We live in a society where metallurgy takes a back seat to specialisations such as computer science. But still, there are a few who take up metallurgy as a first choice, realising its significance in cutting edge industries !

Sufyan Sheikh, our next pathbreaker, PhD Candidate in the Department of Metallurgy & Materials Engineering at IIT Madras, conducts research on alloys for high-temperature applications, which have the potential to be used in airplane jet-engines, power generation turbines, fighter jets, and rockets.

Sufyan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his decision to do a PhD taking shape while working at Bekaert, a company specialising in advanced materials such as steel wires!

For students, metallurgical analysis requires not only a knowledge of computer science but also the ability to use incredibly powerful supercomputers to simulate and understand the behaviour of these alloys.

Sufyan, tell us what were your initial years like?

I grew up in a small city named Kalyan, about 50 km away from Mumbai in Maharashtra. My mother was a schoolteacher, and my father was a Mechanical Engineer. My parents were of the view that for a better understanding of concepts, a child should get primary education in his/her mother tongue. Since my mother tongue was Urdu and both of my parents had also studied in an Urdu medium school, my sisters and I ended up getting our primary education in an Urdu medium school. My mother used to teach in the same school. Until the 10th standard, I studied everything in Urdu except Hindi, Marathi, and English.

I was fascinated by how my toys worked and used to always open them with either a screwdriver or by breaking them. Most of my childhood was spent breaking open my toys and other kitchen utensils such as mixer grinders, wall clocks, and old television sets. I still remember once I got an electric shock as I was trying to fix up the TV wall socket so that I could watch the Cartoon Network channel. I used to watch a lot of cartoons and Discovery Channel on TV. My parents used to get angry that all I did was ask for new toys and break them apart in a few days. The good thing was that most of the time, I could fix them as if they were new.

I was very much fascinated by how the excavators and bulldozers worked. I remember once there was digging work going on near my home, and I used to stand for hours at the construction site to just watch people use excavators to dig up the ground. That is how I ended up taking science in 11th standard.

What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation?

During my 11th standard, my father put me in IIT JEE coaching classes which I found to be very tough. Somehow, I managed to spend my 11th grade in the IIT coaching centre, though they were not teaching as expected. So, I returned to regular state board in my 12th standard and took the Maharashtra State Common Entrance Test, MH-CET. Though my score was not that great on that exam, it was sufficient to get me into the Government College of Engineering Pune (COEP, now called COEP Tech) in the Metallurgical Engineering field. Since my father was a Mechanical Engineer, he knew a few things about Metallurgical Engineering; hence, he encouraged me to take that specialisation.

During my BTech, I did an internship in a company called Bekaert. It was in the Materials Laboratory of their India Technical Center. After my graduation, I got a full-time offer to head the same department where I was interning earlier. After working for about 2 years, traveling to 5 countries, and working with people from 5 countries (almost all continents) on various cross-functional projects, I decided to explore this field further through a PhD.

I had written the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) exam during my BTech days, so based on my GATE-2015 score, I got admitted to the Master of Technology (MTech) course in the Metallurgical and Materials Engineering department at IIT Madras. During my MTech, I realized that it would be the last time when I would be able to finish my entire education in one go without worrying about finances. So, I upgraded my MTech course to an MTech+PhD dual degree course. Right now, I am in the final stage of my PhD and will be submitting my PhD thesis soon.

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

My father had the biggest influence on my career path and persuaded me to take up this field. He asked me to take Metallurgy as a specialisation for my BTech. Initially, I had gotten admission in the Bachelor of Engineering course with Mechanical Engineering specialization in a local college in Mumbai. However, I got COEP in the 3rd round of the admission program of the state govt. Within 3 days, I cancelled my admission at the local college and shifted my entire base to Pune. My father and I had not slept for 2 days during that time.

During my COEP days, I did a course called Heat Treatment Technology taught by Prof. Santosh S. Hosmani. He is one of the best teachers I have ever come across. I was fascinated by the fact that we could change a material’s properties by merely heating and cooling it. That was the beginning of my journey in research in Metallurgy. Prof. Hosmani became my undergraduate thesis advisor as well. During my BTech, I got the Ministry of Steel Scholarship from the Govt. of India for academic excellence.

