Life is filled with tough choices. It is incredibly difficult to let go of a well paying job that you enjoy, for something that you have always wanted to do your whole life.

Samvit Menon, our next pathbreaker, Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of the Free State, works on rapid synthesis of Nanomaterials for various real world applications.

Samvit talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being unable to resist the pull of scientific research and taking the plunge from the world of media and content writing into a research lab focused on developing Nanomaterials.

For students, if you have made up your mind on what you really want to do, nothing can stop you from taking the leap ! Read Samvit’s really “long”, but “enthralling and unbelievable” story to give wings to your aspirations !

Samvit, tell us about  Your background?

Though I was born elsewhere, I grew up in a small town in Kerala called Chalakudy (one of the easier names to pronounce, trust me!). Dad’s from Kerala and Mum’s from Assam. We moved to Kerala because Dad had had enough of not having enough time to spend with his family and quit his corporate job. When he asked Mum where she’d like to move, he gave her two choices, Calcutta (coz they were born and brought up there) or Kerala (coz that’s where Dad’s from). Mum picked Kerala, because it was cleaner, less polluted, and had India’s highest literacy.

Since I was just 4 at the time, it wasn’t too hard for me to learn Malayalam and blend well with the locals. Back then, even though my school was an English medium one on paper, no one really spoke much English. However, we had some fantastic teachers in Math and Science. My math teachers between classes 5 and 10 made me fall in love with mathematics and my science teachers made me fall in love with science.

Soon after 10th, I moved to Guwahati in Assam to do my 10+2. “You’ve seen enough of your father’s state, now it’s time to see mine,” was what my Mum said before shipping me off to do my +2 in Assam. 

Well, looking back, I think another reason for sending me there was to give my grandparents company. They were there all alone and I was glad I could spend quality time with them, unlike the 2 months I’d spend with them every summer. We grew so attached to each other that when I told them I wanted to move to Delhi to do physics, “wherever you go, we’re coming with you!” they said. They’re very sweet people. 

Ah! Grandparents! Don’t we all love them dearly!

Well, we did move to Delhi. However, one thing led to another, and I ended up moving to Calcutta (Kolkata now!) to complete my BSc in physics. From there, I moved to Bangalore for my MSc and then Manipal (which is in Karnataka and not Manipur, like a lot of people confused it with) to do my PhD. Right now, I’m working in South Africa as a postdoc and will be soon moving to Ireland once this COVID lockdown is eased up a little.

I am a materials physicist and in layman’s terms, I make stuff that makes the world a cleaner, brighter, and healthier place. Essentially, I make nanomaterials for photocatalytic water purification, LEDs, and cancer imaging and therapy. I love what I do. I might have wanted to be an astrophysicist when I was younger, but the point is, I have always been drawn towards science and research. So much so that since I was 10, I didn’t know any other way of life. Sure, I was a cricketer as well, captaining my school and local club, but science was where my true calling was.

Right, so as I mentioned, I was a pretty good cricketer. I captained my school between ages 14 and 15 and was an opening batsman. I was so focused on cricket that my school grades began dropping faster than bird poop on cars! I was in 10th grade and was playing a national tournament in Bangalore sometime around October. It was a tough championship and no one gave us a chance to get through the first round. But then, you know, you should never underestimate a team with nothing to lose! We ended up reaching the finals where we were badly beaten by the team who was expected to win with the likes of some players who later went on to play for India. 

The point is, reaching the finals meant we had to spend 3 or 4 days longer than what we thought. When I got home, I remember Dad standing at our gate, arms crossed across his chest, staring at me. “Son, this is your moment of truth! You tell me right now, who do you want to be? Sachin Tendulkar or Stephen Hawking?”

I gulped. I thought. Not too hard, though. “Stephen Hawking,” I whispered.

“What? I didn’t hear you!” Dad said, voice slightly raised.

“Stephen Hawking,” I said, a little louder, my voice trembling.

“Great! Now hand over your kit,” he said, stretching out his hands.

With a lot of hesitation, that’s what I did and that was the last time I ever saw my kit. It had a lot of my prized possessions in there and letting them go was one of the hardest things I’ve done.

But it was worth it.

Having said that, I’m certain if I had said Sachin, he’d have sent me to some of the best coaching academies he could afford. My parents were really supportive.

