Metallurgical Research is powering our future through novel materials that are not only efficient but also sustainable for use in our day-to-day lives.

Shreyas Honrao, Computational Materials Scientist, uses computational simulations and machine learning techniques to identify new candidates among existing materials as well as design new materials with improved properties for real world applications.

Shreyas talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking up Metallurgical and Materials Science for his BTech at IIT Madras, followed by a PhD in Materials Science which lies at the intersection of chemistry, physics, and mathematics, subjects that form the foundation of material properties.

For students, trends will come and go, but core engineering disciplines will always lead the way because they drive the cycle of innovation !

Shreyas, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I grew up in Pune, Maharashtra with my twin brother. Our paternal and maternal grandfathers were both college professors, so they encouraged our parents to study well and get post-graduate degrees. Our parents, in turn, instilled in us a similar love of learning, which exists within me to this day. 

I did well at school and traded the top rank with my twin brother most years. Although I liked all subjects, I realized early on that I had a special aptitude for mathematics and science. Alongside my school curriculum, I also began studying for scholarship exams like MTS, NTSE, etc. as I worked my way through high school. By the time I passed my 10th standard SSC board exams, I knew that I wanted to be an engineer and study at an IIT. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I cleared IIT-JEE in 2007 and ended up picking Metallurgical and Materials Science as my branch at IIT Madras. Based on my research, I found out that the field of Materials Science lies at the intersection of chemistry, physics, and mathematics, subjects that I was good at and enjoyed thoroughly. After getting my BTech from IIT Madras in 2011, I went on to pursue my MS and PhD in Materials Science & Engineering from Cornell University in the US. My PhD research was focused on the use of computational simulations and calculations to study materials properties.  Materials properties are typically dictated by their underlying crystal structures. Understanding this structure-property relationship was the focus of my research. I did so using computational techniques like density functional theory, molecular dynamics, and machine learning. 

What were some of the factors that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

As I mentioned earlier, one key reason for choosing Materials Science as my field of study was that the curriculum provided a perfect mix of chemistry, physics, and mathematics. At the same time, I remember thinking about how everything around us was made from different materials. I realized that, as humans, we will never stop searching for the next best material. There will always be a new material with better properties out there. This meant that not only are there many industries where Materials Science knowledge is useful, but that materials research itself will never go out of vogue. 

Coincidentally, my twin brother also ended up studying Materials Science from IIT Kharagpur and, later, from Georgia Institute of Technology in the US. However, our areas of specialization were quite different. 

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 realized that I enjoyed research after my first summer internship following my 2nd year of BTech. I had the opportunity to work at Tata Motors, Pune, where I performed experiments on a sample of a new type of steel that was to be studied for possible use in future applications. 

My next research opportunity came the following summer, at the University of North Texas, where I got my first taste of using computer simulations to study materials properties. Experiments are usually the method of choice for studying materials and measuring their properties. However, as we move to smaller length and time scales, experiments have limitations. Combining results from experiments and simulations together is necessary for understanding the structure-property relationships in these materials and for explaining/predicting their behavior.

For my final year BTech project, I went back to the lab to study the formation and properties of glasses. I made my foray into the field of materials design, learning how one can tune the compositions of materials to optimize their physical, chemical, or mechanical properties.   

I joined the MS program at Cornell University right after my BTech. The courses I studied and projects I worked on during my masters made me realize how much I still enjoyed the academic environment. This, coupled with my positive prior research experiences and problem-solving skills that I had honed during the many scholarship exams, made the decision of continuing towards a PhD degree an easy one for me. I was happy to receive a full scholarship and join a research group of my liking at Cornell.  

My PhD research was focused on using various computational techniques to study the thermodynamics and kinetics of metal oxides with applications in batteries, catalysis, and gas sensing. While I had enjoyed both the experimental and computational aspects of research, I finally picked the one I enjoyed more. Although I studied materials properties primarily through the medium of computer simulations, I was also simultaneously working with experimental colleagues from other research groups. I used tools and techniques that I had learned before, and also added new ones like machine learning to my repertoire. I began to appreciate how much data we generated through experiments and computations and figured out new ways to use it to our advantage.

The complete knowledge, skills, and experiences that I accumulated during my courses, internships, and research helped prepare me for my future career as a computational materials scientist.

How did you get your first break?

After my PhD, I joined the computational materials team at NASA’s Ames research center in California as a postdoctoral researcher. I had applied to several research positions as I was coming upon the end of my PhD program, and I was a little fortunate that the Computational Materials group at NASA Ames was looking for someone with my background around the same time. My knowledge and previous research experience convinced them that I was the right person for the job.

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

Looking back through the successes, it is easy to miss the many obstacles and failures along the way. The first two years at IIT Madras were overwhelming. I was living by myself for the first time, meeting new people, joining new clubs, playing new sports, organizing events. For a while academics seemed to take a back seat. And by the time I learned to properly balance my time between academics and extra-curricular activities, my GPA had begun to slump; my dream of joining a top-ranked graduate program was slipping way. I had to work extra-hard to make up for my low GPA during my final four semesters, to earn my spot at Cornell. 

Although I never repeated that same mistake during my PhD, there were times when my research wasn’t always going according to plan and sometimes the results took longer to arrive. But my PhD advisor helped me work through the challenges, and when I finally graduated, I was able to land a dream job at NASA.   

Where do you work now? Can you tell us about your current role?

I am currently working as a Computational Materials Scientist at NASA Ames. The problems I am assigned to work on involve the discovery and design of novel materials with improved properties for applications like lithium batteries, morphable aircraft wings (designed to be ‘adaptive’, which means being able to seamlessly ‘shape-shift’ automatically) etc. I use computational simulations and machine learning to find new candidates among existing materials as well as to design new materials. Although the tools and techniques I use for my current work are similar to those I used during my PhD research, the applications are now different. 

What do you love about your job?

Most of my projects involve working in teams where every member brings a different set of skills and expertise to the table. I enjoy this collaborative aspect of my work, where each individual can solve one part of the puzzle, but it takes the entire team to put together their findings to reveal the entire picture. 

How does your work benefit society? 

I hope that the work we do here will help the world move to a more efficient and sustainable future in terms of the materials that we use in our day-to-day lives. 

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

Although computer simulations have been used in conjunction with experiments to study materials for many years now, the use of machine learning and data informatics in materials research is relatively new. After taking courses on Machine Learning and Data Mining during my PhD, I quickly found ways to also use these tools in my research. One of my recent projects involved the use of machine learning algorithms to learn from existing simulation data in order to design new Lithium battery electrolytes. By learning patterns about how different materials behave, the algorithms could now predict the responses given any new material, avoiding the need for expensive experiments and simulations.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice for younger students is to first identify subjects that they really enjoy learning about, and then spend time exploring which programs and professions make use of this knowledge. Not everyone will have the same aptitude for science or mathematics or biology or another subject, so identifying what it is that you are good at early on will give you the best chance at succeeding in your field and even enjoying the work you do.

Future Plans?

I know my future will be in research, where I can use my skills and background to work towards engineering a better world for all of us to live in. I have always enjoyed the feeling of observing the real-life impact of my research. Whether at a research organization like NASA or in industry, I will continue to chase that feeling.