Please tell us about yourself. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
Like every high school kid in India, I had heard about IIT, though I did not have the same notions about it as most people do when entering this institution. For many of the entrants, it was a way of living life ahead; for others, it was just a time and place to explore new stuff; and for the rest it was a time to be confused about what to do.
I came in the third category. The notion put forward to me by my parents was definitely the turning point! They told me the real side of what science and technology meant to the world. This proved to be one of my key motivations for going through the struggle to be here, and ultimately setting my goals ahead. Following a fate based education system that exists here and being open minded to pursue science or engineering I landed up at IITB for an Integrated M.Sc. in Chemistry. My decision to take this branch was definitely debated at home, but I ultimately took it with my eyes closed, since Chemistry was one subject that I was in love with.
Tell us about your experience at IIT
Now, Chemistry wasn’t really a branch that was favored by most of the students back then, as was evident to me through various comments made by my friends and sometimes even a few professors. However, I didn’t pay much heed to these opinions and utilized my first year trying out many activities varying from cultural and technical activities to organizer duties and many more. But what really grabbed my interest were the electronics club sessions, as I was obsessed with bread board and bots.
Sitting in the Wadhwani Electronics Lab (WEL Lab), my mind started searching for ways on how I could bridge what I was going to do in five years with the field of electronics, and I was enlightened by many professors about how the fields of micro/nano-electronics and molecular electronics involve extensive amount of chemistry. I saw this as a very interesting bridge to travel between these zones and set out exploring more about these right from my first year summers, keeping branch change related thoughts on the lighter side.
What was your career path
I was working on a project on Organic Semiconductors in my first year summers and it led me to take up a minor in Electrical Engineering to understand an engineer’s aspect of electronics. I eventually ended up taking both core courses that B.Tech folks do as well as the minor courses and I was really lucky to get wonderful teachers to teach these courses. The courses formed a strong foundation to electrical engineering and aided bridging the gap between disciplines. At the end of the day, as the boundaries between branches were fast disappearing, I realized how fundamentally intertwined these are.
If you tell someone outside IIT about a chemist doing an electrical engineer’s work, he would probably think you have gone mad!
The multidimensional growth of disciplines is yet to hit the mind of a common man for whom a B.Tech. in CS or EE is the only way of securing life.
Further what reinforced my interests towards Nanoelectronics and the underlying chemistry in this field was my internship with Applied Materials. Working with Applied Materials, one of the semiconductor industry giants, made me realize the role that a chemist plays in building the modern semiconductor industry. It made me realize that I was capable of doing everything from designing and making the material, to fabricating the device and testing it.
Apart from being a student and researcher, my opportunity to teach Quantum Physics and Electrodynamics to undergraduates during ten teaching assistantships across four years gave me a better understanding of fundamental physics and thus a picture of nanoelectronics. Quantum Mechanics had been my favorite topic right from first year and my work on semiconductor single electron transistors systems during my third year and fourth year made me understand that my favorite topic played a crucial role in understanding the behaviour of nano-electronic devices.
It was nothing but a desire to learn more of basic physics that eventually lead me to pursue another parallel minor in it. The additional coursework I took was always to support my hunger as a researcher and my evolving interests. I even explored the theoretical side during my internship at Indiana University and came back realizing that I don’t enjoy hard-core theoretical research though I do love using it to validate experimental results.
The final verdict of most of our lives generally gets decided by final year, and so was mine! My Master’s thesis was done in the field of optoelectronics with a collaboration between Chemistry and Physics departments. There was good amount of motivation and support from my supervisors, Prof. Subramaniam and Prof. Aslam, to explore what I was interested in – which probably moulded my interests into a proper direction. I had a really well paying job offer from a core company; and admits to two of the top 10 schools in my field of interest. PhD was my primary choice, though it was Electrical Engineering at EPFL versus Materials Chemistry at The University of Chicago. I went ahead with Chicago as I found a more interesting pool of faculty and students there. At the University of Chicago I eventually opted to take an additional Masters in Physics to make my foundation more established in the same and was awarded the same in the summer of 2017. Looking back at this long journey and its dynamics , I would attribute this accomplishment to the simultaneous research experience and coursework, with the right cocktail of focus, enthusiasm and optimism.
There exist forbidden transitions in quantum mechanics but probably not for your passion.
Your advice to students?
In this diverse world of knowledge if you are determined to work for what you are passionate about, then there are no boundaries or limits for you. The world is a web of knowledge. Everything is so intertwined and flexible in this small world that you can teleport wherever you want. Live your dreams for they are only yours, What just matters is the fire in you. Just “Do not go gentle into that good night!”
Vishnu Nair is currently a second year graduate student at The University of Chicago. Vishnu works on the development of new hybrid materials to interface and stimulate cells aimed at building bio-electronic devices.