Conducting your own research in upcoming technologies, mentoring the next generation of students and most importantly, setting your own standards, is probably a dream for many who want to make a difference.

Ankur Solanki, our next pathbreaker, Assistant Professor at PDPU Gandhinagar, teaches B.Sc., B.Tech., M.Sc. students and conducts his own research in the field of Flexible Electronic Devices (solar cells, light-emitting diodes, memory/data storage devices) by supervising undergraduates and research scholars.

Ankur talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his PhD and PostDoctoral experiences at NTU (Nanyang Technical University) and combining his love for teaching and research to help students achieve their goals.

For students, leverage your global research experience in developing your own research group with your own long term vision to shape a better society !

Ankur, tell us about your background?

I was born in a small village of Bulandshahar, Uttar Pradesh. My father was a farmer and we all were living in a combined family with my grandparents and uncles. My father and myself were the eldest children in our family in their respective generation. I grew up in an environment of farming, fields, villages, playing with friends etc. in my imaginary world. Though my family was not from urban culture and my parents did not have a very good educational background, they were very particular and inclined towards education. They enrolled me and two of my younger brothers in a RSS School which was one of the best schools in my city Khurja at that time. My father handled all the predicaments without any intimation to us. I was quite casual in studies and other things in my childhood as a normal child would be, but started comprehending the situation once I entered class 6. My academic life took a turn in class 8 when I was literally trying to obtain 1 mark to secure the third position in a class test among 35 students. It was the time when I switched gears in my academic life. I managed to secure the 2nd position in 9th std, competing with other students. I was on Everest when I secured 3rd position in my district in class 10th UP board exam. I would like to emphasize here that getting 60% in the state board exam was arduous (in the year 2000 and before), results used to be around 30-40% only. Anyway, it built my confidence since I secured such high marks without any coaching, proper guidance and facilities. During my college days, I always had a soft-corner for and supporting nature towards my other classmates and juniors who came from remote background because there was strong discrimination based on attire, language, native place, etc. I tried hard to live up to my performance in class 11-12th and won the heart of many of my teachers and relatives.    

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I also dreamt of joining IIT after 12th as everybody does and appeared for the exam without any coaching while most of my friends were engaged with professionals. I could not manage to crack the exam and enrolled in the Bachelor of Science (BSc) program with Physics, Chemistry and Math as majors in NREC College, Khurja. I continued my hard work and secured the highest marks in B.Sc. Unfortunately, I was reluctant to join any extra-curricular activities in college which would have further built up my confidence, I regret this till date. I appeared in a few AirForce competitive exams and was selected as an Airman. My parents were extremely glad to send me to join the Airforce since none of my family members got the opportunity for any government job. However, one of my college professors who accidentally got in touch with my family, convinced my parents not to send me to this job and advised them to allow me to go for higher studies. After graduation, I appeared for several competitive exams to get admitted into a good college for MSc, mainly to get out of my background, to explore the outside world and to develop myself. I probably did not know how to crack a competitive exam or God might have decided something else for me. Hence, I continued my MSc in Physics at the same college. Since the start of BSc days, I was going through many ups and downs, but I was determined to get rid of my predicament. Fortunately, I got a chance to visit the Institute of Plasma Research (IPR), Gandhinagar for a month, thanks to Prof. Tayal who was our HOD. At the same time, I cracked the staff selection commission (SSC) exam but gave the priority to the IRP visit instead of appearing for the interview. Having interacted with many scientists and brilliant students across India at IRP, I decided to take the GATE and NET exam in Physics. Fortunately, four of my seniors cracked the GATE exam with top AIR rankings in the same year and their performance encouraged me a lot. I cleared my GATE in my first attempt, but I was disappointed with my ranking due to personal reasons, though I got admission in Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur (IITK) and it was a proud moment to be the first IITian in my family and among my relatives. 

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

There was no specific key influencer in my life. I used to get influenced by everyone who was on the higher end of knowledge, wealth, and administrative power, as per human psychology. But I was always clear in my mind that I should do something which makes me and my family proud. My family, my close friends, mentors and my own emotions were always my driving factors. 

Securing the third position in 8th class test was really my turning point in becoming a studious student from a silent boy. After that, getting into IIT was another game-changer. The third turning point of my life was getting a PhD position in Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Singapore. I would like to thank my friends at IITK for their encouragement and support when I was not willing to go abroad owing to the primary reasons of being purely vegetarian and leaving my grandparents. 

