Please tell us about yourself
An illustrious scholar from the modest ranks of her college days, Megha Acharya, a promising young-achiever of the 2016 batch of Ceramic Engineering in NIT Rourkela has gone on to bag the spectacularly coveted studentship at UC Berkeley for her doctoral studies. Team MM, in a brief but surprisingly wonderful encounter, got to know some of the most inspiring and candid snippets from her eventful journey so far.
MM: Tell us something about your days before joining NIT Rourkela. How did NITR happen to you?
My childhood has been spent in a multitude of places due to the job requirements of my father. Over time, I have developed a cosmopolitan nature; I cherish the opportunity to explore different places and their cultures. The idea of pursuing Engineering did not come to me naturally. I felt I am good at nothing during my school days. A shout-out to everybody who feels the same. The sacred categorization by the Indian society at the culmination of one’s high school career steered me in the direction of engineering. Though I was deeply fascinated by the elite streams, Ceramic engineering happened by a mix of luck and capricious decision-making.
MM: Share with us your experiences at NIT Rourkela. How important do you think were the four years at NIT in your life, both professionally and otherwise?
Continuing my previous response, unhappy at first, I was determined to do well in my academics (yes, a rare resolve to have in one’s college life), because that is the only way I thought I could manage to earn a living at the end of my Graduation. With just an intention to while away my summer vacation at home, I started looking for workshops to attend and came across an intriguing one “Near Net Shape Manufacturing of Precision Engineering Components” at CSIR-CGCRI, Kolkata. The motivating talks by the eminent speakers from all over the world and the possibility of materials being explored for academic investigation as well as industrial applications captivated me. Upon interacting with the research scholars, I was fascinated by the concept of finding answers to the real-world problems via technological innovations. This was followed by a series of research as well as industrial internships, all of which helped me identify my predilection.
MM: After pursuing Ceramic Engineering, you went on to complete your Masters and start off with a doctoral degree. How and when did you decide to continue Higher studies and specialize further in your field? What are your research interests?
My internship at IIT, Kanpur through the SURGE Programme was a tremendous life-changing experience for me which transformed my perspective of research profoundly. This time, I was introduced to the appealing concept of converting the waste heat in the industrial and power units to consumable electrical energy using solid-state thermoelectric devices. Having been taught about the conventional structural and thermal applications of ceramic materials, all along my undergraduate days, I was dazzled to find their sophisticated usage in sensors, superparamagnets, multi-ferroic systems, and energy storage devices. I was exhilarated at the fact that using electronic ceramic materials (my primary research interest, by now), I can unravel the mysteries of several engineering branches at the same time!
I got a job offer from Sterlite Technologies in my final year, but my hesitancy to give in to the corporate world so soon, motivated me to join IIT Kanpur for my Masters in Materials Science and Engineering. Over the course of my Masters, I realized how little I knew about the topics being actively researched in electronic materials and devices. Delving deeper and deeper into the underlying physics of some remarkable material classes made me realize how much I love doing this! This made my determination firm regarding pursuing a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering.
MM: Describe your experience pursuing the Masters’ degree at IIT-Kanpur. How much does the premier institute live up to its reputation for postgraduates?
The courses and electives at IIT Kanpur, when compared to that in NITR, have an entirely different perspective. The academic structure has been designed such that the students can visualize the various technological applications for the plethora of material classes with the help of group projects and class assignments. Though I am unaware of the situation now, I wish we had more practical experiences during our UG days at NITR. I had much fun during both the coursework as well as my research work at IITK. I got to learn about many prominent syntheses (Spark Plasma Sintering) and characterization (Transmission Electron Microscopy, X-Ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy, Electron Backscatter Diffraction, Thermoelectric measurement, etc.) techniques while conducting the experiments for my thesis. Meanwhile, it was overwhelming to co-author two research publications and file an Indian patent as a co-inventor during my Masters! Hence, the overall experience was thrilling and can never be forgotten.
I believe, for a Masters student, since the duration of research is that of a year, a short project can be accomplished in a fulfilling manner to some extent. However, for a doctoral degree, the deeper one would want to investigate about the materials and their behaviour, the resources available tend to lag behind. There have been instances when many of my project-related endeavours had to be stalled due to the unavailability of the required instrumentation. However, this is based on my own experiences and may not be valid for everyone. So, I would say we still have a long way to go when it comes to the kind of technologies at the premier institutions all over the world.
MM: How did you shortlist your doctoral course and the University of California Berkeley for the same? What is the USP of this institute in this research domain? Any other programs you had applied for?
Berkeley had been like this childhood fantasy to me which I wanted to apply to irrespective of my score. But apart from that, the Materials Science Department at UCB is at the pinnacle of success with a lot of world-renowned research groups clubbed together at the same place. My interest is primarily in the domain of waste-heat harvesting. For my Master’s thesis, my work was based on synthesis and characterization of environmentally-benign oxide-based composites for high-temperature thermoelectric efficiency. While surveying the literature to comprehend further about perovskite oxides as thin films, I came across the research findings of some of the eminent research groups at Berkeley, which further fuelled my enthusiasm to join their doctoral program.
