Biosensing Systems are re-inventing public health through technologies that are not only cheap and sensitive but also portable enough to be used outside of hospital and clinics.
Agnivo Gosai, our next pathbreaker, Research Scientist at Corning Inc (New York), works on R&D of optical devices for applications in telecommunication / networking and Data Centers.
Agnivo talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his PhD which was mostly funded by grants from the US government to research different ways to make a better biosensor.
For students, a career in research gives you a strong foundation to take on a diverse range of problems through smart, thorough and meticulous hard work.
Agnivo, Your background?
I grew up in the southern part of Kolkata, West Bengal, India. Since my childhood, I have been curious about how the world works and why something happens. This was enabled by active encouragement and guidance from my father, Dr. Asitranjan Gosai and my maternal uncle, Dr. Sumit Das. Both of them are medical doctors. I got a book series called “Tell Me Why” that had a good variety of information on popular science, history and the world in general. My father, a government doctor, always helped me with my studies at the school level. In my childhood, I wanted to be a scientist, specifically an astrophysicist. I used to go to libraries and read books that were above my level. In the end, I did not end up being an astrophysicist, though I am an industrial scientist. I still follow the popular news articles from NASA and other sources.
I was not really into any extracurriculars during my primary and high school years. I went to a painting and drawing school. I also liked biology and my drawing training helped me with biology assignments. It may seem that all I did was to study but that’s not the case. I used to go out and play gully cricket and football with my friends from the locality almost every evening, especially during the weekends. I think having an active lifestyle is important. I was fortunate to have parks nearby, even though it was a typical densely populated Indian neighborhood. There is still a lot of greenery in that place.
When I look back, I realize that I would mostly study during the time around the exams. Otherwise, I was happy reading all sorts of books just to gain knowledge. My brother and I watched a lot of TV shows on Discovery, National Geographic and Cartoon Network. My parents also took us to Children’s Films and Arts festivals to watch some Indian and Western Children’s classics.
I think this helped me form a global / local outlook and worldview. My Indian middle class upbringing of the 90’s was instrumental in the later stage of my education and career.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
Even though I wanted to do physics, I was not brave enough to take the perceived risk and ended up enrolling for a Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Later, I did my MS and PhD from Iowa State University, USA.
What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
Since childhood, I have been curious about how things work. So, I always wanted to do research to understand what causes something to happen. As I said before, a lot of it was catalyzed by my father, and one event that really instigated it was the 1995 solar eclipse. I was just awed to learn about the basic principles of the eclipse and see it happen in broad daylight. My high school physics teacher Partha Pratim Roy at South Point High School was also very inspiring. He would focus on helping us understand the fundamental concepts behind physics. This also helped me in studying biology (it is important in my present career) from the viewpoint of knowledge rather than rote learning which was pretty much the norm among my peers.
Tell us about your career path
As I said before, I ended up studying mechanical engineering instead of physics. During my undergrad, I did learn a lot of new things and then I joined BHEL, India as a project engineer. I was working in Paradip, Odisha where BHEL was building a power plant for the refinery operations of IOCL. It was an important national project, and I learned a lot about project management and working with people from diverse backgrounds. However, I realized that I was not able to properly apply my knowledge and skill set as the job requirements did not have the scope. What I was basically doing was to construct power plants, it’s like assembling a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces are provided. I could have taken up a power plant designer job, but I had the realization that I wanted to create something new. A typical engineering designer does not create a new field of work. I wanted to keep pushing the boundaries of knowledge which means I wanted to do research and development.
How did you get your first break?
To start a career in R&D, I decided to reskill myself. To me the best option was to do a PhD from the US due to the wonderful support given to US researchers in terms of government and public funding. Normally, it helps in PhD application, if you do some kind of research work during your undergraduate. Unfortunately, I did not do that, however, I have published a project report that has been read by many people and I used it to get recommendations from my university professors. I also modified a design while installing a pump during my time at BHEL, which solved a field problem. So, I got a recommendation letter from my manager based on that. I took the GRE and TOEFL, and applied to a few PhD programs in Mechanical Engineering at different US universities. I also wrote cold application emails to some professors in those universities expressing my interest in working with them. Eventually, I got selected to Iowa State University with a full tuition scholarship.
My application was for the integrated MS/PhD program. During most of my stay at Iowa State, I was working as a Research Assistant. I worked for a semester as a Teaching Assistant. I was assigned to teach undergraduate students.
