Offbeat career paths have their own challenges, societal pressure being on top of the list. But the pressure from society should feed us positive energy to accomplish whatever we set out to accomplish as long as we know we are on the right track.

Rangana, our next pathbreaker, Research Scientist, develops different types of Microwave Photonics products that generate, transmit, and receive high-frequency radio waves based on the principles of light.

Rangana talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking up applied science for the love of science, deciding to apply her research skills in an industrial setting and getting the opportunity to explore her research abilities every day through real world challenges.

For students, you will face several divergent opinions on your career choices. The only opinion that matters is yours as long as you are prepared to face the obstacles in your path !

Rangana, tell us about your background?

I was born and grew up in a middle-class joint family residing in Kolkata, my father being a high school History teacher and mother, a homemaker. My parents did their post-graduation in the Humanities field so could not guide me much about Electronics career which later turned to a Photonics career, and thereafter Microwave Photonics. But they were highly motivating and always encouraged me to live my dreams. 

From my childhood, I always had a quest to know “new” things. This mainly happened because my family loved knowledge over anything. My father never bought me any toys, instead, he bought me books. He did this when I did not even learn to utter a single word. This he did so that I can consider books as my best friend and never ever be afraid of them. I realize that it’s my father’s decision which still keeps me awake night after night reading a book or at work. And my mother, just no words for her! A wonder woman. She stood by me and supported each and every decision of mine and of course, corrected me when required. I am just nothing, but a shadow of my parents. They helped me to visualize my own thoughts and self-rationalize them.

My parents, though being highly qualified, could not live their dream of a research career due to perpetual financial pressure of a big joint family. And so, their unfulfilled dreams somehow instigated a terrible attraction and motivation in my life which dragged me to pursue my career (though not pressurized by them at all). Although as a child, I did not pretty well understand the exact meaning of Scientist, Research, etc., yet, I had this feeling that it was something unique that needs to be investigated for societal benefit as well as for expansion of our own knowledge (as always told by my parents when I was a kid).

I studied in a CISCE board English medium school, (which was mainly possible due to my mother’s zeal).There the main focus was on English communication (apart from studies) which I now realize, has really helped me a lot in communication with others; especially public speaking as well as expanding my overseas network. I made my first public appearance in front of the audience (apart from participating in any competition) as an anchor when I was in 5th standard. I was asked by one of our teachers to be an anchor in our school function. But I now understand how much it helps me today when it comes to discussions, or presentations, etc. If you can engage your audience just with your words, it means you definitely have the clarity of thought which is very essential in the kind of job I am engaged in right now. In school, we were also encouraged to participate in various extracurricular activities like quiz, sports, arts, crafts, etc. Even if I didn’t win any awards, I actively took part in each of the activities. I was also voted as the school captain. This further helped to shape my leadership qualities which I currently find very useful while handling multiple critical projects simultaneously. Extracurricular activity was always given importance at my home. I learned singing, public speaking, recitation, drawing, photography, and gardening, which I continue till date in spite of having a very busy schedule. Apart from my parents, my grandparents (both from father’s and mother’s side) also encouraged me a lot in this. My parents always encouraged me to take part in various kinds of competitions, not to win awards but to overcome my fear of confronting the challenges and in turn proliferate my inner faith. I now understand that these extracurricular activities and those competitions helped me a lot in expanding my network, strengthening the mind, broadening my knowledge, and most importantly bringing out the inner “ME”.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I did B.Sc. (honours) in Electronics. Thereafter, I did M.Sc. in Electronic Science, followed by M.Tech. in Radio Physics and Electronics with a specialization in Photonics. Finally, a PhD in Microwave Photonics and Optical Communication. All of my degrees are from the University of Calcutta.

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

Frankly speaking, I did not choose this career from the beginning.

When I was a kid my father kept saying, “You can only grow if you either have money or education. We don’t have money, dear! So the only way you can grow is by educating yourself in any field you wish to.” At that time I felt “grow” means to “grow in age or maybe in height”. But now I realize growth means “to grow in experience by gaining knowledge”. 

I feel, key influencers are everybody that I have met till date– my parents, my family, my relatives, my friends, my teachers, etc. They all have had an obvious meaningful impact on me and a driving factor to do something new which finally made me what I am today. 

But if really I have to mention key influencers from my life who helped me to shape my present career, I would say there are two.

