Transportation Engineering is undergoing a generational shift with the development of safer and reliable public transport systems (including tramways, light rails, high-speed trains, metros) based on state of the art technologies !

Saikat Datta, our next pathbreaker, develops next-generation railway track switch systems at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research with a focus on preventing failures in the system.

Saikat talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking a risk and steering his career in a new direction in railway engineering from a career in automotive engineering.

For students, it’s ok to not have any specific plans for your career, but be aware of a specific direction you want to head in and always be ready to take a risk and explore new options. 

Saikat, tell us a bit about yourself and where you come from?

I grew up in Kolkata, where I studied in a state government-run school with a vernacular (Bengali) medium of study. I mention the medium of instruction here because I can assure others that it has never been a barrier to studying school level sciences and social sciences in my career . I was interested in Maths, History and Geography in my early days in school. From class seven onwards I leaned towards physical sciences, particularly Physics and Mechanics. I was eager to know how everything works basically. I was interested in knowing how cars work, how trains run on a track, how aeroplanes fly, and so on and so forth.  

I grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood in Kolkata and my father was a government employee in an administrative role. I was active in sports (although I didn’t play very well), painting, and reading almost anything which I got my hand to. I feel that having hobbies are important because these helped me throughout my journey. I played football till the last day of my university and still spend time painting random things in my spare time. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my bachelor’s in mechanical engineering at Bengal Engineering and Science University Shibpur (now known as IIEST Shibpur), West Bengal. I was eager to study either Electrical or Mechanical Engineering and got the chance to study at Shibpur, which is one of the oldest and highly reputed engineering institutes in India. After finishing my BE, I decided not to join any industry because I wanted to pursue higher studies. I joined IIT Kharagpur to study MTech in Mechanical systems Design and then continued to complete my PhD from there.  

What were the triggers that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and rare career?

During my bachelors, I became interested in research, exploring different possibilities and trying out different things. For example, I was eager to research cars. A bachelor’s degree paved the way to building a strong foundation for me based on which I wanted to pursue a career focusing on specialized areas (mostly automobile then). When I got the opportunity to study at IIT KGP, I studied subjects which helped me in understanding the basics of these. 

First, I would like to mention two of my school teachers, Dr Sahadev Bandyopadhyay and Mr Kallol Garai. As a boy from a middle-class family, I was not aware of the competition after school since I didn’t have any exposure to the outside world. They helped me and many of my friends to focus on Higher Secondary exams and WBJEE as well. They encouraged us to solve problems outside the school textbooks and spent extra time with us to prepare and motivate us.

I would also like to mention my PhD supervisor Professor Goutam Chakraborty during my PhD. He helped me overcome the initial hurdles of my PhD. He gave me the freedom to work on my dissertation and didn’t focus on deadlines. I enjoyed my research and focused on developing other personal skills which are needed for professional development.  

At the later stage of my PhD, I began searching for postdoctoral jobs outside India as well as academic jobs in India. After a couple of months of an unsuccessful campaign, I was demotivated. But I did not give up, knowing that hard work always pays off in the end. Finally, I got the opportunity to work as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Inha University, South Korea on automobile research, which was the first turning point. However, during my time in South Korea, my aim was to get another job in any English-speaking country and I got the opportunity to work as a Research Associate at the Loughborough University, UK in Railway Engineering. This was the turning point which changed my career path.

I am currently working as a Research Fellow in Railway Mechatronics and I work with Professor Roger Dixon, who helped me settle in a foreign land. He always encourages me to engage with not only research activities but other professional activities as well. 

Can you tell us about your career path? How did you get to where you are today?

I didn’t have any specific plans for my career, but I am always ready to take a risk and explore new options. 

After my bachelors, I had the opportunity to take up a well-paid job in an automobile company of my interest. However, since I also took the GATE examination and scored well, I got an opportunity to study MTech in Mechanical Systems Design at IIT Kharagpur. Hence, I chose to pursue a masters degree. Thereafter, I completed my PhD from IIT Kharagpur as well.

My PhD research was focused on car suspension systems and the ride comfort of the passengers. Suppose, when you travel by a car and it hits a pothole (or a speed breaker), you can feel that vibration and it is not a desirable experience. Although this vibration cannot be completely suppressed, a new suspension system design (spring and damper) can help in minimising those jerks and improve ride comfort of passengers. In my PhD research, I studied a different damper arrangement (called Magneto-rheological damper) which was shown to improve the ride comfort of passengers in the car. My PhD research was mostly analytical in nature, and I went through the various stages to understand the problem mathematically.  

After finishing my PhD, I had two options- either look for a lectureship (assistant professor) in Indian universities or explore postdoctoral research jobs abroad. While I got the opportunity to teach at a reputed private university, I chose the second option and tried contacting professors around the globe for a research job. I chose this option because I wanted to explore the research atmosphere around the world and wanted to learn from different settings and cultures. 

I got the opportunity to work at Inha University, South Korea, and the research topic was car suspensions, which is close to my area of interest. In this job, I worked on two projects, one of which was very close to my PhD research, i.e., suspension design. However, in this project, my aim was to design a new controller which uses less energy to minimise the vibration in the car using a specific system called Macpherson strut in the front wheels. In another project, I developed a new controller to minimise the steering vibration of cars. 

