium Metal Matrix Composite, and the time available was less. Still, I tried my level best, but we couldn't make it because some inherent fundamental problems were involved for the same, as we had to make that one using casting. Then I realized that, even if you fail, you learn many things, which was when I started doing my BTech project. I was able to handle things in a much better way. NITR clarified where I should be in the next five or ten years down the line.

MM: You chose a career in the research line rather than choosing the conventional industry line. Any particular reason behind that?

AS: There was no particular reason, but I started liking how people work in research or academic work. It's like learning things and then conveying the learnings to the next person. You can transfer the knowledge to one another and, if you can apply it to do something new, that is truly exciting. And of course, being here in this department at VNIT, I keep visiting industries to learn how people work in the industry and try to make the product, so that is again fascinating. One should have the mindset that I’m the person who should go in this particular line to contribute in a better way.

Everyone has their interest, and that is why I tell everyone to pursue whatever their interest is. The only point is that you should realize your interest to know where you need to put a lot of effort. If you are getting some opportunity, try to put your heart into it and utilize that opportunity; then only you will have true clarity.

Basically, to know that this is not your cup of tea, you should taste the tea first.”

MM: You were awarded the DAAD fellowship during your M.Tech at IIT Kanpur to work at IFW Dresden, Germany. Can you briefly describe your thesis work there?

AS: When I went there, a group of students were working on ferromagnetic nanowires, and the students who passed out before me had already performed some interesting work on nickel nanowires. They were looking for someone to work on even exciting material that was cobalt and cobalt platinum alloy nanowires. 

For higher data storage devices, you make things smaller and smaller. Then your data storage density should go up accordingly. I was working on cobalt and cobalt-platinum alloy nanowires for magnetic data storage devices. This ferromagnetic nanowire exploits the magnetic anisotropy with the Cobalt-Platinum system because they come from hcp crystalline structures. So I synthesised that cobalt platinum alloy nanowires, then we looked at the temperature dependence of the magnetic properties for these materials. When you make your materials smaller to enhance the smallest unit for the data storage, then there is a chance that the temperature might make the data storage difficult. That is why the temperature-dependent magnetic properties of the material must be investigated. Eventually, that became the theme of my thesis work. It was very beneficial for me, and I am still trying to understand a few results. Four international journal papers have already come, and I also contributed to two top-level conferences. The first paper that came out is almost 150 times cited by now, and one of those 4 papers came out recently. I keep going back to the same data, again and again, to understand a few things. My point is that research takes time, and every time you look back at the data, you see different things - that is how your analysis improves. That is how you add even more interesting points to the analysis to address the community. Overall it was a fascinating time when I worked in Germany under the DAAD IIT Master Sandwich Program.

MM: Having already completed BTech and MTech, did PhD provide you with a new dimension? What was it like at IIT Madras?

AS: I remember when I was about to finish my work at IFW Dresden in Germany, I wrote to Prof. B.S. Murty a few days before leaving Germany. He's a very inspiring personality and a wonderful researcher in the metallurgy community, particularly in India. Beyond technicality, he is also a wonderful person. I came to know about him and then I wrote to him before leaving Germany that I wanted to work with you and he immediately agreed. I remember that I sent him an email at almost 2:30 or 3 a.m., and I got the reply instantly. That was not an accident as he is usually awake at that time, and that is his daily routine. He will be awake and working up to two o'clock or three o'clock out of passion. Once he agreed, I returned to India and defended my thesis in Kanpur; then, I immediately went to Chennai to join his group. 

At that time, he had got a project from Defence Metallurgical Research Lab (DMRL), Hyderabad, where they had to develop nanocrystalline tungsten-based alloys. I joined the same project. When I started working, I realised that the problem they had given me was a huge question that the community was trying to answer, i.e., how to make bulk nanocrystalline materials. The bulk nanocrystalline material’s building block is often of nanometer scale and is usually unstable because many interfaces (called grain boundaries) will be present in nanocrystalline material. The greater the grain boundaries, the greater the energy of the materials, which is how it becomes unstable. The bigger question was how to make that stable. During my PhD, I came across an article in a journal named “Science,” where people publish breakthroughs in science. The paper came from a group of Prof. Christopher Schuh at MIT, reading which the problem got even exciting for me to work on. I tried to look at it with a fresh and a whole new point of view and then finally defended my thesis. The most important part of my thesis is still unpublished. I am working on it, but the entire idea, calculation and all have been done. We needed to have a predictive approach to make the material stable when making the bulk nanocrystalline alloys. That was very interesting to work on alongside Prof. B.S. Murty. He gives a lot of freedom and encouragement. So, yes, that was a fascinating journey for me during my PhD. 

