Mathematical Optimization is all about finding the most feasible and practical solution for the problem at hand, which could be in the domain of sciences or in business.

Owais C H, our next pathbreaker, Mathematical Modeler and Optimization Specialist at SimpleAxis, develops efficient production planning algorithms which helps industries maximize profit.

Owais talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about solving problems in physical chemistry using mathematical modelling during his PhD, to enhance the efficiency of targeted drug delivery through nano-carriers.

For students, mathematical modelling has gained immense traction in the past few years due to availability of data and increase in computational power, and lets not forget that mathematics is the language of data !

Owais, can you walk us through your background?

I was born and brought up in Kannur, a northern district of Kerala. I did my schooling in my hometown. I have always been interested in science subjects from my childhood. During my school days, I realized that I have a special interest in pursuing mathematics and chemistry. The way science subjects, especially chemistry and mathematics were taught in my school days actually raised my interest in pursuing a career in science. The encouragement and help from my teachers and friends helped me take a path in computational chemistry later in my life. My hobbies are mainly playing cricket and swimming. My father is a tailor who worked abroad for about 30 years and is currently doing the same job in my hometown, and my mother is a housewife. Both of them encouraged me in every stage of my life and always stood by my side in most difficult times.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I have completed my BSc in Chemistry from Kannur and an Integrated Masters and PhD in Theoretical & Mathematical Chemistry from IISER Thiruvananthapuram.

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

During my high school days, my chemistry and mathematics teachers taught topics in a way that I could relate to easily. This gradually increased my interest in these subjects. My +2 chemistry teacher Mr Rajesh Babu motivated me to choose a career in physical chemistry by realising my interests. During my college days while pursuing BSc, I utilized the library resources of the university which further enhanced my curiosity to learn more. During my last year of BSc, Shejith sir whom I consider my mentor helped in understanding the concepts clearly, which not only helped me to crack various exams after BSc but also motivated me in various phases of my career.

The turning point in my career was joining IISER Thiruvananthapuram which showed me the direction I was looking for i.e., the application of mathematics in chemical sciences. Working under Dr. R S Swathi who motivated me and advised me in solving challenging problems increased my passion. She helped me navigate the problems in an efficient way and make insightful conclusions. Also, I got the opportunity to learn how to approach a research problem. 

Tell us about your career path in Mathematical Chemistry.

I completed my graduation in chemistry from Kannur University. During this time, I was very much interested in physical chemistry, which involves chemistry and mathematics. 

Physical chemistry is the part of chemistry that explains the properties and behaviour of chemical substances using physics principles, theories and techniques. Physical chemistry itself is a wide area containing topics like electrochemistry, surface science, thermodynamics, spectroscopy, kinetics and so on. Each area of physical chemistry has its own importance and application. The applications of physical chemistry range from understanding how drugs interact with our body to the effect of quantum mechanics at a macroscopic level. 

During my last year of BSc, I appeared for entrance exams for post graduation in chemistry. I got selected for the Integrated PhD in Chemistry at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Thiruvananthapuram (IISER Thiruvananthapuram) with an institute fellowship. This was one of the biggest turning points in my career. From my MSc courses, I realized the importance of mathematics in chemical sciences and this led me to join as a theoretical chemistry PhD student under the supervision of Dr R S Swathi. Before joining as a PhD student, I completed my MSc project on modeling encapsulation of linear carbon chains inside carbon nanotubes. This was my first experience of giving a presentation of my work before the department.

I then passed the comprehensive examination for commencing a PhD. During my PhD, I gained experience of working on and solving chemical problems using mathematical modelling. My research topic was studying the interactions/confinement of various atomic and molecular clusters with carbon nanostructures especially carbon nanotubes (CNTs) using various mathematical techniques like optimization and continuum modelling. Since CNTs are efficient in drug delivery as they transport therapeutic molecules to the target locations, for example they act as nanocarriers for anticancer drugs such as cisplatin, Pt(IV), carboplatin etc. Our primary aim was to study the optimal conditions for the transportation of various molecular clusters inside CNTs. The developed methods can provide best possible (global minimum) CNT radius and molecular cluster structures for the encapsulation process which is important from the material chemistry perspective. The developed code saves computational cost and can give analytical insights for experimental groups.  The research study can be further extended to predicting reaction pathways, minimum energy configurations of bio-molecules, protein docking  etc. This helped me to improve my mathematical as well as coding skills along with my knowledge in chemistry. Also, with the constant guidance and advice from my guide, I made great improvements in preparing and presenting my work to others. Constant discussions with my guide and my peers helped me to understand the scope of improvement in every aspect of my PhD. Attending various conferences gave me the opportunity to understand the advancement in various fields. My PhD studies were mainly focused on predicting chemical cluster structures using metaheuristics and other optimization techniques. 

