Physics has countless applications not just in fundamental research but also in key domains such as drug profiling, forensics, protein structuring, not to mention cancer therapy !

Sudharsan Srinivasan, our next pathbreaker, Development Engineer at Bruker BioSpin (Switzerland), works on state-of-the-art NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) sensors for different real world applications .

Sudharsan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about doing his PhD in Physics at Paul Scherrer Institut (PSI) after doing his BTech in Mechanical Engineering, and subsequently commercializing one his research projects based on proton therapy.

For students, the domain of applied physics is brimming with research driven innovations that are transforming our society for greater good !

Sudharsan,  Your background?

I grew up in a small yet beautiful township called Kalpakkam where my father was working as a scientist at IGCAR. During my initial school days, I did not participate in many extra-curricular activities probably due to stage fear, though I was quite involved in sports. However, with time, I could get beyond the stage fear and started to participate in a few activities such as elocution. During my school days, I was intrigued by how things worked mechanically, and this developed my interest in understanding Physics. To pursue that interest, as a first step, I did my bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from NIT Raipur. This has heavily shaped my further steps and I am happy I took that decision. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering from NIT Raipur, followed by European Masters in Nuclear Applications from FH Aachen, Germany and PhD in Physics from University of Groningen (Netherlands), and PSI, Switzerland.

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

I was working as an Assistant Manager after my Bachelors. However, with time, I personally felt that it was hindering my learning curve, and I had a gut feeling that in ten years’ time, I would not have learned a lot. Thus, I started looking for courses to pursue in nuclear physics as this has always interested me due to being raised in a DAE (Department of Atomic Energy) township. 

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

There was no active plan to pursue such a career. It was more about determining on the go what keeps someone happy. My motto was to find a job where I don’t have to work a single day. And I have felt the same in all internships/jobs that I have gone through. However, what kept me moving forward is the desire to keep learning and be on the forefront of technology.

For instance, in my bachelors, I did industrial training and an INAE (Indian National Academy of Engineering) project. This experience was useful in my first job, especially in servicing and repair of heavy machinery. Similarly, the desire to expand my knowledge in both mechanical and nuclear engineering made it relatively easy to pursue masters in Nuclear Applications. 

The master’s degree is scheduled for 3 semesters of lectures and a minimum of one semester for the master’s thesis. The lectures focus primarily on topics such as nuclear detection, reactor physics, biomedical applications and nuclear chemistry. The duration of the master’s thesis is completely determined by the student. I worked as a research assistant in Forschungszentrum Julich and submitted my work for my master’s thesis. 

One of the projects was my mini-project and the other was for my master’s thesis. 

The mini-project’s objective was to understand the aerosol deposition behaviour during reactor accidents , in Fukushima for instance. I was supporting a PhD student in this project, to carry out experiments and provide conclusive results with data analysis. 

My master’s thesis project involved characterizing electromagnetic position sensors to be used in a High Energy Storage Facility (HESR) within a position accuracy of 100 microns. I designed and developed an automated test-bench including programming for control and data-acquisition for the same purpose which could determine position accuracy within 20 microns. 

Especially for my master’s thesis, my work involved equal portions in both these domains that ended up as a big advantage for my PhD (in Physics) work in Switzerland. 

The confidence and knowledge that I gained helped me immensely in my PhD to develop two innovative solutions for applications in Proton therapy. 

Paul Scherrer Institut (PSI) is Switzerland’s largest research center for natural sciences. My PhD’s objective was to explore the possibility of developing non-interceptive sensors for measuring proton radiation used in proton therapy centers such as the one in PSI. I ended up developing two novel sensors to measure the proton current and its position with resolution in sub-nano ampere range. These sensors are also the world’s first to have measured the proton beams in a purely non-interceptive sense. 

My PhD was a part of a Marie-Curie Scholarship. As part of this scholarship, it is expected to carry exchange work in other domains that are critical for proton therapy which also helps in networking within the scientific community. Through all the exchange programs, I presented my work and explored the possibility of it as a solution to these facilities. Also, I could learn a lot from my peers in the community. More than learning at work, I enjoyed travelling around Europe and learned a lot about different cultures in Europe. 