  1. Who were always there beside me and had faith in me.
  2. Those who became my obstacles to ensure I leave my Ph.D.

Today, when I look back, there are a few incidents which helped me a lot in making a decision. I would like to explain a few of them.

When I secured 80% in my 12th standard exams (which I know, wasn’t good enough) few of my relatives told my mother, “Get her into an Arts (Humanities) honours course, she is not fit for Science”. I really failed to understand if there is any special “criteria” to study Science? Isn’t the scientific aptitude or love for it enough to choose a career based on Science? Or, is it that they are underestimating the Humanities degree. A lot of questions were running in my mind at that time and I decided to pursue a career in science since I loved science and hoped to definitely try to reach the highest level that I could.

Since I belonged to a middle-class family, money was always at the back of my mind. Though my parents always insisted that I go for higher studies, I felt I should get a job to help my family. After B.Sc. and again after M.Sc. I joined two jobs, but was not happy. Again, those very caring relatives came up and told me, “You should get a job before you turn 25, otherwise you will be in great trouble”. Oh God!, again them! I started thinking is age really a factor to get the job you wish for or is age just a number. That’s when I finally realized that whatever might happen on earth I need to do a Ph.D. and be a Scientist, not just to prove those relatives wrong but also to prove that if there is a will and zeal, then anything on earth is possible! That was the turning point of my life. I joined M.Tech. followed by a Ph.D.

I am just reciting these small incidents in my life so students can gather enough courage to choose the career path that they dream of.

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

To be very honest, I didn’t plan my career choices from the beginning.

If I still need to be a bit more specific about my career choice, or the steps to pursuing the career I wanted, then I would like to say that, I always wanted to study and work on something which is application-oriented and also research-based and not just repetitive. But I did not realize that in the beginning, as I already said.

To start with, I chose to do B.Sc. in Electronics. That was again a problem! 

People started asking me, “Is it B.Sc. Physics or B.Tech. Electronics?”

I said, “NO! It’s a B.Sc. Electronics! Not Physics and Not B.Tech as well!”

They said, “Oh! Is it then a new course?”

Now, what should I say to this? I was dumbfounded and thought it’s just useless to answer such people. However, I did realize a fact that I had chosen a subject which may have been a bit on the offside. Honours in Electronics, makes you study Physics as well as apply that in circuit designing.

Anyway, I completed my B.Sc.; though not with very good marks. However, since I grew up in a middle-class family as I mentioned, I thought that if I would have money then I would be happy and could solve all the problems. I applied to three different reputed software companies after completing my B.Sc. and managed to receive job offers from all of them. I also joined one of them. But somehow, that did not make me happy as I thought it would.

The feeling of unhappiness made me quit my highly paid job and join M.Sc. in Electronic Science just to study again. After completing my M.Sc., I received the job of a Lecturer in a degree college where I had to teach Electronics to graduation students. However, I still found myself unhappy and wanted to get to the reason behind that. I realized that I was not happy because I was not able to experience anything new. Also, since I lacked a lot of practical experience in Electronics, I was unable to deliver content effectively to students. I thought my problem could be solved only if I get to study something which is research-oriented as well as have real-time practical experiences which I can obtain only if I join some industry. 

That was it! I planned my career, to join M.Tech. followed by Ph.D. and then join the R & D sector.

I left my job and thereafter joined M.Tech. in Radio Physics and Electronics with a specialization in Photonics. Photonics, a subject that drew my attraction and interest since M.Sc. So I wanted to have further knowledge on that.

During my M.Tech., I was overwhelmed to know how signal transmission through an optical fiber provides us with such high speeds and high bandwidth. And so I wished to continue my studies based on Photonics. While working on my M.Tech thesis, I investigated three different signal processing algorithms which could remove the distortions that disturb the signal quality in the optical fiber and thereafter published my first paper which earned few citations as well. I was highly excited. It was for the very first time that I proved those people wrong, who once concluded that love for Science is not enough to study Science, who once did not have faith in me, and that I can also do something. It was during this time when I cracked the All India National Eligibility Test (NET) exam.

Continuing with this subject, I joined the Ph.D. under the same supervisor to work on the same topic. However, this time my supervisor wanted me to do something experimental with an optical modulator that was to be procured in our lab. During my M.Tech. I was working only on simulations, so the very thought of me working on some experiments just blew me away. That was the time when I first came across the idea of Microwave Photonics. I’ll just talk a bit on this subject.