After my BTech, I got a job at the Bekaert India Technical Center, where I was heading their Materials Lab. I was responsible for advanced materials failure investigation, advanced materials analysis for R&D analysis, and was working with the India purchase team to develop an Indian supplier base for the raw material. 

Bekaert is a 140 year old manufacturing company specialising in converting steel into thin steel wires. Some of these wires are thinner than human hair! These wires go into our automotive tires to make them strong. The tires in trucks and heavy machinery contain these twisted wires like a human hair braid. The actual load of the vehicle is taken by these wires. About 30% of the world’s tires contain these wires. They make wire ropes that are used in suspension bridges, suspension springs, bookbinding wire, and many more structures.

I could see the potential of my work and how it influenced decision-making at the highest level in the organization. I was heading a team of 4 analysts who were doing extensive materials analysis work for people in India, Belgium, USA, Europe, Indonesia, and China. I saw many colleagues at higher positions in the company who were postgraduates in Metallurgy. This got my attention and I knew that it would help me in the long run if I did a Masters. So, I got into IIT Madras for their MTech program. While doing the coursework for 1 year at IIT Madras, I explored the research areas of various professors, the facilities and my research interests. It led to a further increase in my interest in Metallurgy and I upgraded to the PhD program.

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

The first ever internship I got was as a part of my undergraduate course, where students need to spend a few weeks in an industry. One of my seniors from COEP was working in a company called Bekaert. He had called a few students to the campus for an industrial visit and then they took our interview. That is how I got my first ever industrial work experience. It was a coincidence that my internship guide was leaving his job. At the same time, I was also in the final stages of my undergraduate program. I joined that company even before I got my degree certificate. My transition to the industry was swift. It was a little easy for me to adjust to the industrial setting because I had already worked in the same department during my internship.

During my job, as a part of the training, I traveled to China, Indonesia, Belgium, and the Czech Republic. I realized that no matter where we are in the world, science remains the same. Though it was apparent, experiencing it practically was an eye-opener. Traveling in the bullet train at the speed of 300km/hr, all while sipping Coca-Cola while returning from Paris, it dawned upon me that it was all because of the hard work which I had put in during my undergraduate days. It was because of my interest in Metallurgical Engineering that I was able to travel to so many countries and lead a team of 4 analysts, all while I was hardly 22 years young.

During my days at Bekaert, I wanted to explore this field further, so I joined IIT Madras for a Masters in Technology program. My elder sister had done her Master of Science in Mathematics from IIT Madras. Hence, I was more interested in IIT Madras than any other IIT, apart from IIT Bombay, which was near to my hometown. Though I did not get IIT Bombay, luckily enough, I got IIT Madras. My elder sister, who had already spent 3 years at IIT Madras, encouraged me to sign up for the integrated PhD program. My elder sister is finishing her PhD in Mathematics at Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology, Nagpur (VNIT-Nagpur). Now, my younger sister is also following the footsteps of our elder sister and doing her integrated Master and PhD in Mathematics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Thiruvananthapuram (IISER-TVM).

Can you tell us about your PhD research?

My PhD research area is on alloy development for high-temperature applications. These alloys have the potential to be used in airplane jet-engines, power generation turbines, fighter jets, and rockets. In my PhD research, I am studying the role of various elements in improving the mechanical property of refractory alloys. I have developed a 9 times faster property calculation workflow which reduces load on the expensive supercomputer. I have worked on a project sponsored by the United States Air Force Research Laboratory to determine the inter relations between 6 properties of 252 refractory alloys. This work has been published now as a peer-reviewed scientific article. My work helps in developing strong refractory alloys for high-temperature applications.

How did you get your first break?

I got my first break as an internship which I had done during my BTech. So, I encourage all my juniors to do an internship and network with people outside.

During my PhD, I was exploring companies that develop components with high temperature alloys. I contacted one of GE Research’s past employees, who recommended me for an internship at GE Research’s Bengaluru office. That is how I ended up becoming one of the rare students from IIT Madras’ Metallurgy department who did an industrial internship during their PhD. I continued my work on refractory high entropy alloy development for high-temperature structural application. At GE Research, I authored 2 research project reports for senior scientists and engineers.