I also got an opportunity to work under Dr. Anna Painelli at University of Parma (Italy) as a part of a research collaboration. 

The collaboration intended to extend my research studies to model the encapsulation of dye molecules inside carbon nanotubes which is their topic of interest.

The successful completion of these research projects enhanced my confidence in working in various fields, which involves applied mathematics. Learning new skills and solving problems in multiple ways helped me understand the differences between various mathematical techniques. 

How did you get your first break?

After completing my PhD, I decided to join a company where I could use and improve my expertise in mathematical techniques. I applied for jobs through various job portals like LinkedIn, Naukri etc.

I applied to different software development companies and finally got a call from a Portugal based company called SimpleAxis. Since I had solved a number of optimization problems for my PhD, I felt that the job role “Optimization specialist” especially suited me. However, the domain of application of these problems was somewhat unknown to me. But I was really excited with the type of mathematical problems which I was asked to solve and I was able to quickly catch up with their areas of application as well. I received a job offer from my present company, SimpleAxis, after completing several rounds of interviews.

Currently I am enjoying solving each and every problem that comes my way, which helps industries in different applications. On the other hand, I upskill myself with the most important skills according to the roadmap and priority.

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

Challenge 1: During the initial days of my PhD, I had some difficulty in my presentation skills. My PhD guide helped me improve my presentation skills by giving useful suggestions and advice. Apart from that, I made use of the platforms where I presented my work. This helped me gain confidence in presenting my work and improved my communication skills.

Challenge 2: In the initial days of my post-graduation in chemistry, since I had no formal knowledge of coding, I usually struggled to learn the syntax of programming languages. The main issue was where to apply these skills. Later on, I found many online platforms which provided free resources and contests which helped me confront the fear of coding and transform my logical problem solving approach into an efficient algorithm that can be coded in any language.

Challenge 3: I was a reserved person growing up, but working in a research group helped me become more social as I got involved in regular group discussions. I also became a team player as I worked along with my colleagues.

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

Currently, I am working on optimization problems for various industrial applications.

Currently, I am working as an optimization specialist for a service-based company, SimpleAxis. The role in the company mostly utilizes my mathematical and coding skills. The work includes efficient code development for production planning algorithms which helps industries to maximize profit and return the orders on time.

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

My job requires a good understanding of mathematics along with coding and presentation skills. I have acquired these skills from the various projects I have done so far. Also, I use a lot of free resources for learning skills, solving problems on coding platforms and participating in coding contests. During my PhD I made a lot of presentations at various platforms which helped me to improve my presentation skills.

What is a typical day like?

The project manager passes on the details of the problem to be solved, following which there will be brain-storming sessions. Coming up with the logic to solve the problem as well as the code are the key things to do on most of the days. Spending a few hours on upskilling and solving coding questions on online platforms helps to increase problem solving ability and also the ability to understand various ways to approach a problem efficiently.

What is it you love about this job? 

Each new problem challenges the way I think and enhances my analytical thinking as well as coding skills. Each day, there is a scope for learning new things and updating myself which will help in the long run. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Mathematically, optimization means finding out the best solution for a problem at hand. In each industry, the main aim is to optimize the objective under consideration, for example, maximizing profits, assigning work efficiently etc while following certain constraints under consideration. Hence, the work which I do helps companies to increase the cost effectiveness and automate various steps which otherwise needs hours of analysis.

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

The first optimization problem that I worked on during my PhD is one of my most memorable works. Before starting this work, I was struggling a bit to come up with good output. I was confident that good results would come once I learnt and executed the code. The project was aimed at finding the best possible structure of a noble gas cluster inside a carbon nanotube (CNT) by keeping CNT radius as a variable. For this, I used a swarm intelligence technique. This approach reduced the complexity of the problem and gave good results at low computational cost. This work helped increase my confidence to build my career along this direction and learn more in future.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

As a student, one should follow one’s own passion for learning the topic of interest and should realize that success is the outcome of continuous learning and applying it on problems at hand. Listening to peers and learning from them will always make your path easier. We must constantly learn new skills as it will help in solving new problems and achieving new heights in our career. Always find time to practice the learned skill which will make you an expert in the field. There is no point in rushing through the topics, rather one should learn things with clarity. At the end of the day one should use their skills to come up with ideas that will help the society.

Future Plans?

My future plan is to learn more tech skills to build products that would help various sectors. I would also like to be part of tech groups which can help society in various fields.