My dad, an MBA from the University of Toronto, quit his job as the country manager for Philips before moving to Kerala to start an English academy. What started as an accident soon turned into a full-time profession. My mum is a political science graduate from Jadavpur University and used to teach kindergarten kids in my school in Kerala. They were extremely supportive of their children’s career choices and let us take control of our lives early on.

We weren’t well off. They struggled a lot to buy us the books we needed to fuel our hunger and passion, but they never showed it. Eventually, I ended up being the first ever PhD from both sides of my family. When we were little, we were also subject to the odd “look at your cousin, Lima! She’s scored 95% in her annual exams. Why couldn’t you,” kind of comparisons. Today, apparently, my cousins use me as a model of comparison. “Look at Neil! He’s a PhD in physics!” I don’t support this, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it just a little. I mean, it does feel good to be on the other side for a change!

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did a B.Sc. with an honours in physics from Calcutta University and then M.Sc. in physics from Bangalore University. I must say, my BSc course was so rigorous that my MSc was literally just a revision of my undergrad course. People who have done Physics honours from CU can relate! That was really tough to survive.

Even though I managed just about 52% in my BSc, those were the hardest marks I’ve ever scored. I mean, I was a gold medalist during my master’s, but that’s nothing compared to my BSc marks. I’ll always value that hard-fought 52% over an 80% in my MSc. It was tough.

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

I was 10 years old when I got Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time (BHT). My uncle, on request from my parents, had brought it when he came home from the US. Till then, since my family used to call me Neil, I wanted to be like Neil Armstrong and become an astronaut. However, BHT threw me into the world of space science, cosmology and astrophysics. It took to black holes and event-horizons; to the Big Bang Theory and the concept of time and time travel. That did it for me. Since then, all I could think of was becoming an astrophysicist and my whole life was planned methodically, each step of the way carefully drawn out – 10+2 in science, BSc in physics, MSc in physics, PhD.

Of course, this was a very rough skeleton. I was too young to have figured everything out on my own and my parents, amazing as they are, didn’t really know better. So, I had to figure things out myself and improvise along the way. It was seriously fun and life changing. So, my key influencers were of course my parents. My science and math teachers in high school were amazing people as well. They made science and math so interesting that I actually mimic them with my students with the same kind of success.

And then there was Swati Ma’am from Army School, Narangi. She was my chemistry teacher during my +2 days there. There was a time when I lost my way in chemistry. I found +2 physics and math incredibly hard. Chemistry was ok, but yes, something happened, and I started losing interest in the only science I liked apart from C++! But Swati Ma’am was beautifully patient with me, showing me how things work, sitting through every reaction, every conversion, every formula. She was amazing. She made me visualize different processes in chemistry and if I am a materials scientist today, with a strong foundation in chemistry, that’s because of her. 

But that wasn’t her biggest contribution to my life. As we were leaving school, she had written this in one of my answer sheets (or was it an autograph book?): “Someday, Samvit, I hope I and billions of Indians, take your name in the same breath as Sir C V Raman, Chandrashekhar, and S. N. Bose.”

Now that, for an aspiring scientist, is as profound as it gets. Every day, I try to live my life in a way to meet the standards people like Swati Ma’am expected out of me.

I don’t think anything deterred me from my focus since then. I’ve had some professors from college refuse to recommend me for stupid reasons (that’s another story!), I’ve had plenty of moments where I had an identity crisis, I’ve had times when I wasn’t sure where I was heading in life, and yes, money! It’s very easy to lose your way and get distracted from your goal. But every time I feel like something isn’t working out, I remember Swati Ma’am’s words. 

Quitting is the easy option, you know. It’s extremely hard to persevere and push on.

Like Rafael Nadal. Do you know how you beat someone like Nadal, especially on a clay court? You always need to be ready to play that one extra shot to win a point against him. You might have played an exceptionally great drop shot that’s spun away from Nadal, but Nadal has that stamina and focus to run all the way down to the net to return the shot. In the process, he’s exposed the whole court to you, and you score the winner. Any other player wouldn’t have made it to the drop shot, but Nadal is special.

Just like that, in life, every time you think you’re done, be prepared for that one extra shot. That’s all that you need, but that in itself is hard. That’s what Djokovic and Federer train for and that’s what you should too! That’s what I did. It is tough, but the rewards are high! 

