Computational techniques have brought in a disruptive approach to New Materials Research through cost-effective and faster simulations, a much needed boost for the industry that is looking for sustainable materials with different characteristics and properties.

Bhamy Maithry, our next pathbreaker, Materials Scientist at IISc Bangalore, performs computational simulations to model and predict the behavior of materials, which can potentially lead to the discovery of new materials and design of better-performing devices.

Maithry talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about her early interest in basic sciences (Physics) and the fascinating aspects of observing and testing material properties at a fundamental level and explaining certain experimental results that cannot be observed directly!

Maithry, about your background?

I grew up in a small town named Bantwal near Mangalore city in Karnataka. My father is a businessman and mother is a homemaker. I have done a Ph.D. from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). When I was young, I was enthusiastic about different things like painting, reading books (particularly detective stories), solving puzzles, writing, embroidery, clay modeling, and explored different hobbies in my free time. My parents encouraged me to excel at whatever I was interested in without any pressure. In my high school days, I got the opportunity to participate in a few science exhibitions. I also started reading non-fiction books and was fascinated with Physics. 

During my bachelor’s, my math teacher (Rama Ma’am) gave me several books on mathematics. She also gave me biographies on scientists which inspired me to pursue a career in research. She told me about the prestigious Indian Institute of Science (IISc). Back then, being from a small town, information was not accessible very easily as the internet was not prevalent. 

What did you study?

In my high school days, I got interested in basic science, particularly Physics. After my 12th, though I scored a good CET ranking I chose to do B.Sc. (Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics) degree in order to pursue a career in basic science. I continued my studies in Physics by opting for a master’s in Physics with a specialization in Condensed Matter Physics from Mangalore University. I wanted to do research in an applied physics field and so I joined the Ph.D. program at IISc in the Aerospace Department. 

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

I wasn’t keen on medical and engineering. After my 12th, I had two options; I had to either choose B.Sc. or do fine arts. I was good at drawing portraits. But I wanted to be a scientist and continue art as a hobby. So I chose to do B.Sc. In B.Sc., I got the second rank at the university level. Also, I got two medals for scoring highest in Physics and Mathematics. In my master’s, I was the university topper. I had opted condensed matter physics (or in layman words, it is studying the physics of solids and liquids) and was fascinated by nanoscience and nanotechnology. After this, I applied for various entrance exams like GATE, CSIR, etc. I cleared the entrance exam of IISc and got selected for a Ph.D. in the Aerospace Department. Computational Materials Science happened by chance where I was introduced to this fascinating subject by my Ph.D. guide Dr. D. Roy Mahapatra. 

Tell us about your career path

My career in the research field started after many failures. I had no exposure to research even at the master’s level. There were no training institutes, nor many people among my friends and relatives who had a career in research. In order to get into research at premier institutes, I had to pass the national level exams. This exam is very tough. I appeared for one soon after B.Sc. for the integrated Ph.D. program in IISc, but could not clear it. Coming from a simple-minded family, the next step in my life after M.Sc. was marriage. After marriage, I was very fortunate to have an understanding husband. He was supportive of my dreams to be a researcher and again, I applied for several entrance exams. I got an interview call from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), Bangalore. This time too I did not get selected. I tried again at IISc. This time my hard work and determination paid off and I got selected in the Aerospace Department. I would like to add that I am grateful to my family and friends who have stood by me at all times. I want to mention my friends, Dr. Vinay, Dr. Brahma, Dr. Madhusmita, and mentor Dr. Gopal Hegde, from CeNSE in IISc who continue to give me useful tips and support at every stage of my career. 

After joining the Ph.D. program, there was no looking back. I cleared all the necessary exams like research course work, comprehensive exam, thesis review, and finally the thesis defence. My Ph.D. thesis got appreciation from both the national and international reviewers. The international reviewer even suggested for converting my thesis into a textbook. 

Tell us about some of the challenges you faced. How did you address them?

Life is full of challenges and it is up to you to succumb to it or turn it into an opportunity. My main challenge was self-doubt. At IISc, you have the best of minds from all over the nation. I was always worried about whether I could match up to them. However, IISc has a unique culture that nourishes people from every background. Here, it is no more an exam-oriented study. You study for the pleasure of finding out new things. 

The next challenge was using computational tools and learning to code. Computational materials science needs a strong background in the fundamentals of physics, mathematics, and computer science to be able to perform state-of-art materials simulations. I could understand the concepts but implementing them into meaningful simulations is not easy. Being from a Physics background, I had very little knowledge of computer science. My lab-mates Brahma and my senior Dr. Sundarajan (a postdoctoral fellow in my lab) helped me a lot in this process. 

The research field is demanding, and you spend a lot of time in your lab. Sometimes, several days go by without getting any clue to solve the problem at hand. So keeping yourself motivated and maintaining a healthy work-life balance is very important. 