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

I was very happy after getting into IIT with the MHRD scholarship to pursue M.Tech. IIT brought up new challenges since I was transforming from a Science to Engineering background, but it was the time when there was a tremendous personal and professional transformation in me. At the end of M.Tech. in 2009, it was quite a disheartening moment when none of the companies shortlisted me for an engineering job, owing to my basic Science degrees and I was left un-placed. I started preparing for GRE, and applying to off-campus job at the same time. Ultimately, I got an Assistant Manager position in Samtel Color Ltd. on the recommendation of my IITK faculty. In the first two years of my job, I enjoyed my new role with my colleagues and friends in IITK campus. Those days were indeed golden moments of my life which are hard to delude. I was living a life that I had never thought of. But time never remains the same and I slowly comprehended that it is not wise to be in this comfort zone forever. Since I wanted to further grow in my career, i decided to pursue a PhD. After approximately one and half years long endeavour of overseas PhD applications and preparations for various competitive exams, I got an offer letter from Nanyang Technological University Singapore, Asia’s top university as per QS world ranking. I also received the NTU Research scholarship award, which was indeed essential for survival in one of the most expensive countries. Luckily, I did not avail the earlier offers from other universities in Korea and Taiwan as I was glad about my decision. My M.Tech. degree from a well-reputed IIT had a major role in helping me secure my PhD candidature which would have otherwise been impossible with B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees. As promised, my PhD advisor Prof. Sum Tze Chien allowed me to resume my M.Tech. research on organic solar cells. It had been easier for me since I obtained fundamental understanding and training in the relevant research area from IITK. Thanks to God, I was lucky to have supervisors like Prof. Ashish Garg, Prof. S.S.K. Iyer at IITK and Prof. Sum in NTU who were always supportive of me. I managed to submit my first publication in the first year of my PhD and smoothly moved into the 2nd year. During my PhD, I worked in the field of organic solar cells to enhance their efficiency and develop a deeper understanding of ultrafast charge carrier dynamics. Ultrafast spectroscopy is used to investigate the mechanism occurring at femtosecond to microsecond timescale. In optoelectronic devices, the primary mechanism such as light absorption, electron-hole generation, and transport occurs at this time scale and ultrafast spectroscopy is a scientific tool to investigate all these mechanisms.  As you know, PhD is not always easy, I also had my difficult times in my 2nd and 3rd year. However, I managed this by discussing with my close friends and of course my wife who was always very supportive. As you know, scientists are crazy and always try to do something new or different. I was not exceptional and changed my research direction in last year of my PhD scholarship and completed my PhD work in the first three years. All my efforts and initiatives were well recognized by my supervisor and he offered me a postdoc position, six months before the end of my PhD. I availed the offer and continued my research on hybrid perovskite solar cells, memory devices, nanomaterials, and ultrafast spectroscopy for three years as a research fellow. Hybrid materials are composed of organic and inorganic materials, and therefore comprise of properties from both materials. Easier/low-temperature processing, economic/environmental viability with excellent electrical, optical, and mechanical properties are the main benefits over other materials. Solar cells are very well known to convert solar energy into electricity while memory devices based on hybrid perovskites are designed to store high-density data storage with lower power consumption. Very soon, “RAM + Hard Disk” from your computer, laptop, and mobiles will be replaced with memristor for high-speed operation and storage. The above-mentioned research areas are essential to solve the global energy crisis and deliver modern electronic devices to operate with lower energy consumption. 

Indeed, this journey was incredible and I got many opportunities to visit different countries for conferences and research collaborations. I attended international conferences and presented my research work in USA, Japan, Spain, Singapore, and also visited EPFL, Switzerland under a research collaboration. Besides, I spent some quality time in Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand for my holidays. It would have been impossible for a person from Khurja to visit so many countries if I had not got the opportunity to go to IIT and overseas PhD.   

How did you get your first break?

As mentioned, I failed to get on-campus placement because of my non-engineering basic degrees. I got my first break as Assistant Manager in Samtel Color Ltd. Though I was recommended by my IITK professor, I also had a tough interview before getting selected into Samtel. I was deputed in Samtel Centre for Display Technologies at IIT Kanpur as a visiting research engineer where I worked for approximately three years on Organic Displays. There was a joint research & development project between IITK and Samtel Color. Ltd. to develop the prototype organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display for mobile application.  

As you know, the display is the main component of light-emitting devices such as mobile, TV, computer, laptop, gaming stations, etc. Early displays consisted of mainly cathode ray tube (CRT) for light emission which were later replaced by liquid-crystals and LEDs. Initial LEDs were made of in-organic semiconductors (i.e. indium gallium nitride, indium gallium phosphide etc.) and later replaced by organic semiconductors (ALQ3, MEHPPV, etc.) to cut down the cost, easier processing, flexibility, environmental feasibility, low power consumption, higher brightness, better contrast ratio, and for many more benefits. Such organic displays consist of numerous small size LED devices depending on the size and resolution requirements. To be specific, i was involved in wafer processing and pixelization using a photolithography technique, targeting a defect-free display. It was the time when I got training on many equipments used in diverse industries. 

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

My first and biggest challenge was my background and pecuniary troubles, though I did not let it overcome my grit and determination. My self-confidence, support of my family, and determination were always my weapons. I would have easily got a decent job after my BSc or MSc. But I decided to take up the challenge of studying further to qualify for the GATE exam. Getting the right study materials, hard work, focus, and self-evaluation were the main factors in crossing this hurdle. 

