If there is one aspect of Physics that has always fascinated students, it has to be the intriguing properties of light, Optics. Optical Technologies are uncovering new possibilities in the study of very small structures with nanometer resolution and their potential applications.

Pranav Rathi, our next pathbreaker, Optical Scientist & R&D Head, works on Sperm Cell Sorting Technology related to farm animals for benefit of the society by ensuring a more sustainable source of food, especially for the rural community.

Pranav talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always liking physics but preferring the “applied” aspects of engineering more, and deciding to switch tracks from physics to optics.

For students, we are in an era of miniaturisation, with materials getting smaller and smaller. Optics will play an increasingly important role in analyzing such materials to understand their properties better ! Take up a career in optics to shed “light” on new technologies.

Pranav tell us about Your background?

I grew up in a small town of Bijnor in wester UP, the town is mostly known for its ancient history. The ancient real name of India is Bharatvarsha, after the great king Bharat. Bharat grew up in Kanavashram which is located in district Bijnor. My father was a govt. servant in the UP state govt and my mother is a homemaker. Currently, they both are very active in social service.  

I studied under the regular track of schooling and always liked art, math and science.

I liked sports, especially football and hockey which I also played for my college. I liked music. I know how to play Tabla. But above all I always loved to make small gadgets with motors and electronics. 

I was interested in science from the very beginning. I started reading science magazines starting from 5th standard. By the time I was in high school I was reading 3 monthly science magazines regularly: Vigyan Pragati, Avishkar and Science Reporter. I first read about the theory of Relativity in 5th standard. I already knew how an electric motor and transistor worked even before the actual physics was introduced to me in high school.  I had my own lab at home where I was building different kinds of science projects. I was selected by the state for presenting a working windmill model for green energy.  I built this model by myself without any external help in high school. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I have 3 masters and a PhD: First is in applied math from MJP Rohilkhand University, second is in applied physics from Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona, USA and third masters and PhD is in Optical Science and engineering from University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.

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

I always did what I loved, I did not choose my profession for money or anything else, I chose it because I love what I do. I love science and engineering. 

My main mentor has been my spiritual guru (Pt. Shri Ram Sharma Acharya; Akhil Vishwa Gayatri Pariwar) and my mother. I have been very lucky that from time to time I had the right people in my life who projected me in the right direction, and I consider that as one of the blessings of my spiritual guru.

I always loved science and wanted to be a cosmologist (one who studies the universe from a theoretical point of view; like Dr. Steven Hawking). But my academic advisor advised me otherwise, he advised me not to go for theoretical physics as a career. I did listen to him and decided to pursue my interest in engineering. 

As I mentioned earlier, I always loved science and engineering. And as my academic advisor advised me not to go for theoretical physics I decided to go for engineering. So, I went to the University of New Mexico where I got admitted in physics. I liked physics but I liked engineering more, so I decided to change my track from physics to optics. And that was the turning point because in optics there was so much to learn and do. 

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

When I was in school, I never planned to be an optical scientist, it happened over the time as I progressed through my higher studies. But I always knew that I wanted to do science and engineering. So, when I joined my PhD adviser’s lab which was basically a biophysics lab (at University of New Mexico) with ample amounts of optics involved, it was clear to me that this was what I wanted to do. 

I was always able to get a teaching assistantship because I was good at teaching. And I performed well in my PhD qualifying exam, so I was able to get the research assistantship. These two helped me finish all my studies without paying much from my pocket. 

I never had a problem getting an internship or job, based on my work. When I was doing my PhD, I got an internship job in Los Alamos National Labs (this is the lab where they developed the first atomic bomb). I also did an internship for a local startup company. And I got these internships based on the excellent work I was doing for my PhD project. So, people from these companies used to visit my lab, see my work and offered me the job, very simple. 

For my PhD project I designed optical tweezers for over stretching and unzipping single DNA molecules and measured the unzipping force. Optical tweezers work as a magnet or a vacuum cleaner, they suck in what ever comes close to them. When the laser light is focused on a very tiny spot (1/1000 times of a human hair) it starts working like a black hole which is not black but it sucks in everything which comes nearby. So, I used this ability of light to grab DNA molecules and unzip them. 

Los Alamos is one of the most famous government labs in USA because it is lab where the first atomic bombs were made. In Los Alamos I worked on graphene-based optical sensors. Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms, it is a 2D honeycomb lattice which has a unique optical property. 

The best way to get an early job upon graduation is through internships. I was doing an internship with Actorpobe during my PhD. Optical tweezers are a complicated optical instrumentation design. When I was developing them during my PhD, Actoprobe got interested in it because they also wanted to develop optical instrumentation, but of a different type and for a different purpose. Actoprobe contacted me to help them develop a confocal microscope for atomic force microscopy. Atomic force microscope is an instrument to get surface topography for very small structures with nanometer resolution using a mechanical tip, so there is no light involved there. Actoprobe wanted to develop a microscope which could work with atomic force microscope to get an optical image and topography at the same time in single scan and I helped them do it. So, they liked my work and offered me the job upon graduation. 