Can you explain your research in layman terms?

Currently, I have been on a break from active research to take care of my kids. However, during this time, I have been writing research articles. I am also working on a textbook based on my Ph.D. work. I am planning to join as a postdoctoral researcher this year mid. I am in talks with two professors and have started writing project proposals for the same. 

I would like to add a few sentences about my field of work. Computational materials science is an interdisciplinary field with elements of physics, mathematics, chemistry, statistics and computer science. It is used to model and predict the behavior of materials. It is used in the discovery of new materials and to design better-performing devices. It is also used to understand and explain certain experimental results that cannot be observed directly. You can think of it as a computer-based laboratory where you do different experiments and test their properties with computation and simulations without actually synthesizing the materials. 

Essentially any material is a collection of atoms that are composed of nuclei and electrons revolving around them in different orbits. These elements are interacting among themselves. A proper description of all these factors gives us the complete behaviour of any material. However, they are very complicated to solve and need simplifications. Based on the length and time scales, material modeling schemes can be divided into four main regimes; electronic structure, atomic, mesoscale and continuum. Each regime is characterized by a different set of equations to be solved. Electronic scale deals with electrons directly. This is computationally very intense and hence practically applicable to few angstroms (1 angstrom = 10-10 meters) and few picoseconds (10-12 seconds). The atomistic scale is applicable to a few nanometer lengths and few nanoseconds. This scale is applied to kinetically dominant phenomena. However, since electrons are not considered they are less accurate. The mesoscale holds for micrometer length and microseconds. Beyond this is the continuum scale. However, real problems manifest over different length and time scales and a combination of the aforementioned methods is required. Effectively integrating different schemes is the ultimate goal of material modeling. In this sense, this field is in infancy and a lot more needs to be done. 

My research at IISc involved developing multi-physics models for semiconductor nanostructures and their heterostructures. Currently, the various elements of electronics devices are in the range of nanometer dimensions and involve heterostructures. A heterostructure is a junction between dissimilar materials. It may be a metal/semiconductor junction, or dissimilar semiconductors or even a semiconductor/fluid junctions. Suppose a junction is formed between different materials that have different physical properties, say, for example, the ability to transport heat (thermal conductivity). In order to form a proper adhesion between different materials, several deposition and annealing steps are required. Due to different heat conducting abilities, strain or sometimes even cracks (defects) develop at the junction. Often a careful choice is made to minimize such effects. Other times, such mismatch lead to novel devices. Additionally, during device operation, heat is generated and careful analysis must be carried out to prevent device breakdown. Several such fields are present and they interact strongly among one other. I developed a model that considers coupled field interactions among electric, thermal, mechanical and quantum mechanical fields for semiconductor/semiconductor junction and semiconductor/fluid junctions. Based on the type of materials used and application, the intensity of each of these fields varies. 

Being a researcher is very stimulating and satisfying. I love everything in this profession from reading the latest articles on the trends of research, building realistic models, analyzing the results and predicting the behavior. The challenge is to build simple, sophisticated models to give practical solutions to real problems. 

How does your work benefit the society?

There is always the necessity to discover new materials and design better devices in terms of energy consumption, storage, performance, green energy, and newer functionality. We have come a long way in materials science. The simplest example is the use of a tungsten filament lit bulb to modern LEDs. Computational materials science can complement experiments to drastically lower the research cost. 

Can you share an experience that was a very memorable moment in your research career?

There are several exciting moments in this profession like journal publications, patents, and new projects. Whenever you get the solution to what you have been trying for a long time gives you happiness. Even a simple thing like understanding a hard concept which you have been trying gives a lot of satisfaction. I would like to share one such incident. We were once designing a micro-fluidic device in our lab for disease diagnosis. It is a micro-meter length channel in which the fluid samples like the blood which is infected by bacteria and/or virus are tested. We were conducting experiments by applying an electric field across the width of the channel. Such experiments require a high electric field. Under the high electric field, the fluid undergoes electrolysis and bubbles are formed. These bubbles interfere with downstream analysis. In order to suppress bubble formation without reducing the electric field, we designed semiconductor coated electrodes. The choice of semiconductor to coat was optimized using computational models. We wanted to explain the effect of coated electrodes on biological cells. It was very challenging to model this. But we could find a satisfactory explanation using our mathematical model. 

Your advice to students?

Do not get carried away by other’s advice, instead find your passion and do what interests you. You are sure to find success in that. There is no substitute for hard work and perseverance. Do not give up. Enjoy your journey rather than the result. Anything is possible if you make up your mind. 

Future plans?

I am still in the early stage of my career as a researcher and have a long way to go. My immediate aspiration is to work closely with experimental groups to build realistic models that can directly impact on research problems. It is my dream to start a lab/consultancy of my own. In the future, I would like to give chance to students from small towns and women researchers.