Exploring science through hands-on experiments is fun irrespective of whether you are uncovering new technologies as a researcher or teaching young minds as a mentor. All that matters is sharing of knowledge to encourage innovation.

Sonali Dasgupta, our next pathbreaker, Research Scientist & Founder of STEmonsters, works with school children to inculcate in them a love for scientific exploration through innovative science experiments and practical approaches.

Sonali talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about doing her PhD in Fiber Optics, working with academic and industrial R&D teams across the world to address real-world challenges using optical technologies and founding STEMonsters with a mission to make STEM learning ubiquitous and enjoyable for children.

For students, life is like a relay ! No matter how far you go, never forget to handhold the next generation so they can continue building the chain through dissemination of knowledge !

Sonali, tell us about your background?  

I did my entire education in New Delhi, all the way from school up to my PhD.  As a child, I always loved Science and Mathematics since these subjects allowed me to arrive at the answers logically rather than through memorizing.  

My father is a brilliant engineer, and I owe my early interest in science and  technology to the time that I used to spend with him fixing things around the  house – a fused light bulb, a broken water pump, soldering the capacitor on  the CRT (big, fat, cathode ray) TVs or adjusting the aerial antenna on the roof  to get a good TV signal! It made me feel special to know how to solder things while still in school or advise the electrician on how to fix the MCB on the fuse  box! Besides tinkering, I also loved outdoor play and trekking! Not only did it  allow me to channelize any stress productively, but it also instilled a never give-up spirit in me.  

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?  

Initially, I wanted to do engineering from IIT Delhi like the rest of my  classmates at the time. Unfortunately, the exam papers of both IIT and DTU got leaked that year. So, I had the option of either sitting for them again or  pursuing graduation in Physics from Delhi University. I chose the latter because  I just did not want to sit for the entrance exams all over again! After my B.Sc, I decided to pursue M.Sc in Physics from IIT Delhi. Once I got through my  “dream” institute, there was no looking back; the whole world opened up to  me to pursue higher education. I received a few prestigious awards in the final  year of my M.Sc and chose to pursue a PhD in Physics from the same  institute.  

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

The biggest turning point in my career was my final year of M.Sc at IIT Delhi.  We had Prof. Ajoy Ghatak (Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize Awardee) as our  teacher on the topic called Fiber Optics. He just made us fall in love with the idea of research and exploration. There are 2 things that I believe shape one’s  career – good teacher/mentor and awareness of the opportunities. IIT Delhi offered both.  

Although my initial choice was to pursue M.Tech after completing M.Sc, I  received the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee (SPM) Fellowship at the same time. This was a highly prestigious fellowship that was awarded to just 2 people in  India.

I got to meet some of the best scientists during the interview stage and in the process, realized the passion and joy that comes from research and innovation. So, I decided to take the somewhat difficult path of pursuing a  PhD in Physics. And again, I was fortunate to have a great mentor and guide  in Prof. Bishnu Pal. He was not only my PhD guide but also someone who  supported, guided and encouraged me to take on the world, quite literally. I  ended up going to various international conferences, meeting world-renowned  scientists, and visiting state-of-the-art laboratories across India and abroad.  These travels and experiences gave me the confidence to follow my interests  and dreams.  

One of the most cherished memories was my selection as a delegate to the  Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting. This is an annual meeting held in Lindau,  Germany between students from across the globe with a group of Nobel  Laureates, intended to inspire the next generation of researchers. And it certainly inspired me to become a research scientist!  

The other event that left a lasting impression on me was the opportunity to have  high-tea with President Abdul J Kalam at Rashtrapati Bhavan as part of  India’s young scientist delegation. I can still remember being starry-eyed and  absorbing every word of advice that he gave about following one’s dreams  persistently and sincerely. And of course, the humility that must come with  achievements.  

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.  

After I completed my PhD from IIT Delhi, I was determined to spend some time outside of India to gain experience in different environments. The  importance of networking cannot be undermined, and I had undertaken  various internships, applied for various fellowships and volunteered to  organize many events throughout my M.Sc and Ph.D. 