My PhD was mostly funded by grants from the US government to a start-up company called Aptalogic Inc. During the summer semester, I would do internship at Aptalogic to research different ways to make a better biosensor.
My PhD thesis was focused on making biosensors that could detect small quantities of “target” in samples for testing. A biosensor is a device that can measure biological materials of interest in a human sample. For e.g., a glucose meter is a biosensor that can detect glucose in blood sample. Similarly, the rapid antigen test kit for COVID-19 is also a biosensor. I was trying to make portable biosensors that can be used outside of the hospital and clinics for diagnosing diseases like Ebola etc.
My PhD work involved application from several fields of engineering and science. I did a little bit of computer simulation and mostly hands-on experiments. In the US,I was on an F1 (student visa) initially, where you are allowed to work for 3 more years after MS/PhD. I applied for jobs and got selected at my current workplace. Later, my employer applied for a H1B visa. Many of the research based jobs in the US support visa sponsorship for international students.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: For my first PhD project, I had to use computer simulation, and for that I needed to learn a completely new subject as well as some programming. Though I did take a few programming courses during my undergrad, which did help a bit, this being scientific programming, I needed to learn a lot of biophysics as well. With persistence and the right mindset, I could do it.
Challenge 2: My second project was to develop a benchtop system that needed integration of optical energy with biology. The idea was to observe biological reactions happening at the nanometer scale using lasers. A nanometer is almost 100,000 times smaller than the width of human hair. I needed to learn optical engineering for this project. Another important aspect was to create the system itself. Most of my previous experience was in theoretical work, but due to my power plant construction experience and with help from my PhD advisor Dr. Pranav Shrotriya, I could achieve it.
The most important project in my PhD was to create a handheld sensor to detect proteins in human samples. It was used to detect Ebola viral protein and other things related to public health. One difficulty was to make a cheap but sensitive device. I studied other fields for ideas and could solve the problem through many experiments.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
Right now, I work for Corning Inc. in the US as a Research Scientist. My work is mostly experimental, and we are making new products that can be sold in the telecommunication and life science marketplace. Corning Inc. is a world leader in fiber optics that is the backbone of the internet, in display glass that is used in Apple iPhones and in other mobile phones like Samsung Galaxy. Corning also makes products in life sciences , for e.g. glass vials for vaccines and works on ceramic catalytic converters for gasoline engine cars. Currently, I am doing R&D for products, in the field of fiber optics, that can help in 5G networks, data centers etc. During my PhD I picked up multidisciplinary knowledge and mechanical engineers can work in various disciplines. This helped me in getting the job and work in new fields. My work on the Life Science project leverages my PhD experience. As most of the work is proprietary and patents are pending, I cannot discuss in detail.
The skills have been acquired on the job as well as from my past experience during my PhD and in India. My past work life prepared me for the future and now it has become a habit to learn new things on the go. Most of the time, it is built on already acquired foundational knowledge. When I have to learn something new, my PhD training of smart, thorough and meticulous hard work comes very handy. I read books and research papers on the new topics and get familiar with them.
How does your work benefit society?
The work I did during my PhD has helped to get new grants for my adviser and his group in making use of that knowledge to understand how to make better sensors for diagnosing new diseases like COVID-19.
For e.g. my adviser recently got a grant from the US Department of Homeland Security where the sensing platform I developed during my PhD will be modified and optimized for application to COVID-19 detection.
I also did some small work for Prof. Ganesh Balasubramanian at Lehigh University, USA to help with some computer simulation related to COVID-19.
My work at Corning helps in making the internet reach in more places and helps in communication. Another work is going to help pharmaceutical companies.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
My work with the protein sensor (3rd challenge) is very important as it is being applied in other projects as well. A startup company formed by Prof. Marit Nilsen-Hamilton at Iowa State University is still using it. It has already been covered in reputed science media for its role in Ebola virus detection :
Link : https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/679495
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Be curious, if you work smartly, you will get good grades. However, if you want to work in a research career, you should be thirsty for knowledge. Try to learn the basics really well. Be ready to accept failure and question anything. Your pursuit should be based on logical reasoning. Also, you need to be passionate about your work, otherwise you will lose motivation. Research based careers in biology, electronics, mechanical engineering, physics are more promising in the US, especially if you are working on experiments. So, you may need to consider moving out of your home country. Having a healthy body and peaceful mind helps. It is better to spend some time outdoors with friends and family. Exercising and playing sports is always useful and fun. Spend less time on social media !
Work on my own engineering startup ! Go to Egypt, Petra and North East India.