Besides research, the time in Korea was a great experience for me. I learnt to work on strict deadlines, learnt (a bit) a completely different language, tried to understand Korean culture and particularly liked the food.

However, while working in South Korea, I was looking for further opportunities in any English speaking country. I followed UK job websites and applied for different jobs which were of my interest and which matched well with my technical and professional skills. I took a risk and steered my career in a new direction in railway engineering at Loughborough University in the UK. The skills I acquired during my PhD and subsequent jobs were transferable and were useful in making this transition. 

In this role, I was leading the work on modelling and controller development for two Switch System (which changes the tracks) projects. In one project, I developed a complete computer-aided mathematical model of a switch system, which was first of its kind. The the skills required for this project, mainly software-based modelling, was something that i acquired during my PhD and previous job. I also led another project in modelling and controller development work, where the parts were manufactured based on the modelling results. While working on the second project, I moved to Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education, University of Birmingham, and continued to work on the same. We completed the continuing project, which ended with testing a full-scale demonstrator installed on a working railway track. This was the first time, when I was involved in a project where I have been part of the project from the modelling till the full development of a system and testing on field. Now, at the University of Birmingham I am working on various exciting new projects related to Railways. The railways have been here for almost two hundred years and in the future, railways should lead sustainable transport solutions. We work on different areas of railways, starting from track switches (which changes the tracks from one to another) to train control (for safe running) and many more systems. 

How did you get your first break? 

I got my first job during my bachelors through campus interview, which I didn’t join. 

As I mentioned earlier, I was exploring different options related to post-doctoral research jobs across the globe. I was not confined by any constraints and was open to every opportunity. I emailed many professors in my research area. I also applied through different job adverts; for example, all academic jobs in the UK are advertised on website. After trying for a couple of months, I appeared in several interviews and I finally got three postdoc offers in three different countries. I chose Inha University, South Korea, because I got the opportunity to work in a laboratory that is famous for automobile research. 

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

Challenge 1: Time

A career in research (like mine) involves a considerable amount of time. In my case, it took two years Masters + five years of PhD + some years of PostDoc. People around you may comment adversely on your career; don’t let that get to you.

Challenge 2: Be open

You need to be open to every opportunity, be it a new research area, be it a completely new environment, or be it any other personal thing.

Challenge 3: Support: 

As mentioned above, the road to research is not linear. You may find yourself in some phases where things will not go according to your plan. You have to be resilient during those times. In addition, you will need support from your close ones. During my career, I received support from my wife, who is also a researcher and supported me during my tough times. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I am presently working on developing a new railway track switch system. The track switch is the mechanism that changes routes and it has not changed much since the inception of railways (200 years ago). I am now working towards developing a new system that can perform this task differently so that the failures in the system do not occur.

I work on developing models and designing controllers. I will talk about two basic skills which I need for this – Mathematics and Mechanics. Every work that I am involved in requires mathematical knowledge, so I would recommend all the students to study these if they want to pursue a career in engineering research. 

Before the pandemic, I used to work in a lab-based environment. The research I work on has two different parts, simulation and experimental. Before building any new physical thing (suppose a new train), it is important to design and test it virtually through a simulation. So, I spent most of the time developing digital models. However, when the virtual testing is finished, we have to perform field tests to check if the “research outcome” has passed the success criteria or not. Sometimes, the experiments can be completed within the laboratory, but in some cases, we go to the rail network to collect data, perform tests. For example, after developing a new demonstrator, we carried out physical tests in a rail network in Leicestershire UK during the months of December-January. There were times when we were on the field the whole day in sub-zero temperatures, with rain. 

I love the challenge I face in every new research that I undertake. I also enjoy the process of solving those problems to achieve something meaningful. 

How does your work benefit the society?

I work in railways and I want to make it safer and reliable for the future generation. I believe that a sustainable future transport scenario will be based on reliable, accessible railway systems (including tramways, light rails, high-speed trains, metros). I want to contribute my part to achieving a sustainable, green public transport system. 

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

Presently I am working on developing new railway track switches which change tracks. We have seen in the movies, where someone pulls the lever and the track moves to the other side. The manual levers have changed to electro-mechanical, hydraulic or even pneumatic mechanisms, however, the working principle of sliding rails over a frictional surface hasn’t changed over years. We developed a new system where rails are lifted from their place, moved and then dropped to the desired location to complete the switching. We developed a full-scale demonstrator and tested it in a railway environment. This work is memorable for me as I had taken a lead role in developing various subsystems and the demonstrator was tested successfully. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I would advise all the students to keep their mind open and be curious about everything. I would also encourage you all to ask questions, don’t be shy. I am not a good communicator; I often find it difficult to talk to people. So, I understand the challenge. However, if you ask your question or if you ask for help when needed, there will be someone who can help.

For those who want to pursue a career in research, I have some advice. The first is to understand that you may find various obstacles during your initial career, but the results are always satisfactory. Secondly, you have to be patient; during a PhD (or any research process), there will be a time when you will not get any positive outcome from your work. However, that phase will go, and always remember, “At the end of a storm/ There’s a golden sky”.

Future Plans?

I want to carry on my research in railway engineering and want to work with the world leaders in this field. I hope to develop myself into a well-known academic and mentor and inspire students to pursue STEM careers.