My first summer internship was during my 1st year of M.Sc., along with  2 of my classmates, at the National Council for Scientific Research. The  project was a success and our reports were published in the national daily newspapers. 

In my 2nd year of MSc, I applied for many fellowships that offered a chance to pursue further studies. I received an M.Tech Fellowship  from BARC, India that offered sponsorship for my M.Tech studies and a job position as a scientist at CAT, Indore on completion of the degree. I also  applied for the Junior Research Fellowship and gave the GATE exams at this  point. In 2002, JRF was essential for anyone who wished to pursue a PhD  or MPhil, and the GATE exam score was necessary to pursue M.Tech.  

An interesting incident happened when I was in Mumbai to give my interview for the BARC M.Tech Fellowship. I received a call from my parents in Delhi  saying that I was invited to another exam in Kolkata the next day! I had to take a flight to reach Kolkata on time. This was as much of a shock as it was exciting because flying was a very big deal 20 years ago! I promised to pay back the cost of the flight to my dad, and got onto my first flight the very next day, all by  myself! I flew out to Kolkata for this unknown “exam” only to realize that it was  an interview call for the prestigious Shyama Prasad Mukherjee (SPM)  Fellowship. The fellowship is offered to pursue a PhD at any premier institute in India with a very generous scholarship! Fortunately, I received both the  BARC and SPM fellowship and could choose to pursue PhD instead of an M.Tech.  

The selection criteria for the SPM Fellowship is a slightly long-drawn process. The top 2% of the applicants who clear the Junior Research fellowship are invited to apply for the SPM Fellowship. In my case, I had received a letter from CSIR with the intimation. There are 2 additional rounds of written exams and interview, which need to be cleared to be offered the scholarship. The questions posed in both the written exam and the interview are designed to quiz the applicant’s fundamental understanding of the concepts and their ability to think beyond the textbook and apply them to solve real-world problems. It was a joy to give this exam just due to the sheer beauty of the questions posed! What also helped me were the conviction and confidence that given the opportunity, I would make a significant contribution to society through my research.

I chose to specialize in the area of fiber optics/ photonics during my PhD. This choice was influenced by our projects and interactions with the professors of the famous Fiber Optics Group at IIT Delhi during my PhD. When learning about the subject during M.Sc, I realized that this was one of the most promising technologies of the future and the applications of the technology were far-reaching. I was sure that I wanted to pursue PhD in a field that was applied rather than theoretical, and the huge potential impact of photonics technology in all domains of life kind of made this choice very clear. Before joining IIT Delhi for PhD studies, I did consider doing PhD from IISc Bangalore and IIT Mumbai, but the one thing that remained constant was the field of photonics! 

The words “Fiber optics” were still not common in our daily lives at the time when I decided to do my PhD in the subject. However, India was beginning to invest in laying optical fiber cables around the country, and photonics technology was just picking up. It may come as a surprise that optical fibers can be as diverse as the clothes that we wear! Just like we would not wear woollen clothes for a summer day, we cannot use just about any optical fiber for any application. The optical fibers have to be designed specifically to solve a certain need – such as the fibers used for lighting are completely different from the fibers that carry the data for the YouTube videos across the pacific ocean! 

My problem statement during PhD was to design a completely new kind of fiber, known as photonic crystal fibers, with drastically improved capability to carry light energy for various applications. We were among the very few groups working on these fundamentally different structural designs in those days that got us significant international recognition. The optical fibers, including photonic crystal fibers have come a long way since 2007 (when I completed my PhD), and today they have become ubiquitous in our daily lives, from applications such as medicine delivery into the body, medical diagnostics such as laser endoscopy, telecommunications, structural testing of buildings and oil/ gas pipelines, agri-processing, military devices, low-cost lighting to more hi-tech areas such as searching for extraterrestrial life, exploring fusion as an alternate energy source, quantum information processing and high energy physics. In fact, I can confidently say that you will find it next to impossible to find a technology area today that has not been touched by photonics technology in some way or other!