After my PhD, I worked as a project leader for a firm in France, Bergoz Instrumentation, where I successfully finished the commercialization of one of my earlier projects. 

Bergoz Instrumentation is a French SME based close to CERN near the Swiss-French border. The company is well known within the accelerator physics community due to their beam diagnostic devices and solutions. My work here involved developing a commercial design of my prototype work (in my PhD) such that the device could be easily customized in a majority of the proton therapy facilities across the world. 

I was lucky enough to find grounded and cool people who guided me during my PhD and my masters. My PhD supervisor taught me the KISS approach (Keep It Simple and Stupid) and my master’s thesis supervisor taught me that you can always create time for your problems. 

How did you get your first break?

In my opinion, my first break was my master’s thesis work. I ended up getting the work spontaneously. I just knocked on their doors and was honest about what I want to learn and what skills I possess. Two days later, I received the work contract. I was given proper support and all my colleagues were happy to see my progress. 

Its very much true that getting into the industry after a PhD is hard especially when the PhD could be in a niche scientific field. However, nearly at the same time while I was exploring for jobs, Bergoz was looking for a new project leader to develop new solutions for low current applications. I applied and got invited for an interview. In the interview, they were intrigued about my PhD work, and they were already aware of my work in bits from some international conferences and workshops. Thus, they showed a strong interest in commercializing my PhD work and I could convince them of its potential and the possibility to establish a collaborative platform through my network. All in all, it turned out smooth and that is how I got my first break after my PhD at Bergoz. 

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

  • Cultural and language differences in Europe. By attending student parties and travelling extensively around Europe, and with Europeans, I got to feel at home. 
  • Cultural approach to work is different in different European countries. Openness and flexibility is key in fitting to a work environment. 

Where do you work now? 

I am working in Bruker BioSpin (Switzerland) as a Development Engineer (R&D). 

Bruker BioSpin is the world leader in developing RF (Radio Frequency) solutions for nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). NMR works on the same principle as MRI. At Bruker BioSpin, we focus on developing state-of-the-art NMR sensors for different applications ranging from drug profiling, forensics, protein structuring etc, to name a few. My work involves exploring new designs and optimizing the performance of already existing sensors through simulation and a lot of hands-on approach in prototyping and fine-tuning. 

Tell us about your current role

I investigate novel solutions to launch new products and help my colleagues in understanding the problems we face with already existing products. 

Ideally one needs to have knowledge in Physics or RF engineering, strong hands-on mentality, simulation skills, programming skills, communication, and presentation to name a few. 

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day starts with discussing with colleagues about problems associated and potential solutions. Majority of the day involves simulating to understand the problem and identifying solutions. The rest of the day involves the same by building prototypes and validating them. 

The job involves a lot of hands-on work. It is fun to test the hypothesis that we come up with based on simulations. It gives immense joy to validate the principles in real life. 

How does your work benefit society? 

The product we develop is the main workhorse of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR). It is used in almost all domains of life especially in validating pharmaceuticals, profiling chemicals, profiling food products, identifying protein structures, Forensics, etc. to name a few. 

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

I developed a novel current and position monitor to measure the intensity and position of the proton radiation while irradiating a tumor. This is the first of its kind and can measure with resolution of sub micrometer and sub nanoampere proton current.  

Your advice to students based on your experience?

There is a figure of speech,” Jack of All Trades, Master of none”. I have come across people claiming to possess all possible skills a human can possess. I believe there is no human who is Jack of All trades. So, don’t lie in your CV or claim that you possess certain skills to land a job or an internship. The struggle is hard with a lie rather than with honesty about what skills a person possesses. Being honest and open to learning is preferred and praised at least from my experience. 

Always Keep It Simple and Stupid (KISS). Majority of the problems can be solved with a simplistic approach. Most of the time, people try to reinvent the wheel, which I feel is totally unnecessary. Life becomes complacent without problems. Also, never shy away from relocating to a completely foreign environment. The best experience comes not from the work but purely from different cultural perspectives. 

Future Plans?

Eventually to have my own spin-off especially in the domain of medical physics. Have not figured out what it will be. But I want to give it a try.