Though my goal was different when I worked during my PhD, I serendipitously got one result, and I wondered about that. I saw some nanowires in my materials, and I could not understand why such kinds of nanowires were growing. Back then, I didn't have much time to work on this result. When I joined VNIT Nagpur, I put forth the same problem. I wrote one project proposal to the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB-DST) under Early Career Research Awards. Fortunately, I got that project sanctioned, and then I started working on why these tungsten oxide nanowires grow and tungsten surfaces. If you see the latest work that I, along with my PhD student, Suresh Bandi, have published, we were able to resolve the growth of nanowires on tungsten surfaces with complete crystallography and the mechanisms involved therein. My point is, whenever you get any interesting thing, grab it. Sometimes you may not answer questions at that particular time, but you can solve them over time if you stay with the problem. Your knowledge will improve. You will get more mature with the whole learning process. After some time, you might have a different way of looking at the problem and solving it.

I still look back at my master’s thesis. I published my latest work a couple of months back in the Journal of Crystal Growth. I have been doing that almost for 12 or 13 years, and that was only possible because whenever I see something interesting, I try to involve myself and not let the problem go. Many people leave the problem behind and go ahead, which is not ideal.

MM: For over nine months, you were a visiting research fellow at Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research, Germany. How enriching was the experience at the place?

AS: It was amazing. There were two scientists that I was directly working with. We used to meet every week and discuss. There are a lot of cultural differences in the way they work, and we work. They used to come for the meeting and try to understand and discuss whatever the problem was. If some doubt arises, the whole group would discuss the problem and understand what is happening. I learned many things about how research should be done, how to attack the problem, etc. It was a great experience learning from those very accomplished people. I learned the electrodeposition of cobalt and metallic nanowires. I recently got a project from the Ministry of Electronics where I have to work on similar stuff, so I'm getting an electrochemical workstation for the same. That experience gave me much more than only technical knowledge and was genuinely enriching. I suggest people go out of the country and gain some experience and exposure because once they come back, they will be very confident and well equipped than before.

MM: How did VNIT Nagpur happen to you, and how has been your teaching experience so far?

AS: I like teaching a lot. When I started teaching, many of my fundamentals got cleared, and through the process of teaching, many of my doubts got clarified. I aim to develop and practice that habit of listening to others, and that is where I spend a lot of time with my students. I sit with research scholars and class students whenever I get the time. In my opinion, every student is good, and you have to trust them and spend time with them. All of my colleagues and the head of the department (present and past) here at VNIT Nagpur are highly supportive of me. By now, I am involved in or have completed three projects, and you can see in terms of quality of work that was not possible without the department's support. It has been a great working experience at VNIT Nagpur in the last six years.

MM: With the introduction of the Online teaching mode due to COVID-19, what were the challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them?

AS: As a teacher, I feel I am on the backfoot when making my students learn some fundamental concepts online. I know online teaching has its limitations, and the physical way of interaction is the best interaction. When I talk to my students, they also mention the same thing because you may not focus at home many times. Another thing is that many students hesitate to ask doubts. I can make out whether the student understands what I'm teaching by looking at their facial expressions, but that is not possible online. Many students don't get their doubts cleared, and even if some students ask, certain concepts are complicated to make them understand virtually.

Nevertheless, I tell my students to put their questions on Google Classroom if they can't ask during class hours. I have also asked them to call me individually if they are unable to understand anything. We share the videos, presentations, and teaching material, but still, I feel there are limitations to all these, and there is nothing better than physical class.

MM: You have been conferred with the prestigious DST-SERB Early Career Research Award. Can you tell us something regarding the award and the basis and eligibility criteria? 

AS: When you join as a faculty or a scientist or position where you can research within the next two years of your joining the position, you must apply for that award

One has to write a project research proposal. After that, it will go through screening to check whether your background is suitable to work on that particular problem based on your profile, work experience, and quality of the research proposal. Based on that, they will decide whether you should be awarded or not. Amongst the number of applications they get, they choose only a few of those. There is a cap on the maximum limit of the fund, and I think they have reduced it now, but when I applied, it was 50 lakhs, excluding 10 lakhs for the overhead institute. Now I believe it has been reduced to 30 lakhs total. At that time, I got almost 35 lakh lakhs to work on that problem. That is why they call it an early career research award and is meant for young researchers to establish their labs.

We got two of the essential pieces of equipment from that amount and were able to work on the problem initiated during my PhD. I could not work on it in the past, so that research award helped me a lot.

It was also helpful for my research scholar, Suresh Bandi, who has worked hard and published around 13 papers, an excellent quality patent that has already been granted, four book chapters, and many research awards. It was all with support that I got the research award proposal accepted.

MM: Brief us about the project(s) and the fields of research you have pursued or will be pursuing in the future by the funding support grants you achieved, such as the SERB-DST, Early career Research award, Core Research Grant, MietY?

AS: The Early Career Research award through which I got that project sponsored. The student who had worked on that problem as a JRF (Junior Research Fellowship) is submitting his PhD thesis tomorrow, so yes, it was a great help to establish my lab.

With the help of such programs, when your projects get sanctioned, it helps establish one’s lab and supports the students working on research directly during their PhDs.Also, we have the DST Core Research Grant, with one of my colleagues, Prof. Jatin Bhatt, supported by DST.