I came back to India for my parents and also because i wanted to work for my country. One of the professors at IITM who had visited me at Actoprobe and saw my work, invited me to IITM. At IITM I worked on Fiber Lasers and optical instrumentation. Later on we used this work to design optical instrumentation for laser assisted cataract surgery. 

Unilumen Photonics was a spinoff of IITM. The company was formed to productize the technology developed by IITM. There I had the responsibility for R&D of Fiber Lasers and optical instrumentation for lasers. This was basically to take the key technology form IITM and convert it into the products. We made optical instrumentation and fiber lasers for Jiva Sciences. Later on, Unilumen was acquired by Jiva Sciences. 

As I said I have 3 masters and a PhD (optical science and engineering). I have two certifications: LabVIEW and optical instrumentation design. I always paid attention to improve and acquire new skills and knowledge. Education alone is not enough. Education is necessary but not sufficient. Having a good set of skills is as important as education. I am skilled in electronics, 3D CAD, graphic and human interface control, data acquisition and analysis. These skills are important even for a PhD to survive in this field. PhD alone is not enough. PhD is a start not an end, the real world of science starts after PhD. 

I also know many prominent scientists of my field. 

As far as career and work is concerned my approach has been very holistic. I have tried to learn and practice all the fields related to my work but also tried to master the field I am majoring in. The only approach here is- work hard and work smart. 

How did you get your first break?

I developed advanced optical tweezers for my PhD project. I got my first break (in job) based on that work. The company came to my lab, saw the work and offered me the job, simple. 

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

Challenge 1: 

The most challenging part in my scientific career is science itself (understanding it and making it work). And to deal with it. I have to make it very interesting. Whenever I see a problem or a challenge, I try to look at the brighter side of it and see what new can I learn from it and try to keep my interest alive in it and that helps me in taking care of that challenge. 

Challenge 2: 

Going to the US for higher education was one of the most challenging parts. I was from a very small city and my high school education was in Hindi medium. To go to the US I had to be good in English (speaking and writing). To qualify, I had to take the TOEFL and GRE. Initially, I was nowhere there, so I joined English-speaking classes for 3 months, but that was not enough, so I made my own group for English speaking and discussions. There I continuously practiced and gradually got better. I got good scores in TOEFL and GRE. That hard work not only helped me there but also helped me later on in winning teaching assistantship in the US which paid most of my tuition fee for the universities. 

Challenge 3

Qualifying for a PhD program was really challenging and I was given only one attempt to do it, most of the people do it in two attempts. I had to get good marks in four major courses: Lasers, Advanced Optics 1 and 2 and Electricity & Magnetism. It took me 4 months of continuous study of 14 to 18 hours a day, but I was able to do it. During that time, I cutoff myself from the outside world. In the end I qualified with good scores.  

Where do you work now? Tell us what you do

I work as a R&D Head of Optics and Lasers at Jiva Sciences Pvt Ltd. Here we are indigenously developing a bovine sperm cell sorter which can sort the X and Y sperms and can enable us in getting more cows than bulls. This would be a wonderful technology because it will save the cows from getting butchered and we may start the next milk revolution. In India, where most people cannot afford an expensive source of protein, milk is the only food which can provide this nutrition. So, this project is for poor farmers and people of India. 

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

It took me a lot of time and effort to acquire the knowledge and skills for this work, there are very few people in the world who can successfully design a complicated optical instrumentation such as required for the work we are doing. For the work I need a comprehensive knowledge of optics, lasers and optical instrumentation. Plus, I need skills in optical simulation, 3D CAD, opto-electronics, laser design, electronics, data acquisition hardware and data analysis. I acquired these skills over the time by continuously practicing and gaining the knowledge. PhD is not the end it is a start; the real knowledge and skills are learnt after the school when you are in job. 

What is a typical day like?

The good thing about this job is that every day you learn something new, you do something new and you face a new challenge and that is what keeps me going. 

Challenges are what I love. Everyday is a new challenge, and there is something new to learn. 

 How does your work benefit society? 

Optics is everywhere, from cell phone cameras to eye glasses. This world cannot be imagined without optics. As mentioned earlier, we are developing a bovine sperm sorter. This is a very high impact work which will directly affect most of the people in the society because it is related to food. Milk is a very big and important part of our food and milk comes from the cows and we are working to get more and better cows. 

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

During my work in the US, I developed a near field optical microscope which was very complicated to achieve.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice is a single sentence- do what you love to do.

Future Plans?

I love what I do and I am good at it. My plan is to get into the top 5% of the people in this field and I mean not in money or success but in skills and knowledge.