It has been a thrilling journey for me over the last decade or so as I got the chance to be involved in developing most of these applications. The best part is that these are just the tip of the iceberg and the infinite possibilities of photonics technology are just beginning to be realized! The number of Nobel Prizes that have been awarded to the field of photonics in the last decade is proof enough of the increasing importance of this future-ready technology. In fact, the photonics industry along with the semiconductor industry has been declared as the technology of the future by EU and USA.

During my PhD, I again networked a lot – submitting my work to  international conferences, applying for travel grants to attend these conferences, maintaining email communication with professors or groups  whose work was closely related to mine and being actively involved in the  student chapters of the professional organizations in my domain, such as  Optical Society of America (OSA), IEEE, and Elsevier. E.g., I was the  President of the student chapter of OSA for almost a year. I would also  actively participate in organizing any conferences or events by my research  group at IIT Delhi.  

While these activities were very time-consuming, they allowed me to  build a strong network with professors across the globe, and a chance to showcase my work and interests to them.  

During my final year of Ph.D, my networking, along with support from my  guide, paid off – I received multiple postdoc opportunities across UK, France  and Singapore. I finally chose to go to and work at the Optoelectronics  Research Center (ORC) in Southampton, UK, which is the premier research institute  in the area of photonics and optoelectronics.  

In order to truly become an expert in a field, one must work on problems independently. Doing a post-doc helps to do just that, especially if one wants to continue in the field of research. ORC is an independent research lab and joining there as a research fellow (after PhD) allowed me to work on different research problems full-time. During my time there, I worked on a wide array of applications, many of which were sponsored by the industry. Some examples include developing high-power fiber lasers to weld/cut metals, working with the European Space Agency to develop a device to detect signs of extra-terrestrial life, and developing fiber-based sensors for buildings. There were other blue-sky projects as well that allowed me to work on exploring optical fibers to also control sound and look into their applications for making next-gen high-speed photonic devices. The biggest learning from these years at the ORC was the experience of working with both industry and academia with multiple stake-holders.  

Although termed as post-doc, the role at ORC was unique. Being an independent research lab, we did not have any teaching responsibilities. Every research fellow would have to get their own grants/ projects, and successfully see to their completion, just like the professors. My next role at LightCue was not very different from the role at ORC. However, being a consultant, I would work on many more projects simultaneously, which were also more short-term results oriented than long-term academic research projects.

After working at Lightcue for around 5 years, I joined the ONI (Oxford Nanoimaging) to build their photonics team, and help develop the expertise to build some of the critical photonics components in-house. My role involved a hands-on approach to the entire build – starting from market survey, theoretical simulations, vendor negotiations to practical product build. Being in a startup environment means that one has to do almost everything themselves in order to make a project successful, and there is no room for delegation 😊

How did you get your first break? 

As I explained above, I received multiple postdoc opportunities across the UK, France  and Singapore. I finally chose to go to and work at the Optoelectronics  Research Center in Southampton, UK, which is the premier research institute  in the area of photonics and optoelectronics.    

What were the challenges? How did you address them? 

Challenge 1:  

One of the challenges during my Ph.D was sourcing the travel money to attend various international conferences. So, I researched many professional organizations in my field and applied for student travel grants regularly. 

Challenge 2:  

A challenge that I faced during my work life was when I had to move back to India in 2013. There were not many career options in my field in India at the time. I quickly realized that if I wanted to continue research with my Lab in the  UK, I would have to adapt. I incorporated a consultancy firm and began working  as a freelance researcher. This was the pre-Covid era when remote work was usually frowned upon. But I persevered and worked successfully for over 5  years. 

Challenge 3  

Another challenge that I faced in my professional life was during my work as a  corporate research team. Being the only woman in the team, there were times  when I had to tackle gender bias and work extra hard to prove my expertise in the domain. Although frustrating, I let my expertise and work speak for me rather than give up.  