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

Okay, so I’ve pretty much explained how I got here. So, what I’m going to do is tell you what you should do that I never got a chance to.

If you’re a bachelor’s student, I’d suggest you enroll in the Indian Academy of Sciences summer internship program. As an undergrad, nothing beats getting first-hand exposure to research. Every summer you’ll get to spend 2-3 months working with a researcher at a reputed institute, gaining invaluable exposure in the process. You get to explore various fields as well. For instance, if you’re with an astrophysicist one summer, the next you can be with a molecular biologist. This gives you the opportunity to broaden your horizons and see what it is that really interests you. Many of my friends, who are now scientists in top institutes across the world are products of this system. On the other hand, this would also help tell you if research is indeed your cup of tea or not. No harm if it isn’t. 

I never had anyone to guide me through this and thus, never had an opportunity to do something on this scale. But things are a lot easier now and getting valuable research experience as an undergrad can be a career defining moment for you.

As a master’s student, or as someone who wants to do a master’s, I’d suggest you pick a program that has a dedicated research thesis involved. Most universities do have a thesis involved, but they are not purely research oriented, as in, you’ll have to handle both theory and research. However, I’d suggest you go for a program that has an entire semester dedicated to just research. You can do your thesis in India or abroad, either way, this is a massive opportunity to do something really meaningful and also publish a paper or two by the time you graduate.

A junior of mine who was doing his master’s during my PhD, did his thesis at a CSIR lab, published two fantastic papers and is now in New Zealand doing his PhD. Another, who did his master’s thesis under my supervision, published two decent papers as well, and is now pursuing his PhD in Germany. A good master’s thesis does wonders to your career if it is research you are after. Even if you want to get into industry, companies do prefer graduates with decent research experience, particularly if it is a scientific company.

A good master’s thesis also opens up significant PhD opportunities in India and abroad. Researchers abroad usually look for students who have a good aptitude for research and your thesis would attest to that. In India, you might still have to go through NET/GATE and other tests to get a position in a good institute, but all you need is the right approach to get a good position abroad. 

Another pro tip! When picking a PhD supervisor, especially in India, I’d always advise you to pick a young advisor. Abroad, it doesn’t really matter provided you’re NOT in an Indian or Chinese lab! A young advisor would do wonders to your career. It’s always tempting to go with a famous or reputed professor, but the amount of time you’d actually end up spending with him over the course of your PhD would be rather disappointing. I’m not saying all groups are like this, but you never know and there’s a lot of luck involved. Sure, even if you report to postdocs and senior PhD students in this group, you’ll still learn a lot, but it’s always good to have a direct one on one contact with your supervisor regularly. A young thesis advisor helps that way. For your postdoc, however, go to a well-established lab. The experience you’ll have would be unparalleled and you’d see your career take off.

The only downside of a young advisor is the lack of reach he’d have. He might not be able to just pick up the phone, dial his friend in Harvard or Cambridge or a good European institute and say, “hey Steve, how’s it going buddy. Look, my student, Samvit, is submitting his thesis this week and I think he would be a perfect addition to your lab. He’s very active, exceptionally intelligent, and has research interests that align well with your group. I’d like you to take him.”

No! This won’t happen. You’re going to have to do all the networking on your own. But hey, that’s fun, you know! Consider this a part of your PhD training and you’ll be in a better place.

How did you get your first break?

My first break? Well, I was working in an advertising agency in Bangalore when I got the PhD offer. 

Right, so I need to explain this a little. 

After my master’s I worked with a famous astrophysicist at the Indian Institute of Science, working on active galactic nuclei and galactic jets. This was supposed to be my true calling, my childhood dream and all. Unfortunately, I didn’t like it. I was an intern, but six months into the internship I felt I was not going anywhere. And then, I made a decision that stunned my family – I quit. 

Yeah, yeah, Nadal and all, I get it! 

After I quit, I joined my friend’s startup as a content writer. I always enjoyed writing and here I had an opportunity to make some money out of it as well. I worked with him for a year or so before moving freelance. I was making really good money freelancing around the place until I landed up at this advertising firm in Bangalore. I still freelanced for them and they paid me well. Despite the money, the pull towards science and research was still very strong. 

So, I ended up writing two entrance tests in between – one at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre and the other at Manipal University. I didn’t make it through VSSC and I felt that my interview at Manipal University didn’t go too well. 

