Research is as much about the journey as it is about a destination, especially when you are working from the ground up, layer by layer, bringing every theoretical concept to life in the lab.

Suchismita Mitra, our next pathbreaker, Postdoc at National Centre of Photovoltaics Research and Education (NCPRE), IIT Bombay, works on characterization of solar cells  to improve their efficiency.

Suchismita talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about giving up an IT job from a reputed company to study the applications of Physics, that put her on the path of solar cell research.

For students, nothing beats the excitement of unravelling and understanding all the seemingly abstract phenomena that you were taught in physics class

Suchismita, tell us about your background?

I grew up in a well-built colony at a very remote place in Orissa, thanks to my father’s job at a PSU. Although I studied in a good English Medium School, I lacked any exposure that a city student would get as we were living at a remote place. But our teachers in school did every bit to make everything available to us as much as possible. By this, I mean, they conducted national level Olympiads, encouraged participation in national level events like quizzes, dance, music and many more. Such competitions were regularly organized at school level also. I used to participate in all these events and have won prizes too. I never missed any extra curricular activities like sports and annual functions even if I didn’t get any awards. I now understand that these activities brought out my inner qualities, helped me grow, widen my knowledge, and cultivate my sportsman spirit. After I left school, these qualities stayed with me. For example, I arrange parties in my workplace which helps in team building and I thoroughly enjoy them.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did B.Sc. (Physics Honors), followed by a Three Year B.Tech course in Radio Physics and Electronics, and M. Tech  in the same branch with specialization in photonics and finally a Ph.D in Photovoltaics from IIEST, Shibpur.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

Mostly my teachers and seniors have guided me from one step to the other. I have kept myself well informed about what my seniors in school, college or universities have done. I have simultaneously followed my heart based on what I really wanted to do in the next step? For example, I wanted to study applications of Physics and hence went for a technical course after B.Sc. I had a job offer from a reputed software company after B.Tech but didn’t join as I didn’t want to put an end to my curiosity about Physics and its applications and hence continued my studies. These were positive things. But I also missed out on an opportunity of applying to a very reputed university abroad, which I regret. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

My main mantra is to learn something new every day, even if it is a small thing. For example, I keep learning new software, apply the same software in new ways, and represent data in new ways. I keep networking with professionals in my line of work through social networking platforms and keep learning something from them too. Regarding scholarships, my seniors have been my guiding light till now. I have always consulted them as well as my professors while preparing my applications. This excitement of learning something new keeps me moving forward in my career.

During my Ph.D, I learned fabrication of crystalline silicon solar cell from a wafer. There are many process steps involved and each step needs optimization to get the best efficiency. The laboratory was equipped with advanced fabrication and characterization tools. Our team needed to equip ourselves to handle the equipment, get proper results and analyze those results which was a very difficult task. This was a great learning experience for me. 

I had received the Bhaskara Advanced Solar Energy Internship award sponsored by Department of Science and Technology, Govt. of India and Indo-US Science and Technology Forum to work as an intern in any US laboratory (permissions were sought before applying). The scholarship covered travel, medical insurance and a monthly stipend. During my internship at Arizona State University, I was fortunate enough to come in contact with one of the best professors in the field of solar cells. I got myself trained in fabrication of advanced solar cell structures like Passivated Emitter Rear Contact (PERC) Solar Cells. The funding authority also encouraged visiting other laboratories in USA. As a part of this, I visited The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Colorado which is a national laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy and discussed some of the problems we were facing in our laboratory.

The world is now gearing up to embrace renewable energy as major source of energy. Solar cell is a major contributor and we need to continuously look for more efficient and less expensive structures so that we can use solar energy to our maximum advantage. This is where lies the potential of my work i.e. to continuously find out ways to improve efficiency and reduce the cost.

As we fabricate the solar cell from a simple silicon wafer, we can actually understand all the phenomena that we were taught in physics class. Whether it is formation of a junction, diffusion of electrons and holes or loss of electrons due to recombination. Each and everything that we have learnt in theory books come to life in these devices. Fabrication involves cleaning of wafers, formation of junction, deposition of anti-reflection coating and metallization. There are characterization processes for every step.

I was working as a Research Fellow and was paid from the Project I was working on. It was a project funded by Department of Science and Technology (DST), Govt. of India. 

How did you get your first break?

I consider choosing my Ph. D institute and my supervisor as my first break. Before my Master’s program was coming to an end, I kept looking for institutes where I could continue my research and apply my knowledge practically. I was advised by one of my professors to meet and talk to a particular professor of a different institute as he was doing exciting work and setting up a new state-of-art lab. I did as I was told, appeared for an interview, cracked the interview and finally became a part of the lab. I have learnt so much in that lab specially because we were doing everything from scratch- starting from buying equipment to their installation. Finally, when we were able to roll out the best performing devices, it was a feeling of satisfaction which I can never explain.

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

  • Challenge 1: Failure

Me and my team failed almost every day when we were fabricating devices. After hours of hard work, we had no results. But we learnt from each failure and next day we were trying something new. In our case we were not successful overnight. We gradually improved our devices over the years.

  • Challenge 2: Administrative/ Financial

In the Indian system, administration can be very slow sometimes. This will be a test of patience. It can take months to get reimbursed for attending a conference in spite of getting a scholarship. During PhD, we need to be very careful of our finances and need to plan accordingly as we are not highly paid.

  • Challenge 3: Death of supervisor

My supervisor expired at the peak time of my PhD. A number of papers were yet to be published. So, it was a difficult time to continue my work under a different supervisor and publish the work.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your work

Oh, we have only problems to solve. My primary duty is to find problems to solve. I work as a Postdoc at National Centre of Photovoltaics Research and Education (NCPRE), IIT Bombay. I mostly deal with characterization of solar cells and represent the data. This data is analyzed to improve the efficiency of solar cells. The excitement of extracting useful information from mere numbers is something that I love about my job.

How does your work benefit society? 

My work is related to improvement in the efficiency of solar cells which is directly related to renewable energy which in turn helps in slowing down climate change.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Every work I do is very close to my heart. I put my heart in each and every data interpretation I do.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to students is to do your work with utmost sincerity, have patience and follow your heart. If you do that, you will be good at what you do and success will follow.

Future Plans?

In the future I want to work in the R & D of semiconductor/ optoelectronics/ photovoltaic industry.