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

I have always enjoyed interacting with students, and sharing their passion to learn. Throughout my career, I have mentored, tutored and guided many students, who have gone on to become successful researchers and engineers across the world. I even did weekend story-telling for elementary kids while working as a freelance consultant. Being with children helps me to remain connected with a child’s innocent desire to learn! 

The story repeated at ONI as well – I ended up mentoring two of the interns who joined the company during summer vacation. They were both 17 – 18 year old kids. Interacting with them, I was often left questioning myself as to what is lacking in our educational system in India that doesn’t foster that kind of scientific excitement and knack among kids. Indian kids are extremely smart, and we produce maximum number of engineers and doctors every year. Then, what is it that prevents us from being the most innovative country in the world? I interacted with many school children during this time as well, and realized that there is a fundamental difference in the way we introduce Science and Technology to our kids. If somehow, we could change this introduction for our kids, their perception of the subjects and inculcate a love for scientific exploration rather than a fear for marks, India can easily lead innovation across the world. Indians do so well all around the globe, so why not try to do something that will help us to do so in the country! 

So, upon my return to India in late 2019, I decided to do my bit by building a space where children learn Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) in a manner that motivates them to pursue these on their own rather than being told to. I resolved to make this a fun learning space where children are free to question and explore without the stress of peer comparison. A place where children are exposed to core STEM concepts through hands-on experiments because there can be no better way to learn than by doing! This is how STEMonsters was founded. We try to take the inquisitive children from being curious about STEM to being confident about STEM innovation. My ultimate goal is to see India in the top ranks of the world’s most innovative countries.

Running a startup means that 24 hours of a day are never enough! The position entails rigorous planning, out-of-box thinking to design the content, marketing  skills, networking skills, adapting to the technology and learning new skills fast  – all of which are the skills that I acquired during my career as a researcher.  

There is no typical day in this role, and that’s the beauty of it! However, if I have to list out a few of the major things that I do, it would be to read up on the latest  science and technology developments in a particular STEM concept/ topic,  design experiments, speak with customers (parents), write a blog, do the live  sessions with the kids (our primary service) and help out the rest of the team with their tasks. Designing simple experiments to explain complex concepts is  by far the most challenging aspect of the job. Imagine designing an experiment to explain the wave-particle duality to a middle-schooler! Challenging but equally exciting!  

The best part of my current role is the opportunity to interact with and influence this amazing bunch of kids who are just waiting to learn! Being able to disseminate knowledge and make a lasting impact on the next generation is my biggest reward in this role.  

How does your work benefit society?

A career that helps to improve the quality of life of people is the best career ever. Enabling and inspiring our next generation to pursue research and technology to do the same is the best job description that I could have ever asked for. After spending more than a decade doing research myself, I find it extremely gratifying to be able to share that knowledge and enthusiasm with young children and knowing that they will grow up with the ability to shape their future towards a better world!  

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

During one of my roles in the corporate sector, my team was tasked with building a specialized laser for one of the most innovative molecular microscopes that the company was building. My expertise was simulations  until that point, which meant that I was not an expert at “making” systems.  Rather, I was an expert in “designing” systems on the computer. So, this role  took me out of my comfort zone completely. However, I took on the challenge, worked almost 16 hours a day for the next few months along with my team,  and eventually, we built the first successful prototype within 6 months! A process that usually takes at least a year or two. This experience reinforced my belief in the two most important elements for success in life – teamwork  and hard work.  

Your advice to students based on your experience?  

There is no replacement for hard work and sincerity. Be open to challenges,  ready to adapt and believe in yourself. I would like to quote Prof. Ghatak at this  point, “If you enjoy what you do, you will never feel like you are working!”  

Finally, build a strong professional network during your education and career.  And never forget to be kind to the people you work with.  

Future Plans?  

My vision is to transform the scientific and research thinking of our next  generation through holistic STEM learning. I have founded STEMonsters with this vision – a place where children grow up to be life-long learners, independent thinkers and confident innovators. I am working hard to making STEMonsters synonymous with a fun yet foundational STEM learning space for young children. I am planning to collaborate with schools and companies in the near future to help reach as many children as possible and introduce the STEMonsters way of learning!