My boss knew all along that I was always inclined towards research, but he really wanted me to stay. I remember getting back from Manipal and my boss sitting me down and telling me that they’d like to offer me a permanent content head position at the firm. They were ready to pay me a shit ton of money. That was really tempting. Seeing my hesitation, they tried raising my pay as well. But I still said, “give me a week, please. I’ll get my interview results by then and then I’ll let you know.”

Long story short, I got the PhD offer and I said no to an offer for a position that paid me 6 times less! 

Best. Decision. Ever!

I had the opportunity to do something I’ve wanted to do all my life and at the same time, make a difference in the world. I don’t think you can put a price on that!

The entrance test at Manipal was for a PhD position in Materials Science and Nanotechnology. Until then I just had a very basic idea of what nanotech was all about. All I knew was that a lot of people were talking about it and we even had an elective paper on some fundamentals during our master’s. Very basic. Very raw.

So, after the test, I figured I’d try and get some information on the position. That’s when I met my thesis advisor for the first time. He told me that we were essentially going to set up our lab from scratch and his plans were to develop a new, clean way to synthesize nanomaterials. From an applications perspective, we had an option to pick photocatalytic water purification, and to develop phosphors for white LEDs. Both these had immediate commercial importance and that’s when I knew I was right where I was supposed to be! I don’t believe in god, but if someone wanted to convince me otherwise, that moment would have been it! 

My thesis title was very generic. It was “Solution based synthesis of wide bandgap semiconductor nanomaterials”. In a way, that’s what we did – we synthesized wide bandgap semiconductors using different solution routes. However, what the title doesn’t say is that we pioneered a new method to synthesize metal oxide nanoparticles using a microwave route in just 5 mins. This was a major breakthrough because we did at 150 °C what usually takes >1000 °C; we did in 5 mins what usually takes several hours; we did at an ambient pH, what usually requires pH > 8. All this meant, we were not causing any environmental harm by consuming excess energy to raise the temperature for several hours, nor were we adding any corrosive alkalis to raise the pH. This was a major breakthrough. What I did during my PhD was so thorough and so comprehensive that I realized that you can be placed anywhere, and you can still do really impressive research. Think about it! You can always build a lab from scratch. But then what do you do with it? The difference between a great thesis and good thesis lies here.

Right, so, was it difficult transitioning from media to this? Well, no, not really. As I said, I always had been drawn towards research. So, it wasn’t that difficult. And to me, writing was always just a hobby. When I was doing ads and media, it was a hobby that paid me a little pocket money. Nothing more, nothing less. I guess I had the right attitude to get out of writing and into research. Well, to be honest, even during my PhD, when we ran out of funding towards my fourth year, with still over a year to go, it was writing freelance that helped me cover my costs! I’d make about $200-300 a month, which was more than enough in a place like Manipal and when I had to travel to Europe in May 2017, I did some extra work and made about $500, which helped me enjoy Europe that little extra. So, you see, a hobby that paid a little pocket money!

The money that I had saved during my freelancing media days was used in setting up my new place in Manipal and I didn’t have to rely on my parents. Well, to be honest, I never really relied on my parents for money, except the first few years in Calcutta. Since then, I’ve been teaching and making enough money to sustain myself. I’ve been financially independent since I was 20 and always knew the importance of saving money for a rainy day. Moving to Manipal was my rainy day! From paying my house deposit to buying furniture, setting up my kitchen, utensils, cleaning equipment, I paid for all of it. I’m not trying to brag here. I’m trying to elucidate the importance of having savings. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

What is life without a few challenges, right! I can talk about the problems I had with the head of my department during my PhD, or I could talk about some people not willing to recommend me for petty reasons, or I could talk about my funding running out midway through my PhD because the government felt it was wiser to invest in cows, nevermind! Bottom line is, we’ve all had our share of problems and challenges. 

Challenge 1: I had started my undergrad in Delhi. Unfortunately, I fell sick with really severe jaundice – so bad that a lot of people thought I wasn’t going to make it. But, for some funny reason, while the whole world was planning my funeral, I was going about my business like there was nothing wrong with me. Well, honestly, I felt perfectly fine, just that my blood reports were through the roof! Bilirubin – 45; SGOT – 4000; SGPT – 4300… yeah, it was crazy! But I felt fine! Eventually, I pulled through, but in the process, I lost the whole year and had to move to Calcutta.

