Material Physics can bring about immense benefits to society through diverse applications in semiconductors, renewable energy and quantum technologies !

Debarati Pal, our next pathbreaker, Research & Development Associate at an R&D startup, conducts experimental research on Topological materials for applications in Photovoltaics, Hydrogen production and Energy storage.

Debarati talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about giving up a BTech degree to pursue Physics, completing her PhD in Condensed Matter and Material Physics from IIT BHU (Varanasi) and working on commercial applications of her research.

For students, modern science requires deep collaborations between the industry and academicians in order to develop next generation technologies !

Debarati, Your background?

I am from Burdwan district of West Bengal, I was born and brought up there till my schooling. I completed my class V-XII in a school where my mother was an assistant teacher. My mother retired last year as an assistant headmistress. My father was an associate professor in a college and retired 4 years back. Their parenting made me what I am today, as there was always an academic background in my home. I grew up with the dreams of becoming a scientist one day. I always loved studies and my parents didn’t need to push me for my career. I was an extremely self-driven and motivated person. I completed my bachelor’s from a government college in Kolkata, and then finished my Master’s from BHU. This year, I completed my PhD in Physics from IIT (BHU), Varanasi. After my PhD, I joined an R&D organization based in Bangalore as a Research Associate. I have been there for the last 4 months and now I have been fortunate enough to join Shell, India as a Materials Scientist. 

What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation? 

After my schooling in Burdwan, I came to Kolkata and took admission in Bidhannagar government college where I completed my graduation in Physics Hons. The admission was merit based. In some colleges, written tests are also required for screening. After 3 years of the BSc course, I got admission in MSc Physics with Nuclear Physics as a specialization paper at the last semester according to the course curriculum in the Institute of Science, BHU through an all-India test. 

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

I was always self-motivated, thanks to my parents and the people who surrounded me in school, college and in university. I am greatly thankful to my friends who always stood by me like a pillar and helped me grow into whatever I am today. 

I was inspired by my Physics school teacher, and got the passion to pursue a career in Physics. 

I did my 3-months summer internship in Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata on gamma ray detectors. I also did one internship on the theoretical aspect of dark matter during my MSc as a part of my final year course work. 

At a later stage, I did my PhD. The motivation came to me as my father was a PhD, my mother and grandmother were school teachers with  Master’s degrees. My elder sister is a BTech and MBA.

I think the most important driver was the self-motivation to always do something big!

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

I wanted a career in the Physics field. So I opted for BSc in Physics although I got the opportunity to do BTech. I was always passionate about Physics. 

In order to graduate with an MSc in Physics from Institute of Science BHU, one has to choose a specialization paper in the 2nd year. There were a lot of options like Condensed Matter Physics, Nuclear Physics, Astrophysics, Atomic Physics, Electronics etc. It was again a merit-based selection. My 1st priority was Condensed Matter Physics, but I didn’t get it as there were many classmates having semester marks better than me. I got my 2nd choice (Nuclear Physics) and completed the course successfully. We had 5-6 specializations in the BHU Physics department and every group had ~20 people. Later for my PhD, I opted for research in experimental condensed matter physics at IIT (BHU).

For my Nuclear Physics specialization in my final year, I opted for a nuclear detector project in Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics in summer during my MSc course. The project was on the performance of BaF2 and LaBr3 scintillators as gamma ray detectors in radiation spectroscopy. 

Can you tell us about your PhD in Condensed Matter Physics?

Working in experimental nuclear physics is difficult in India and theoretical nuclear physics is very complex to handle because one has to deal with quantum field theory related problems. But if you are planning your future in India, experimental condensed matter physics is a very good option, because it includes materials science, nanoscience plus condensed matter related research. The measurements and instruments are available in India, and there is huge scope from a job perspective as well as for joining the academic field/ industrial field. Material science is something that has tremendous opportunity in all the universities, and research institutes such as NITs, IITs and CSIR labs.

Condensed Matter Physics is the field of physics that deals with the macroscopic and microscopic physical properties of matter, especially the solid and liquid phases which arise from electromagnetic forces between atoms.

I got an all-India GATE MHRD fellowship from 2017-2022 for my PhD.

I have collaborated with BARC (Mumbai), UGC-DAE, Kalpakkam, Japan Synchrotron Centre, and RRCAT Synchrotron Centre for my measurements during my PhD. I have also visited Delhi, Mumbai, Jodhpur to attend conferences.

How did you get your first break?

After completing my Master’s, I took a 1-year break to prepare for the GATE exam.

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

Challenge 1: Learning density functional theory on my own was very difficult.

Challenge 2: Understanding the fundamentals of quantum materials like Topological materials was difficult enough to initiate as a PhD topic.

Challenge 3: To bridge the huge gap between doing a regular degree program (MSc) and achieving a PhD was also hard initially.

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

I work in R&D. I do experimental research work, making devices, hydrogen production, storage, materials, corrosion

Topological materials are very exotic quantum materials that can be used in various projects. I have designed a thermoelectric generator using a Topological insulator. This material is a very good Seebeck material (material exhibiting Seebeck effect) which means that by creating temperature difference, one can produce voltage difference and current. So, our motto is to use waste heat/solar heat to produce current that can be further utilized in an electrolyzer or any other project where we want to save energy. Electrolyzer is a device in which hydrogen is produced by splitting water. So this is a green method to generate hydrogen. To save electricity, we can use a solar thermoelectric generator to do this, as we all know that solar cells are very good in saving energy and creating electricity to run light, fan etc. 

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?

I learnt Python in my PhD course work. I also know C, FORTRAN, these were included in my BSc and MSc course.

What’s a typical day like? 

My typical day goes in experimental work, thinking, planning, and executing. I love the fact that I do independent research work and design experiments which require analytical thinking

How does your work benefit society? 

Topological materials are very unique materials to work with. This particular kind of material contains insulating bulk and conducting surface state due to time reversal protection and spin orbit coupling. These materials show superconductivity, high magnetoresistance and can be used in memory devices, spintronics, thermoelectric materials, p-n junction diodes, field effect transistors, optoelectronic devices, ultrafast photodetectors and in quantum computations. Also, in my current company I am working on designing a cheap and affordable Topological insulator based thermo-electric generator (TEGs). These have commercial applications and can benefit society.

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

When I published my 1st journal in Scientific reports, it was a lifetime memory for me.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Don’t become hopeless due to setbacks, learn from every failure, there is no short-cut of success. Have hope, and keep trying your best. Being a topper in school/college is not important, rather continuing to work with the same spirit, excitement, and motivation from the beginning to the end is the most important key behind the success.

Future Plans?

My plan is to execute my work and research successfully so that it can somehow serve people, the research field and nature. I love research work, and whatever I do, wherever I work, whether it is in academia or in the industry, I will dedicate myself to research. I see myself as a project lead within a couple of years. I am a pet lover, I feed street dogs and cats.