It helps a lot, not only for us but also the students, to improve the research culture in the institutes. If the equipment is not available in my institute, I need to get things done from outside, which is time-taking. So, the support provided by the Indian Government matters a lot. Looking 15 or 20 years back, I don’t think I could have done any of my work without this support.

MM: You were recently selected for Crystal Growth & Design emerging Investigator position by the ACS. Can you tell us more about the eligibility process for the same?

AS: For the last few years, we have been working on the growth of nanostructured materials such as nanowires and nanoparticles. We were interested in the fundamental science behind it, so we published a few papers in this area. Among these, one appeared in one of the two top journals for crystal engineering that we had published in the Crystal Growth & Design by American Chemical Society(ACS) in December. The criteria for this award are:

  • The people who are causing significant impact in the field of crystal engineering 
  • The ones chosen must be from the papers submitted in the last two years.

We published about something whose origin goes back to the late 1950s – how the hematite phase forms. The hematite nanoparticles are very difficult to grow as these nanoparticles grow very fast. We tried to understand the process as we can overcome the problem once we know it. We used crystallography to address that problem which has been unsolved to date. 

Looking at this, the judges must've thought to award us with the Emerging Crystal Growth Investigator to highlight our work along with 23 others in the virtual issue.

MM: Looking at the current covid scenario, what challenges did you face during the research, and how did you overcome them?

AS:  It was a great learning curve for me. The time was not favourable for us, so one of my students had to leave. I tried to stay in touch with him as much as possible and help him with his time management. We tried to utilise our time to analyse the manuscripts. We used to discuss things over the phone about proceeding based on the data we already had. It was around March – July, so we tried to utilise the manuscripts to make up for the lab work (which was not possible in online mode) through the five months.  

One should always have a backup plan for times like these, and we finally ended up writing a book chapter due to efficient time management. In terms of productivity, it didn’t affect us too much, although things could have been better if we had the opportunity to get back to the lab. So, the key is to have something extra that we can pursue, and for B.Tech students, maybe they can learn things like Machine Learning, Programming Language, Artificial Intelligence, or something to make up for the lost time. Develop the skills that will help you in the long run and help you get an edge over the others.  

MM: Considering the current Coronavirus pandemic, what are your plans to progress with this prestigious position?

AS: I expect that if I write more research proposals to submit aggressively, they might consider taking it up after looking at my biodata as the Crystal Investigator. There are so many scientists working in Prestigious institutes worldwide, so getting placed on such a list feels good. 

During covid, we can think of some bigger problems to solve related to Materials and Metallurgical design. This will also help me get many collaborators as they trust you, looking at the accomplishments of what we could have had in the recent past.

MM: What do you feel about the present scope of the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering at NIT Rourkela? What, according to you, are some of the fascinating fields of research at this point?

AS: The Metallurgical and Materials Engineering department is in an excellent position now. I say this because they have some outstanding faculty, as I know quite a few of them. At the same time, the facilities available in terms of research and the revised curriculum are helping the students a lot

One interesting research topic that everyone discusses is the sustainable way of utilising solar or photovoltaic materials. Many such materials have been used in the domain of Biomedics and sensors. Another example is structural materials. It is one area that is a hot topic of discussion in the metallurgy community which everyone wishes to explore. High entropy alloys are an area that has a lot of prospects, and some exciting things are coming up.

MM: Do you feel there is a lack of proper guidance and exposure for the NIT Rourkela students to aspire to achieve global recognition and bag highly lucrative research projects?

AS: In my opinion, the students at NITR are doing well in the research domain, but there is always scope for improvement. One way to improve the research culture is to increase the interaction time between the teacher and students. The students are not yet aware of many things, and the teachers can guide them in various domains like higher studies, research, and industry experience. This kind of awareness helps a lot, so teacher-student interaction is an important thing. 

Staying well prepared for various opportunities will help the students to apply when needed. These things can affect the career significantly and must be utilised correctly.  

MM: When was the last time you visited NIT Rourkela? What are the significant changes that you observed since the time you graduated in 2006?

AS: It was a nostalgic feeling when the Monday Morning team approached me. The last time I visited NIT Rourkela was in 2014, and the entire institute has changed. Some places looked like new ones entirely.

In front of the hostel, there used to be a hexagon canteen where we used to have nimboo pani - that has also changed. Overall, since all of those were positive changes, I was thrilled. I have been to many institutes and IITs like Madras, Kanpur, etc., and I can say that NITR is in the same league as many old IITs. The number of departments and new courses have increased significantly. I met with many faculty members and students – everyone was so motivated, and it felt good if there were anything that I could do for my alma mater, I would surely do, as it is the place where everything started for me. 

MM: What piece of advice would you like to give to the present students here at NIT Rourkela?

AS: “Do whatever you like.” To quote my PhD supervisor, “You do not wait for Saturdays and Sundays.” When you work on something you love and get acknowledged or paid for it, that is the best feeling ever. Once you love what you do, everything just falls into place, and you won't have to worry about anything anymore.

Team MM congratulates Ajeet Srivastava for his achievements and wishes all the best for his future endeavours. He has paved the path for many aspirants out there and has been the source of inspiration for many.

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