There were way too many challenges in Calcutta. Be it being stranded homeless on the streets with no money left in my bank; be it not being able to connect with people and make friends who I could rely on; be it not finding the right institute because I had a year gap; be it being insulted by the principal of one of Calcutta’s best colleges despite being a priest; I was so close to saying, “f*** this, I don’t need this crap anymore. I’m going back to Delhi!” But then, somehow, I’ve always been really strong willed about things. Every time I’d think about quitting I’d tell myself just one thing, “I didn’t get this far and endure all this nonsense to quit right now. Just one more push!”

Remember the Nadal analogy? Just that!

Eventually, I made it through. Those first few months in Calcutta were perhaps the darkest and hardest days of my life.

Challenge 2: Do you know how hard it is when someone offers you a shit ton of money to stay back with them? Money can be really tempting. Well, it always is. Soon after my Master’s, a cousin of mine tried luring me towards corporate law with money. She was pretty good in her ways of conviction, so good that I knew right then she’d make a great lawyer, which she is now. 

So, there I was, trying to tell my boss that I’ve always wanted to be a scientist, and this was my opportunity and I wasn’t letting it go, with a straight face. Well, of course I couldn’t hold a straight face! But yes, it was a tough decision to make; one that I don’t regret one bit. 

The thing is, writing to me was always a hobby. 

Yes, to a lot of folk their hobbies turned into full time careers, but I feel this usually happens when you’re doing something you don’t really enjoy. I, however, love what I’m doing and thus, I’m not ready to turn my hobby into a full-time career yet. Maybe in future, sure, but not just yet. So, yes, it was a hobby that paid me a little pocket money and so it wasn’t all that hard saying no to it. 

But, phew! The money was seriously good!

Challenge 3: The feeling of not being good enough. This is something almost every PhD student goes through. Somewhere in the first few years of your research you start doubting yourself. What am I doing here? Do I belong here? Have I made the right choices? Do I have the right aptitude for this? There’s a lot of self-doubt, especially if one is as impatient and impulsive as I. However, this gets taken care of in time. This is where you need to start trusting your abilities. This is where you start evolving and changing as a person. 

You adopt patience as a way of life. You don’t impulsively dump a beaker full of your reaction mixture down the drain because nothing happened, and wait that extra 2 minutes to see what happens. You don’t pick up a research article, read the first few lines and say, “I don’t get this!” and fling it to the corner of your room. 

I was lucky I had a very patient thesis advisor who made sure I became the researcher I am today. 

Today, I am rational, calm and composed. I don’t get angry at a failed experiment; I smile at it. There’s always so much to learn even if something doesn’t work out the way you expect it to. I know I’m exceptionally methodical before starting an experiment, but I still cover all my bases, cross check and re-verify. Yet, if an experiment fails, I don’t worry too much because I now know of a new way of how NOT to approach that particular problem. 

All this composure comes with experience. So, yes, a PhD changes you.

Where do you work now? What do you do?

I work at the University of the Free State as a postdoctoral fellow. My work here was to set up a lab at the department of physics for the rapid synthesis of nanomaterials for various applications. In a way, this was quite similar to what I did during my PhD and hence wasn’t very tasking. However, I wanted to do something different as a postdoc. It really doesn’t make sense if you’re doing the same stuff you did during your PhD as a postdoc. 

For this I had to learn some new techniques and concepts. Luckily, some of my colleagues (who were also my roommates) were working on similar topics and we just clicked! Many of them came from top tier institutes and I used to have this inferiority complex that I might not be good enough. But I guess I always had faith in the quality of the work I did during my PhD and these fears of mine were quickly swept away. It didn’t matter if I was interacting with someone from MIT or Harvard or IIT, if we were talking about something related to the field I was working in, I know I can pretty much hold my own. 

Afterall, I did pioneer a new method to develop nanomaterials!

So, with the tools I acquired through my PhD and with the help of some new-found collaborators, I have now extended myself to topics that mean a lot me and to society. 

My focus is now on developing materials with long lasting luminescence for bioimaging, and developing phosphors, particularly upconversion nanoparticles for photodynamic therapy, cancer imaging, and biosensing. It sounds complicated, but basically, we’re trying to devise new materials to detect cancer and treat it effectively. Being someone from a pure physics background with no experience in biology, this is particularly challenging. However, I love a good challenge and I love learning something new. Even if it means learning the biology of cancer, so be it! 