Getting a PhD position in a top-ranked foreign university was my next challenge. I would have had the option to join PhD in the same institute but I was determined to look overseas for a better option. I continuously contacted many faculty via email for months. The majority of the faculty never replied as usual and some showed their interest in my proposal but lack of funding limited their hands. It was quite disappointing since I already had a long journey in academia. Some of the faculty advised me to apply for some scholarships. Indeed it helped me in getting a few offers and ultimately converted one into admission.

The fourth challenge of my career to date was getting a faculty position at a good Institute in India. I applied for a position in NITs and was always shortlisted, but I did not appear for the personal interview since I was reluctant to visit India from Singapore only for an interview. Finally, I received an email for a skype interview from Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University (PDPU) Gandhinagar and later got the offer. Currently, I am an Assistant Professor here at the Department of Physics and enjoying the new role in teaching and research. Indeed this journey was not that easy but am happy being my own boss.

Where do you work now? Tell us what you do?

Currently, I am an Assistant Professor at PDPU Gandhinagar. Here, I have the responsibility of teaching B.Sc., B.Tech., M.Sc. students and conducting my own research by supervising undergraduates and research scholars.   

I am working in the field of flexible electronic devices. My research focuses on hybrid electronic devices such as solar cells, light-emitting diodes, memory/data storage devices, synaptic devices and nanomaterials. We are striving to develop mechanically flexible devices on the plastic substrate for various applications where starching and bending is the prime requirements. The best example of such devices is flexible mobiles which comprise of bendable OLED displays and going to be available in the market soon. To make such products a reality, other electronic parts such as memory, transistors, capacitors, etc. also need to be flexible for the compatibility. We are also striving to develop flexible solar cells for different applications such as house windows, car-roofs, for fabrics and many more applications. We leverage the outstanding optical/electrical/mechanical properties of hybrid semiconductors through materials engineering to develop these electronic devices using solution processing. 

I would like to say that I am a researcher first. Therefore sincerity and dedication are the most important skills for this profession. To be a faculty in any university in India, a PhD degree from a well-reputed university is mandatory. The remaining skills can be learned easily. Related to teaching skills, I got the opportunity to teach underprivileged students in my hometown and at IITK under a social organization “Prayas”. It helped to sharpen my teaching style which is always appreciated. 

What’s a typical day like?

Nowadays life has become a bit hectic. I wake up early in the morning and start the day with some exercise and news. Since I am new at teaching at this level, most of the time goes in preparing for lectures and delivery. Still, I manage to take out some time off to read some research articles to get updates on my research areas. After office hours, I spend time with my family and sweet daughter but also flexible on the urgency of my profession. Thanks to my family for their strong support when required.

What is it you love about this job?

Research always inspires me. I always love to do something new. Since I started my research career a decade earlier, I learned that the failure rate is much higher than the success rate. Therefore, I do not get disappointed easily by failure and keep trying to succeed. It’s an amazing feeling which can’t be described in words. I love teaching as well and it becomes more lovable while students appreciate it.   

How does your work benefit society? 

As mentioned earlier, I am working in the field of photovoltaics which is the thrust area of growing global energy demand. We are continuously working to provide solutions to develop efficient and low-cost solar panels to generate green energy and therefore to reduce pollution. Energy-saving is also another aspect of suppression of energy demand. My research is also involved in developing efficient electronic devices for different applications such as data storage (memory), synaptic devices, operating at lower power consumption. Being a responsible teacher of society, I always prefer to encourage students instead of pushing them. Students are the pillars of our nation, so supervising and mentoring them to achieve their goals would indeed shape a better society.    

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

I always prefer to support those who are in need. I have silently supported many initiatives that have always been close to my heart. I don’t want any brilliant student to quit their study due to financial reasons, which usually happens in our nation. I always like to come forward in this situation and it always makes me happy.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I would like to advise students that follow your dreams and strive hard. I understand that it’s not easy, but at same time, take long breaths, close your eyes and dreamt to be whatever you want to be. I am sure there will a smile on your face and the current problem won’t matter in your future. Convert some of your moments to inspiration. Everyone has his/her own life movie, so it is difficult to compare individuals, but remember that only heroes of blockbusters are “superstars” and none of us wants to watch flop movies. If you are determined to reach your goals, there is always one door open and you just need to judicially choose and approach it. Give your best at your every moment of life so you would never say in your life “If I had given some extra effort for that or if I had also done this”. Don’t let this “IF” come in your life and leave the rest on God. Always attach some emotions to your life goals and then strive hard.  

Remember, there is no shortcut to success. Life and success are journeys, and don’t make them final destination. Every person has a different approach to achieving their goals. It’s like every individual has a different lifestyle. Of course, some common rules need to be followed to be successful such as good habits, selection of right study materials and friends, etc. Try to avoid pessimists and also judge yourself first before jumping into the sea to swim. If you trust yourself, keep trying, work on your flaws, and transform them into your strengths. Take note for any competitive exam, easy problems are done by everyone but the ones who answer the difficult questions are always winners.

Future Plans?

It’s a tricky question because no one can envisage their future. Still, I would strive to give my best in teaching and research. I am trying to develop a research group on flexible electronic devices and want this to be globally known.