Mathematics, especially Applied Mathematics, has immense potential in modelling any physical, biological or business phenomena, be it the fluctuations in stock market, bacterial growth, or fracture in structures.

Jeet Desai, our next pathbreaker, R&D Engineer, researches and prototypes economically viable technologies to capture gigatons of CO2 (already emitted) through multi-dimensional approaches involving physical chemistry, numerical simulation, fluid mechanics as well as economics.

Jeet talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about wanting to do something serious in mathematics after doing his engineering from BITS Pilani and taking on the various challenges in his path (French language) towards completing his Industrial PhD in Applied Mathematics.

For students, if you are interested in a career in research, think of a problem that no one has thought of and develop a multi-disciplinary approach to solving it !

Jeet, Your background?

I grew up in Mumbai. Initially, I was interested in arts. Left-handed and gifted, I learnt sketching and painting by myself. I spent the first 14 years of life, going to several art competitions and winning prizes. 

My father is an electronics engineer and has an MSME setup, and my mother is a homemaker. My parents have always given me the liberty to pursue whatever I wanted. It was 2008 and at that time it did not really seem like one could make a promising career pursuing arts. So I decided to switch to science and took up JEE coaching (the stupidest mistake everyone committed in my time). I did get an admission into IITs, but did not get a good branch. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I pursued a B.E. in mechanical engineering from BITS Pilani and an M2 (second year of masters) in Applied Mathematics from Université de Paris and École Polytechnique.  While at BITS, I also spent a considerable amount of time in art clubs, painting panels for cultural and tech fests.

My master’s was almost free of cost because of low tuition fee (500 euros). My Industrial PhD was funded by Airbus, Renault, Safran and ESI at the research institute IRT SystemX (so I had the salary of a French engineer).

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

My current career is completely molded by two faculty members at BITS: Dr. Sai Jagan Mohan who motivated me to pursue mathematics and Dr. Amol Marathe, who sensitized me towards nature.

Initially, I was fascinated by Applied Mathematics, its grand potential to model (literally any) physical phenomena, be it the fluctuations in stock market, the bacterial growth, or the fracture in structures. This fascination led me to do a PhD in Applied Mathematics. While doing my PhD, I realized that  ‘‘There are many phenomena that mathematics can model, for everything else, there is AI’’

(without the involvement of Mastercard) 🙂 

Towards the end of my PhD, my sensitivity towards nature grew. I realized that while mathematical models are powerful, they are just tools. Working on sharpening these tools (or doing research) is great, but does not really save nature from climate change. What can really save nature (apart from political will) is technological breakthroughs and innovation.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path

At the end of the second year of my bachelors, I got an opportunity to attend a summer-school in applied mathematics at IIT-B. Here I could learn about the latest research in this domain, along with the subjects and the open-source software that ought to be learnt. I spent the next six months learning the same, while attempting to reproduce some of the results that were presented. As soon as I could, I contacted a PostDoc in Grenoble (in France) for an internship. He was impressed by the results, and invited me to work with him. Thanks to the curriculum of BITS, I could spend the first 6 months of my fourth year working with the PostDoc. We managed to publish an article in the Journal of Sound and Vibration. 

At this point, I was sure of doing something serious in mathematics. There was a masters program in Paris, titled ‘Mathématiques de la modélisation’ (mathematics of modelling) that I wanted to get into. This was the best program I found in France which needed a strong background in mathematics (at least a BSc with good grades), which I did not have. I contacted the coordinator of this program, Prof. Grégoire Allaire (who was also the PhD supervisor of the PostDoc I was working with), asking him if he could grant me an admission. Looking at my coursework at BITS, he said that there is no chance he could. But he was kind enough to suggest a few books (on analysis, numerical methods, etc.) and told me to get back to him if I managed to understand and solve the exercises in those books; which I did (after struggling for 6 more months). And voila, I got an admission into the second year of the masters program. 

Initially, this masters was offered in English and French. Two months before coming to Paris, I thought of learning some French so that I could take a few courses in French, though I was assured that English would largely suffice. On the day of the orientation of the program, disaster struck and it was decided that the entire program shall be offered in French. At this time, I could barely understand 10% of what they were saying. The chances of me failing this program were seemingly high. But I took up the challenge and spent the next 7 months working my ass off. As A result, I passed with very good grades and even topped a few courses. And my understanding of French rose up to 80% (their accent being really the hardest I have known).

Prof. Grégoire Allaire then gave me a golden opportunity to do a 3-year PhD under his supervision on Topology optimization for nonlinear mechanics. This PhD was at a research institute called IRT systemX and was funded by Airbus, Renault, Safran and ESI. The goal of the PhD was to see if one could use optimization algorithms to find structures which do not crack or undergo permanent deformation. Here is a link to my PhD work

How did you get your first break?

I got my first break right after submitting my PhD manuscript. This is when I got 2 months to reflect on my choices, their consequences and where I was heading to.

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

The biggest challenge while doing a PhD or any research for that matter is finding something that is really original. Given the explosion in the number of researchers in the last few decades, it is very hard to think of an idea that no one else has thought of. 

Other than working hard, the way in which I could address this is by developing a multi-disciplinary expertise. Basically, the concept is applying the ideas of one discipline to another discipline.

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

At present, I am doing conducting research and prototyping on technologies to capture gigatons of CO2 (in my father’s factory).  Climate change is the biggest threat humanity faces, and one of the fastest ways to stop it is by capturing hundreds of gigatons of CO2 that has been emitted so far. The problem is multi-dimensional as one needs competence in physical chemistry, numerical simulation, fluid mechanics as well as economics. While I have mastered simulation and mechanics, others ought to be acquired on the fly. The thing that I love about this problem is, though there are many technological solutions, none of them are economical.

This topic is seemingly unrelated to my PhD. While I did not learn chemistry or economics during my PhD, I did learn how to be perseverant while solving problems. The latter is, in my honest opinion, the most useful skill one can acquire. 

This research is, at the moment, boot-strapped. In order to have a perpetual source of income, I am also creating a business out of my PhD work. This involves providing consulting expertise to machine-manufacturers in designing and optimizing their mechanical components, as well as collaboration with 3D printing companies.  

My time is split in half between research in carbon capture and consulting companies. 

How does your work benefit society?

The algorithms in my PhD work help engineers find structures that are less susceptible to failures and hence help conceive structures which last longer. 

This is nice, but not that great as we have bigger problems. My work on CO2 capture, if turned out successful, would really benefit all living-organisms (not just societies), and potentially give me unbounded satisfaction.

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

Proving a new mathematical theorem (soon to be published in the Journal of Computational Physics). This was a part of my PhD and was one of the most challenging tasks I have ever faced in my life. I spent exactly 4 months isolated, thinking about it all day and night, finally cracking the problem.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

In order to progress in any domain, one needs to be really passionate about it. Finding one such domain is hard and can take years. My advice to students would be to raise their awareness and curiosity in order to ensure that they find their passion early on.

Future Plans?

My future goal is to develop technologies that can capture CO2 from the atmosphere at a gigaton scale, in the most economical manner. 

This is far from evident because the existing technologies are either not scalable, or not economical.