If I want to make a difference to the world, I need to be willing to take some risks and do things out of my comfort zone. So, here we are!

I don’t really have a “typical day” per se. My work ethic is slightly unorthodox and can be questionable at times! While there are days or weeks on end when I’m just sitting in my office and reading and not doing anything in my lab, when I have experiments, I get superpowers. From starting an experiment, to communicating the work, I would usually take less than a month, which is usually insane! A typical day experimenting would be getting to my lab around 8, staring up all the instruments I need and then heading to my wet synthesis lab. I’d have got all my precursors, glassware, and other consumables needed the day before so that no time is wasted when I synthesize my materials. 

I’d finish my synthesis in two-three days tops. The rest of the time I’d be spending on different equipment, investigating the different properties I’m interested in. Once I’m happy that I’ve found the right mix then I get in touch with my collaborators for further studies. 

I usually don’t like staying back in my lab longer than what is needed, and I definitely DO NOT carry work home. Home is for relaxing and unwinding. That’s where I read a book, write or watch something, listen to music, or just relax with a glass of wine. I’ve always made it a point never to mix work and life and this has actually kept me sane. A lot of colleagues, who did their PhDs, went on to recreational drugs because they couldn’t handle the stress and most of them took their work home. It didn’t matter how late it got at work, work stayed at work, I’d finish up and then head home. If I couldn’t finish something in my lab, what makes you think I could finish it at home. Never happens! I cannot stress enough the importance of proper work-life balance.

Well, honestly, I love that I’m doing something that makes a difference to society. Wait, I see that’s your next question! So, let me explain this a little differently. I love that I’m still doing something that I had wanted to do since I was 10. Not to brag, but I truly feel I belong to a rare breed of people who are still doing something they had planned to do since they were kids. 

For instance, at a high school reunion several years ago, I met some of my long lost friends who are, no doubt, placed pretty decently in life, but none of them are doing what they wanted to do when we were in school together. Someone wanted to become a cop, someone wanted to become a playwright for theatre, someone wanted to become a surgeon. Well, none of them were what they wanted to be. I guess one can argue about something being your “cup of tea” or not, but how would you know without at least trying.

So yes, this is what is most satisfying about what I do. I had a plan as a kid, chalked out a path spanning almost 25 years to get there, and then eventually got there. Well, there was this one moment after my defence and convocation when I sat myself down and thought, “now what!” Looks like I figured that out as well! 

How does your work benefit society? 

So, as I mentioned earlier, I use nanotechnology to make the work a cleaner, brighter and healthier place. During my PhD, we devised materials for photocatalytic water purification that could be extended to water splitting for energy applications. We focused on magnetic semiconductor nanomaterials which had added advantages of being easily separable using an electromagnet. Thus, cleaning up the world!

The other focus of my PhD was on developing a new technique to synthesize luminescent materials for LED applications. We pioneered a pH independent microwave approach to develop these phosphors and this work generated a lot of attention. Over the two-three years that I focused on phosphors, I developed a really deep understanding of the physics of the multiple processes involved in luminescence and this helped me come up with several ideas, some of which I am pursuing right now. So, yes, making the world a brighter place through cheaper, cost-effective LEDs.

Right now, I use similar luminescent nanomaterials for bioimaging, photodynamic therapy, and biosensing. Imaging aside, I am currently focused on developing materials that can detect fluctuating oxygen levels in the stomach. This can help me understand the various functionalities of the bacteria in the stomach (you know our stomach is a microcosm of bacteria that usually help in digestion, among other things!) and see how these bacteria are involved in inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer. 

Thus, making the world a healthy place, one baby step at a time.

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

Not a work, but I’ll tell you about this moment that really hit home.

I was in Belgium some time last year on a research visit for a couple of months. I was staying at this guest house during the time that I was there. They had this lovely garden with lights, hundreds of kinds of flowers of different colours, benches and tables where you could go in the evening for a walk, take in some lovely fresh air, and chill. There were a few couples who also stayed in this guest house, and they’d go out to the garden every evening to spend some quality time with their partners after a long, tiring day. It really was romantic.

Others would sit around the tables, enjoy a drink, listen to some music, and just have a relaxing evening. People really valued personal time there. 