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

Being from a state govt. college, I did not get as many opportunities as a central govt. student. So, I had to play my cards smartly. Hence my internship and my interaction with people in the industry during my internship opened my eyes to a career in this field.

The challenge was to understand the fields I could take up and how to pursue them further. During my BTech, I understood that I could take 1 career path out of the 3 below. To better understand the benefits and drawbacks of each career, I attended coaching classes for their entrance exams.

  1. UPSC
    I attended 2 classes for the UPSC Mains exam and realized that it is not my cup of tea.
  2. MBA – Common Admission Test
    I attended 2 classes of CAT coaching and realized that I could do an MBA later in my career if I wanted to.
  3. MTech – GATE
    I attended 2 classes for the GATE exam and found them to be more interesting than the other two. I felt that it is more related to what I have studied during my BTech and which I could relate to more than the other two.

That is how I decided to pursue higher studies in my core interest area, Metallurgical and Materials Engineering. Later this interest culminated in a PhD.

I wanted to see how my PhD research could be useful to the industry, but I did not have any contacts. So I started exploring companies that develop these metallic components. I found that GE Research works in that area extensively, so I contacted one of GE Research’s past employees, who recommended me for an internship at GE Research’s Bengaluru office.

Where do you work now?

I am currently finishing my PhD in Alloy Development for High-temperature Structural Applications. These alloys have extremely high melting points, upwards of 2500 degree Celsius (water boils at 100 degrees Celsius). Testing these alloys and developing them for high-temperature applications remains a challenge. So, I use atomistic modelling using supercomputers to understand the behaviour of these alloys when they are loaded and deformed. This work has led to several scientific publications listed on my Google Scholar profile. I have written a public science story based on my research, for which I was in Top-100 in India for 2020. I was awarded a cash prize by the Vigyan Prasar and the Dept. of Science and Technology, Government of India.

What are the skills needed for your role?

The skills needed to succeed in this area are a childlike curiosity and an innate desire to learn computers. I believe curiosity is an essential trait, irrespective of which domain one selects for their research or the career they choose. I got these skills during my internships and my previous job. I have been interested in computers since childhood; hence it was a little easy for me to get acquainted with computer programming fast.

What’s a typical day like?

I start my day at 10 AM when I am in the lab taking stock of my previous day’s calculations which I had already submitted to the supercomputer present at IIT Madras. After that, I go for lunch by 1 PM. After lunch, I attend a course for which I am a Teaching Assistant. After the lecture, which generally goes on from 2 to 4 PM, I go for tea at 4 PM. After tea, I again go back to the lab to write my ongoing thesis and a few research papers. I have my dinner by 7.30 PM and return to my room in the hostel.

What do you love about your work?

The freedom to decide my research area and the freedom to choose what I do during the day is what I love about my current PhD work. On some days I would provide guidance to my fellow junior research group members on a particular scientific concept or on how to write a scientific research article. On some other days, I would be teaching an undergraduate course as a Teaching Assistant to professors. Working as a Teaching Assistant to professors gave me an overview of how much background work goes into delivering a 1-hour lecture in front of a class of 40–60 students. This led me to respect my professors even more.

How does your work benefit society? 

My work on developing alloys using First-principle Density Functional Theory would help us understand the brittle behavior of BCC stacked metals/alloys when they are cooled. By studying the deformation phenomenon at the atomic level, we can accelerate the development of novel alloys for defense and space applications.

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

I was trying to learn a new scientific plotting software. For that, I needed data. I explored the data related to my research field, but it was not available in the open literature. So, I ended up generating that on my own in Excel. I generated data on 252 refractory high entropy alloys and their 6 parameters. I was analyzing various interrelations between those data points. I got excited as I found many interesting trends in the data without using a fancy supercomputer or modeling software. This data generation, my curiosity to learn the scientific plotting software, and confidence in my ability to do research, led to a peer-reviewed scientific publication and an award at an international conference.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Curiosity. Pure childlike curiosity will take you to places you may not have imagined. Curiosity, the ability to express yourself and your research work to a total stranger in a language that they understand, will take you to great heights.

Curiosity 🡪 Hard work 🡪 Smart work 🡪 Repeat

All while communicating your ideas in a simple language 

Future Plans?

After finishing my PhD, I am looking for a full-time position in the industry.