I had also applied for the PhD programs at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Pennsylvania State University, Ohio State University and some others based on the mutual overlap of research interests with the common groups.
MM: Walk us through the application process of UC Berkeley. Did you undertake any mail correspondence with the Professors there before applying formally?
After obtaining my GRE and TOEFL score, I started emailing professors from various research groups (mostly in the USA and a couple of them in Europe) where I could visualize myself for my doctoral study. Depending on the replies; I shortlisted my Universities. This was followed by preparing the various components of the application package. Every University has its requirements, but almost all of them would need: Copy of official transcripts (Bachelors onwards), Statement of Purpose, Resume or Curriculum Vitae, Gradesheets.
Berkeley needed three write-ups: Statement of Purpose, Personal History Statement and a sample of technical writing. The deadline was as early as 1st December, so each component of the application had to be as perfect and prompt as possible. For Statement of Purpose, I reviewed many samples circulated over the internet and then ultimately sat down to write whatever came to my mind over a blank sheet. This had to be limited to 2 pages which I made sure underwent the rigorous review of as many people as possible. I followed the same routine for the other essays too. The guidelines provided at the University Graduate Division website were immensely useful.
MM: How did you prepare for GRE and TOEFL? How did you organize your preparation between regular studies and projects?
Preparing for GRE and TOEFL: The thing that worked best for me was giving numerous full duration practice tests (around 10-15)
Quant section: revered Barron’s GRE handbook (carried it around everywhere :P), revised all the mathematical tips and tricks, practised as many questions as possible
Verbal section: read as many books (Shashi Tharoor and Arundhati Roy) and articles (The Economist, The New York Times, The Hindu) as possible; made Flashcards for the high-frequency words (I tried making specific caricatures and sentences using the words to remember them and stuck them everywhere in my room 😛 ), practiced as many questions as possible (no substitute for that).
Finding time for all this while doing an MTech project is what made things challenging. I tried squeezing time as and when possible in between and during my experiments. My thesis supervisor was considerate enough to let me do that. Carrying a book in the backpack all around and smartphones helped! I started preparing for GRE in the second week of May and took my tests in the 1st week of September with an average indulgence of 3-4 hours in a day.
MM: Tell us something about the projects/course you will be working on at UC Berkeley.
My appointment is as a Graduate Student Researcher (GSR). Though the exact title of my project has not been decided; I shall be studying the magneto-electro-thermal effects in complex oxide thin film materials by exploring the use of epitaxial strain, superlattice and artificial heterostructures, compositional and strain gradients. Comprehensively, the approach shall include aspects of materials design, synthesis, device fabrication, and advanced characterization development and utilization.
MM: Tell us about the scholarships and other stipends and assistance you would be receiving while studying abroad?
My appointment as a GSR at the Materials Science and Engineering Department of UC Berkeley will cover my tuition, health insurance, other fees, and provide a stipend of $34k per year.
MM: Where would you like to see yourself after UC Berkeley? Do you plan to return to India?
Though five years is a long time to foresee, I plan to work as a research scientist for a couple of years in a research lab or a corporate giant maybe and then return to India as an academician. Nevertheless, I see myself encouraging more and more students to take up Ceramic Engineering as a vocation in India and to pursue the same either as a researcher or as an industrialist. Ceramic science is one of the oldest and should be celebrated for the years to come.
MM: How do you keep your spirits high amidst all the academic pressure and hectic schedule? Any long drawn out hobbies that you still indulge yourself in?
My family has been my anchor in the choppy seas. The pleasant and extended conversations with friends have always contributed to keeping me de-stressed. Apart from that, I have been an avid reader, though it all started for GRE, books have been the best mode of escaping reality. I believe communication and writing skills are of prime importance for any individual to flourish professionally, irrespective of the vocation concerned. Fascination with new languages led me to enrol in the beginner’s level German language course at my IITK (I plan to learn French next). Also, I have been closely associated with the English Proficiency Program at IIT Kanpur. This program helped me hone as well as employ my aptitude in language towards a social cause. It includes conducting quarterly self-assessment tests to evaluate the English communication skills of not only the students at the institute but, the city-dwellers too. I have also been an academic contributor in the online courses offered by this program at a minimal fee, to help people belonging to all age groups improve their proficiency in this universal language, despite having limited access to a competitive classroom course. The thought of knowledge not being bound by the superficial limitations of age, designation, and qualification seems both appropriate and fascinating to me.
MM: What does it take to be Megha Acharya? Please enlighten our readers with a few lines of inspiration.
I guess I can say this from my experiences so far. Never lose hope and keep trying for the next goal if the current one doesn’t work because one can never tell how life can surprise you! Being a Ceramic Engineer has its perks! It lets you do interdisciplinary research while offering a plethora of opportunities in terms of higher studies.
At the same time, it is essential to keep it simple, stay calm and stay humble regardless of your success as you will always have somebody else more accomplished than you. There is no substitute for hard work and endurance.