So, one day, I was at one of those tables, enjoying some stunning Belgian beer (if you’re in Belgium, you have to have their beer! There are so many kinds, you’ll never run out of new flavours to try!) on my own, when this couple decided to join me with a six-pack of Trappist beer. Both were from Canada, but the boyfriend was from Belgium who had immigrated to Canada about 9 years ago while his girlfriend was Canadian. 

So, pleasantries were exchanged. They were pleased to see an Indian so far from home, in an obscure little town like Ghent. We had a good laugh as I explained how Ghent had so many Indians that there were several Indian grocery stores as well! 

And then they asked me what I was doing there, and I go on to explain that I was working at the university on developing biosensors for colon cancer. The moment I said this, the smiles on the couple’s faces disappeared and they just looked at each other for a moment before the boyfriend broke down into tears. 

“Oh no! Are you alright?” I asked them. “I’m so sorry if I hit a nerve there. I swear it was unintentional.”

The boyfriend was too emotional to speak.

“No, it’s okay, Neil,” said the girlfriend. “Joe’s mum just passed away from colon cancer about five days ago. We’re here for her funeral.”

“Oh crap!” I stammered. “I’m so so so sorry, Joe. I really didn’t know. My condolences.”

Joe managed to get his composure back, looked at me and smiled through teary eyes. “Thank you, Neil. Thank you for what you do, man. We need people like you to figure out a way around diseases that take your loved ones with them. Keep going, buddy. More power to you. Thank you.”

I was stunned into silence. I really didn’t know what to say or how to respond. 

“Cheers, man,” I croaked, raising my glass with a very heavy voice, “to heal the world and making it a better place.”

The couple laughed at my lame Michael Jackson pun. The sadness had passed. Happiness and laughter were restored.

But then, it’s moments like these that we as scientists live for.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Be patient. Patience is the key to surviving a PhD and research.

This is something I tell almost all my students and also those interested in doing a PhD. A successful PhD is just about 6 – 10 months of successful work and 4 – 4.5 years of failure after failure. Your survival depends on how you handle successive failures over and over again. This is why patience is key. Things always work out if you’re patient.

When you’re patient, you’ll be calm, focused, and rational. 

Think about how M. S. Dhoni goes about finishing an innings in a big run chase. He’s patient, he knows whom to target and go after, and thus, he’s calm and focused. As spectators, we’re tense and on edge whereas Dhoni has everything in control. And then a boom and a bang, and the match is ours! That’s what happens when you have patience. 

Yes, we’re always impulsive when we begin, but the sooner you acquire this, the more success you’ll enjoy. 

Make mistakes. It’s perfectly fine to make mistakes. We learn through mistakes. Just that, don’t make the same mistake twice. Things won’t always go in your favour as you expect. That’s research. But you need to accept this and not lose your head over it. Keep your composure. 

And yes, the most important thing is to focus on quality over quantity. Being a PhD student, the temptation would be there to keep publishing. I know that’s what I did and I don’t want you to do that. Focus on quality. It’s very easy to say, “this material can be used for bioimaging,” and leave it at that. Doing it and demonstrating it is the hard part. It would take an additional 6 months of experiments, tests, depending on a few other people to get some tests done, and a whole lot of writing. But that’s the difference between a good paper and a great paper. And trust me, a great paper is recognized all over the world. Focusing on quality is really hard in India, I know. I’ve been there. Which is why you need to be exceptionally particular in picking your thesis advisor.

Future Plans?

Well, I’ve got a very prestigious Marie Curie fellowship and will be moving to Ireland once this COVID-19 lockdown is eased up. I will be working on fluorescent nanodiamonds there. I think I will eventually settle down there because I have an opportunity to set up my own lab there and run my own research group. This is what I’ll be doing for the next 5 years.

What 5 years? What after that?

Ah! Glad you asked. Well, I do want to open up my own tea shop there. I make really good tea. Not just the masala tea, ginger tea, green tea kind of tea. But I can make the same tea in about 9 different ways and each gives you a unique flavor. I’ve been passionate about this for almost 10 years now and running my own tea shop with some Indian savouries like dosas, vadas, idlis, samosas, etc. is something I feel strongly about. So yes, I do want to run this eventually. At one point, I guess I’ll have to balance my career as a scientist and a “chaiwala”! And this has nothing to do with politics! I hate politics and stay clear of it.

So, there you have it.