Laser Technology impacts pretty much every field whether it is material processing, defense, metrology, research, and especially the medical industry, where many surgeries and non-invasive treatments are done with lasers.

Arthi Prabha, our next pathbreaker, Laser Engineer at Aurolab (Madurai), the manufacturing unit of the Aravind Eye Care System, Madurai, is part of the R&D team which develops Laser systems for Diabetic Retinopathy.

Arthi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her internship at RRCAT-Raja Ramanna Center for Advanced Technology which solidified her interest in Laser technologies and their real world applications.

For students, if you are fascinated by how Light Energy gets converted into Electrical energy, Lasers and Optics is the field for you !

Arthi, tell us about your early years.

I was born and brought up in Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu. Until high school I studied in my hometown and later moved to a boarding school. I studied in the science stream. My father is a village administrative officer and my mother is a homemaker. As a kid, I was always interested in space science and always wanted to learn new things. I wanted to be a researcher from an early age even though my family doesn’t come from a research background. I am a bookworm and have a habit of reading different science facts books, autobiographies of scientists and classic literature in Tamil and English. My day always started in the early morning at 4:30 AM as my dad was strict with my academics, especially Mathematics and Science. Reading different books, having a keen interest in understanding the concepts clearly and asking doubts without feeling shy as a student helped me later in my career. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I did my Bachelor’s in Electrical and Electronics Engineering as I had a strong foundation in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. I decided to do a masters after BE and did my MTech in LASER and Electro-optical Engineering from CEG, Anna University.

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

In my first year of Engineering, I was asked to do a small lab experiment on my own with diodes and photodiodes, by my sister’s friend Chandrasegaran Thangavelu as part of his research work. He later became my mentor. My mentor helped me in understanding how everything around us is mathematics and engineering in the real world, by giving real life examples. I believe that was the starting point of my career. I was fascinated by how Light Energy gets converted into Electrical energy and began exploring more about electromagnetic theory and semiconductors. From Solar cells, Photodiodes to Lasers, I ended up with a career in the field of Lasers and Optics.

Tell us about your career path

I was always very clear about what did not interest me. I concentrated only on the things that interested me. I took a year after my Bachelor’s to explore all the other options. I realized that nothing perked my interest as much as cutting edge technology. I cleared the entrance exams and decided to go for an MTech in Laser, Solar or Nanotechnology (which is a cross field major). Students can also do Masters in other fields which are not closely related to their core field that they pursued in Bachelors.

During my MTech in Laser Engineering, I decided to do my internship in RRCAT-Raja Ramanna Center for Advanced Technology. RRCAT is a unit of the Department of Atomic Energy, they offer an Orientation course on Accelerators, Lasers and other related technologies (OCAL). Every year 40 Post graduate students are chosen from various states of India based on merit and I got selected from Tamil Nadu. The two month OCAL course helped me to know about various Lasers, Accelerators and advanced scientific facilities in the country. 

We were a group of 4 students (2 Engineering+ 2 Science students). Every day we had lectures followed by lab experiments. Engineers are taught to think like physicists and vice-versa. This changed our thought process. The technical knowledge and advanced technology concepts were transferred to us from experienced Indian scientists. Only as a student can we get this kind of opportunity.

I got an opportunity to do my project work as a project trainee in the High Energy Optics section under the guidance of Mr. Rajesh Kumar Patidar, Scientific officer, RRCAT. My guide trained me in High-Power Solid-State Laser Systems and Optics. From building a laser system, to its applications, I learned everything from RRCAT. I was taught to integrate basic science and engineering. We worked on consecutive Sundays and I always felt happy while correcting my mistakes and showing improvement day by day.

How did you get your first break? 

At the end of the master’s program, we have two options: either to go for a PhD or to join the industry. I decided to get into the industry. I started applying to companies at the end of third semester. I applied only to those companies which were aligned with my project work and skills. I sent my resume and cover letter to the HR dept of companies with a brief introduction about myself and my interests. I got the mail id from the company website. I got replies from a few of them and was called for an interview. I got my first job off-campus by directly applying on the company website and the technical interview was based on my master’s thesis. Networking with seniors also helps you to know about various vacancies.

My first job was at Markolaser-Spinks India group, Gurugram, Haryana. Markolaser is the leading manufacturer of Laser Marking machines in India for sectors like Medical, Jewellery, Automotive, Watches, Die-Mould & Tool. I was a Management Engineer Trainee in the R&D department. We study the properties of different materials like metals and alloys, polymers and composites and decide what type of laser is suited for laser material processing of the given material and do laser marking, engraving, cutting, drilling and paint removal using the laser machines.