As we all know the capacity of 4G for mobile communication will soon be reached. The next-generation cellular network (commonly referred to as 5G) promises to deliver unprecedented data rates for the mobile user; many predictions suggest that data traffic will increase by a 1,000-fold over present-day systems. To achieve this goal, industry R&D communities have identified several disruptive technologies; one being Microwave Photonics that attempts to utilize the properties of photonic techniques to improve the performance of microwave/wireless systems. 

The broad objective of my research work during Ph.D. was to generate microwaves/ mm-waves (MW/MMWs) with high-frequency multiplication factors (FMFs) from a low stable radio frequency source such that different unlicensed wireless users can be benefitted at the same time. Photonic based transceivers with the help of optical frequency comb was also a major part of my research which can also pave the way for next-generation RADAR.

I was working as a Senior Research Fellow in my lab and was paid from the Project that I was working on. I worked on two different projects. One was funded by Information Technology Research Academy (ITRA), Govt. of India and the second one was an Indo-Italy joint project funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Govt. of India.

How did you get your first break?

Well, since my domain is a bit offbeat which requires both the knowledge of Electronics and Photonics, I would say that I had two different types of breaks (instead of one) which helped me in shaping my present career. 

One was getting into my graduation college where I came across a few great professors who spurred my interest in circuit design which I do now as well. 

I consider choosing to do an M.Tech in Radio Physics department and my supervisor who was also my Ph.D. supervisor as my second major break.  I really owe him a lot since he always encouraged me to implement my ideas.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Oh! To this question, I would say that challenges/struggles and I are best of friends! They never leave me alone. But yes!, now I also pretty much love to be with them! Ha! Ha! (Laughing!). Anyway, I’ll just like to tell you about a few of the major challenges that I faced.

Challenge 1: Financial

Since we all know that fellowships are received for a particular time frame, so not getting a fellowship at the beginning and end of my Ph.D. career was a troublesome challenge for me. I somehow managed to give some private tuition to school and college students to support my expenses. My parents also supported me a lot. 

Challenge 2: Frustration 

During the Ph.D. lifetime, everyone gets frustrated due to one or more reasons. All stupid thoughts start creeping into our head– that “Am I good to do a Ph.D.?”, “Do I really fit into this?”, “Will my paper ever get published after so many rejections and awful reviewer comments?”, “What the hell am I doing here? My school friend is earning more than me!” etc., and the unending list just goes on. Every now and then the thought keeps coming that I should quit Ph.D. But that is the time when we seriously need to be very patient, calm, and composed. Thanks to my parents and a few of my friends who really supported me during those times of frustration.

Ph.D. basically requires 1 or maybe 2 years of successful hard work. The rest 4 or 5 years are just failures. But it is the failure which brings success to us. For the very first time, it was during my Ph.D., when I realized the importance of failures. 

Challenge 3: Fear

Fear was my third challenge. Fear of what if I fail to publish good papers? , Fear of what if I had chosen a wrong path? Fear of what others will say if I cannot complete my Ph.D. or take too long to complete it? And so on and so forth. But, from my fears, I have realized, that the day when we start becoming successful is that very day when we stop thinking about those tiny obstacles which once bothered us a lot. Now, those obstacles just seem insignificant to me.

Challenge 4: Damage of major experimental instrument

One fine morning, the modulator which was the main instrument of my work got damaged accidentally. It was so costly, that to buy another one at that moment was next to impossible. I felt completely devastated. That is when I had to switch my work direction (based on theory and simulation) until my supervisor managed to get another such device. And we all know how difficult and time consuming it is to procure things in State Universities of India.

Challenge 5: To get a job in an R & D organization

From the time of Ph.D. or even before that, I had always dreamt of joining an R&D organization as a Scientist engaging in work that would help to serve our nation. So this was my fifth challenge. 

I had to hear a lot from people who kept on saying, “What did you do by studying so much if you cannot get a job?” To this, I had no answer. But probably, action speaks louder than words. And now, I smile, when these people tell others, “Wow! Look at her! She is a Scientist with double masters and a doctorate degree!” I know they should not say this. But if I say I don’t like it, then I will be lying. 

