Please tell us about yourself
Sandeep Jain is back in Bangalore. Since early August he has been working in Shell’s computational chemistry group in that city. He was the first of 75 PhD students from India to have completed his doctoral research – in just 3.5 years – within the Computational Sciences for Energy Research (CSER) programme (a partnership between NWO and Shell).
In a laudatory speech held immediately after Jain’s successful defence of his thesis, his PhD supervisor, Gerard Barkema (Utrecht University), intimated that throughout those years he never seen Jain in a bad mood. Jain remembers Barkema telling him on the very first day of the project that it would be good for both of them if Jain could manage to complete his thesis within four years. “I always kept that deadline in mind,” Jain says.
How does a chemistry student from Rajasthan end up in Utrecht? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
Jain: “I did an integrated master’s in physical and analytical chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology in Roorkee. I had been planning to get a job in industry, so until I heard about the CSER programme in 2012 I had never considered going for a doctorate. A friend said that this programme might be something for me, also because I had done a couple of internships in the field of computational sciences. An enthusiastic group of people from Shell Bangalore came to our campus to talk about the various research themes of the CSER programme. I began to read more about energy and got motivated. Where do we want to be with the planet 20 years from now? The energy sector is in need of innovation and sustainability. That’s why I signed up.”
To the Netherlands… Where was that again?
As the CSER programme’s themes mainly relate to physics and material sciences and Jain’s background was in chemistry, he assumed he didn’t have the right qualifications. He was surprised when Shell invited him to come to Delhi for an interview. Jain: “Then things suddenly got serious and exciting. I had never even been outside of India. Where was the Netherlands again? On the internet I read good reviews about the quality of the sciences in the Netherlands and about how the Dutch were open to people from other countries. Another important factor was that I wouldn’t need to learn a new language because everyone would speak English. My father wondered if I could survive in the Netherlands, being a vegetarian. I checked a bunch of restaurant menus and convinced my family that I should take this opportunity. The prospect of job security at Shell once I had earned my PhD was a decisive argument in that regard. At a certain point I was notified that I had been accepted. By means of a matching process involving three supervisors, I was paired with Gerard Barkema of Utrecht University. In October 2013, after I had completed my master’s, I found myself at Schiphol Airport with all my luggage. My first positive shock came when I noticed how luxuriously empty the train compartments were.”
How did your research process go?
“Barkema introduced me to people in the department. I felt welcome there from day one. I was able to do my PhD research on my favourite subject. I was awestruck by the portraits of famous physicists hanging in the corridors, and I could hardly believe it when I realised I’d just had a conversation with Nobel laureate Gerard ‘t Hooft! My research focused on graphene, the wonder material that Andre Geim discovered in 2004. The original plan had been to start working on solar cells of amorphous graphite, a 3D network. By reducing that to two layers, you get graphene. Working with 2D has the advantage that it is easier visualise it and easier to build mathematical simulations around. In our research we discovered that by manipulating the boundaries we could change the concentration of defects. This is important because the current applications of graphene in industry are still limited due to the number of defects. We also proposed methods for overcoming this problem.”
How will Shell benefit from the results of your research?
“So the focus of the research ended up being something completely different from our initial idea. I got completely carried way with one aspect and just kept working on that. Shell went along with the switch because the new topic was also of interest to them. After all, graphene can be used in separating oil and water. It can also be useful for membranes on solar cells. Shell is interested in carbon-carbon interactions, and graphene is made of carbon. I enjoyed being able to take the time to solve my own puzzle. Going into more depth with regard to a single parameter could easily cost a couple of months. Barkema was the idea superviser; he was always available whenever I had questions.”
How was the experience at Netherlands?
Already by the end of the third year, Jain was able to set a date to defend his thesis. Jain: “Because I had written a number of articles in the meantime, the chapters of my thesis were practically finished. My defence ceremony took place on 1 May, followed by a nice party with lots of Indian food. I wasn’t aware that I would be the first person within the CSER programme to finish his PhD.”
Looking back, Jain considers his time in the Netherlands to have been an overwhelmingly positive experience. He appreciates the directness of the Dutch people, as it means the real message always comes across. “Saying what you actually think ensures clarity in your work. In the Netherlands you don’t need to worry about the possible repercussions if you tell someone that you see things differenty. Hierarchy is more important in India, but too much politeness can be confusing.”
Jain is now back in Bangalore, which he finds a nice city to live in. “So far it has been an amazing experience working here,” he writes. “I’m already working on energy-related projects. Obviously it’s different than working at a university since here you have to work in a team and the goals are formulated on the basis of business demands. I’m mostly fascinated by the idea that innovation can change the energy field – and that by contributing my knowledge and skills I can help bring about changes on higher levels.”
The Computational Sciences for Energy Research (CSER) initiative Shell and the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter (FOM) started the CSER programme in 2012. A brainchild of Dirk Smit, CTO at Shell, this public-private partnership aims at bringing about a sustainable investment in computational sciences in the Netherlands. Over the course of the programmes lifetime, 75 master’s students from top universities in India will be given the opportunity to do doctoral research in the Netherlands on energy-related themes from the top sectors of Energy and Chemistry. Once they have earned their PhD, they can start working at the Shell research lab in Bangalore.