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

1) As a woman in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) field, I got a lot of negative comments and advice at the beginning of my post-graduation and career.

I addressed them by surrounding myself with people who have the same career goals. Though my friend’s circle became small, it kept me on track.

2) Decision Making– Most of the time I have had to take crucial decisions regarding my career which would affect my future. I always made decisions giving priority to my career path and this sometimes affected my personal life.

3) Having a good Mentor– Choosing a good mentor is very important. I chose someone who has been kind and has guided me through my mistakes.

Where do you work now? What is your role as Laser Engineer?

I work in the Ophthalmic Laser industry as Laser Engineer at Aurolab, the manufacturing unit of the Aravind Eye Care System, Madurai. Cataract is the leading cause of blindness in the world and the symptom is cloudy vision. In the early 1990s, there was a great deal of debate on the relevance of Intra Ocular Lens (IOL) in developing countries. Though widely accepted as a better procedure for Cataract surgery, it was argued that the developing countries like India shouldn’t go for it as the IOLs were expensive. Taking on this challenge, in 1992, Aurolab was established as a non- profit charitable trust for manufacturing ophthalmic consumables. Aravind, with its mission to ‘eliminate needless blindness’, provides large volume, high quality and affordable healthcare. 50% of their patients receive services either free of cost or at steeply subsidized rates, yet the organization remains financially self-sustainable. Over 4.5 lakh eye surgeries are performed annually at Aravind Eye Hospitals. Aravind has handled more than 6 crore (65 million) outpatient visits and performed more than 78 lakh (7.8 million) surgeries. It was all made possible by one great man Dr.Venkataswamy, Founder of Aravind Eye Care System.

Today, Aurolab manufactures ophthalmic consumables like Intraocular lenses, pharmaceutical products like eye drops, surgical adjuncts like sutures and blades, Opthalmic equipment’s like Phaco for cataract surgery, Laser for retinal treatments, Autorefractor, Digital vision charts and other specialized products. Cataract surgeries are done using the phaco machine. In the Phaco surgery, a small self-sealing incision is made in the eye, the hollow Phaco needle is inserted through the opening and the cataract lens is dissolved into small pieces by sending ultrasound waves and is sucked out with the help of the same needle. Next, a foldable Intra-Ocular Lens is injected inside through this small opening. Once inserted in the eye, it opens up and serves to replace the original lens. This procedure is also called “stitchless” cataract surgery.

What are the skills needed for your role?

 I am part of the R&D team which develops Laser systems for Diabetic Retinopathy. As a Laser Engineer, I must have the knowledge of the anatomy of the eye, different Lasers, related optics, electronics and their applications. Being a Laser Engineer is fun and exciting. I get to work with lasers and analyze its interaction with the eye tissue. I build different optical setups for laser delivery to the patient’s eye in the micrometer and nanometer range. Every workday is different as it needs full involvement and a very high level of concentration. I got this job through Linkedin. I had a technical round and personal interview.

How does your work benefit society?

Today Laser Technology impacts all the fields such as medical industry, material processing, defense, metrology, research etc. In the medical industry, many surgeries and non-invasive treatments are done with lasers with minimum pain as it doesn’t damage the nearby tissues and veins. High energy laser systems are used in defense as weapon systems. Materials are processed with lasers, like laser cutting, laser ablation, laser marking, wood carving is done with lasers. Laser projections are used to create realistic simulations. Advanced laser technologies are used in quantum computing. In the medical industry lasers are mainly used to provide fast and painless treatments.

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

Development of an ophthalmic surgical equipment for Diabetic Retinopathy and its first installation after a trial. Diabetic retinopathy is damage to the small blood vessels in the retina caused by complications of diabetes. With the rise in Diabetes, this is becoming a major cause of vision loss across the world. People with diabetics are mostly affected, at first it might cause mild vision problems or no symptoms but it can lead to blindness. The major symptoms are eye floaters, blurriness, black spots in the area of vision, loss of central vision and blindness. Solid state lasers are used for the treatment of diabetic retinopathy. Laser treatment for diabetic retinopathy, called laser photocoagulation, works in part by creating tiny, painless retinal burns that seal off leaking vessels and reduce swelling. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

If you have interest in a particular field, work every day to master yourself in your chosen field. Search for mentors and build your network with successful people in the field and ask them how they reached there. Then, work towards it by setting short term goals. Self-motivation is much more important and it’s okay to fail. If you are failing, you are trying to do something. Persistence in finding your own way will help you. Resting sometimes and taking a break is okay. All that matters is to keep going even in tough times.

Your future Plans?

The field of Laser and optics is huge. I am learning every day and enjoying the journey.