So here, I would like to say one thing. Challenges, struggles, tantrums are just part and parcel of our lives. We need to be steady enough and keep moving. Because ultimately, it is those obstacles that actually help us to bring out our distinctiveness.

Where do you work now? 

At present I am working as a Research Scientist at Lightmotif Automation Sensors and Systems Pvt. Ltd.

What problems do you solve?

Here, we develop different types of Microwave Photonics products and deliver them to the Indian Defense sector. It is about researching and developing various products to generate, transmit, and receive high-frequency radio waves with the help of Photonics, the technology so-called radio over fiber (RoF). This is an analog transmission process. Here the light is modulated by a radio signal and transmitted over an optical fiber link to facilitate wireless access. The best example of such a thing in our day to day life is the broadband internet fiber to the home.

What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?

In terms of knowledge, I would say, both Electronics and Photonics are equally important for this kind of job and some level of software programming like Python or MATLAB. We also require some application-specific software which I mainly learned during my Ph.D. However, in terms of skill set, sincerity and perseverance are most important.

Basics of Electronics and Photonics is what we have read in our 12th standard of CISCE board or CBSE board. Later on I had also studied this during my graduation and post-graduation classes. It was during my Ph.D. where I learned to combine both of them. I first came to learn MATLAB while working on my M.Tech project. Python, I just learned out of curiosity after I submitted my Ph.D. thesis.

What’s a typical day like?

It’s slightly a difficult question for me because my days are actually not like those “typical” ones. At times, I work very hard, all night long to complete some experiments or programming, and sometimes I will just be in my office lab reading journals, doing calculations, etc.

But if I have to answer this question regarding what’s a typical day like normally, then I would say, I get up early in the morning, go for morning walks and exercise, water my plants, have my favorite cup of tea and have breakfast, and get ready to reach the office by 9 am. As I stay alone, and away from my hometown, after I am back home, post office hours, I have to cook my own dinner. Then I try to follow up with some of my hobbies as I mentioned earlier.

What is it you love about this job? 

My job attracts me because I get to do exactly the thing which I love, I get to do exactly the thing which I once dreamt of. Seeing my dreams getting fulfilled is a real satisfaction. Also, I consider myself lucky, since very few get a job which is related to one’s Ph.D. domain.

Developing new designs to transmit or receive RF signals with just the help of light and some Electronics seems very interesting to me. Every project that we handle in this job is different from the previous one and hence needs new knowledge, research, and new findings which really attracts me a lot. I owe a lot to the managing director of our company. It is because of him I still get a chance to explore my research abilities every day. Also, the thought that my work is contributing (though maybe a very small portion) to the Defense sector of my nation really thrills me.  

How does your work benefit society? 

As a Research Scientist in the organization I work with, I am engaged in developing products required for the Indian Defense sector as I mentioned earlier. This covers various fields, like electronics, naval systems, etc. and different critical technologies that are relevant to national security. Here we mainly strive to develop the products which are essentially designed and implemented in India, the so-called “Made in India” products.

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

Oh! What should I say! 

Each piece of my work is very close to my heart. Just like a mother cannot choose a child from her children; in the same way, it is also not possible for me to choose only one work. Whatever, I do, I always do it from the core of my heart and so it always becomes memorable for me.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I still consider myself as a student as I always love to learn new things. But if I have to say something, such that the youngsters can be benefitted, then I would like to say the following.

First: I would like to advise students, never to stop dreaming and never to lose hope; because you never know what tomorrow’s sunrise has in store for you. Follow your heart, follow your dream, and work very hard to fulfill them; success will automatically follow you. 

Second: Success is definitely important but failure is even more important because it is the failure that teaches us the method to succeed.

Third: I would also like to say, if we know what we want and why do we want it, then there is no chance of being afraid of anything. And, when we overcome the one fear we had (if any) then we definitely become unstoppable.

Fourth: Apart from all these I would also like to mention that networking is very important. Because it is the networking that brings new opportunities and transfers knowledge. So students should always try to expand their networks.

Future Plans?

As I already said before, I left the job of a college lecturer 9 years back to gain more knowledge through research and gain practical experiences by working in an industry. So, now when I have it, therefore, in future (maybe 10 or 15 years down the line) I would like to get back to the academic sector and join as a Professor. I hope that with the experience that I have obtained till date and with the experiences that I will obtain in the future, I will be able to encourage students in pursuing their goals, their dreams, and in turn, help to shape their career.