The ‘Away from home‘ blogging series features Indian postdocs working in foreign labs recounting their experience of working there, the triumphs and challenges, the cultural differences and what they miss about India. They also offer useful tips for their Indian postdocs headed abroad. You can join in the online conversation using the #postdochat hashtag.
Today’s blog is in the ‘breaking news’ category where Varrla Eswaraiah, a postdoctoral researcher at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland shares the excitement over his lab’s recent paper published in Nature Materials. Eswar, an alumnus of IIT Madras, tells us all about making graphene flakes in a kitchen blender and the possibility of replicating it on a mega scale. He tells us about his humble beginnings from a small village in Andhra Pradesh and how he struggled against odds to pursue his passion for science.
Whipping it up
Right now, we are excited about our new work at Prof. Jonathan N. Coleman’s lab in the School of Physics and CRANN at Trinity College Dublin, where I am a postdoc researcher. The reason for excitement is the result of some new experiments at our ‘Chemical Physics of Low dimensional nanostructures’ lab. The results, just published in Nature Materials are from a very simple experiment: we took graphite and put it in a kitchen blender with wash-up liquid, and turned it on. After sometime, we got graphene flakes. This works from a few milliliters of liquid to hundreds of liters and is technologically feasible to replicate on a large scale. The idea of taking graphene from the lab to industry is successfully achieved with our proof of concept. It will be useful in printed electronics and nanofillers for making super strong polymer composites and in many other applications that one can imagine.
Graphene is a wonder material with superior physical properties. It is basically few atoms (~1 nm) thick and is two dimensional with great electrical conductivity, superb strength (more than steel), transparency (98%) and exceptional thermal conductivity. The discovery of graphene with unusual electrical properties got the Nobel Prize in Physics for researchers at Manchester University in 2010. Now the world is working on commercialising this wonder material for real world applications.
Hunger pangs to craze for invention
For me, the fascination for science started alongside hunger pangs back in 1995 when I was a fifth grader. My parents were labourers, working every day from morning to evening. Since they did not get a chance to go to school, they wanted to give me good education with their savings. My primary school teacher recognised that I was good at mathematics and conveyed it to my parents. That was the first step, and my love towards science has never waned after that. However, my brother had to sacrifice his education due to lack of money.
When I got a 2nd rank in the common entrance test for a masters in physics at Sri Venkateswara University Tirupathi, I realised my potential in mathematics and physics. The professors at the university encouraged us towards research. Tirupathi is close to IIT Madras and we wrote all our competitive exams in physics there. We got an opportunity to visit the laboratories of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and seniors would explain to us the science behind their research. That inspired me to take the GATE exam.
The environment at SV University was healthy and competitive — we discussed mathematical physics and solved problems to remember the concepts of physics. That got me into a PhD programme at IIT Madras.
Though I didn’t choose science, it chose me, and now I enjoy it. The best thing I like about science are experiments and inventions — I’m crazy about cracking it before anyone else can. My PhD was on carbon nanotubes and graphene nanomaterials under the supervision of Prof. S. Ramaprabhu, who introduced me to the world of carbon. I am grateful to him for inculcating discipline and time management in my research. He would start work at the lab at 8 am. One day, I was late and he told me, “If you want to grow in your career, you need to have self-discipline.” I have never forgotten those words. The IIT Madras campus was awesome with the black buck deer roaming everywhere, Gurunath’s tea and the Electrical café.
PhD days were tough but I tackled moments of frustration with patience. If you don’t get frustrated at some point in your PhD, you will not realise the importance of the work. Research is ‘try and try, don’t cry’. I was actively working on carbon nanotubes and polymer nanocomposite for my PhD. Alongside, I was working with Prof. Krishnan Balasubramaniam on an IITM-US Air Force project for developing strain sensors. This is when I got an opportunity to visit the Northwestern University, Evanston campus and got an exposure to international research.
While writing my PhD thesis, I sent an email to Prof. Coleman for a postdoc position and got an interview call. I chose the Coleman lab because the group works on one-dimensional and two-dimensional materials and publishes in high impact journals.The ultimate aim of any researcher is to get recognised in his field and do useful science. I found that with this group. I got a positive response and joined the lab as a postdoc.
Easy going Ireland
The best thing about Ireland is its easy going people. Dublin is one of the best places to live in and roam around. I use the weekends to visit the beautiful counties with friends. Irish weather is great — you see winter, spring, summer and autumn in a single day!
When I landed in Dublin for the first time, it was raining and cold at 5 degrees celsius, way too chillier than Chennai, where temperatures are above 40 degrees celsius. There were big containers of Guinness beer everywhere just like petrol/diesel tanks in India! Since I am from a lower middle class family, I hesitate to drink and spend money over it. Here, everyone starts drinking from Friday evening till late on Sunday night! On the 5th day, my supervisor invited me to a send off party for a colleague at the bar in college. Everyone got beer and I got coke. One can’t drink too much coke but I counted everyone drinking more than 5 litres of beer! Later that night I called home and narrated the amazing story to my mom.
There are many similarities between India and Ireland — in fact our flags have the same three colours! There are Irish Telugu Associations and organisations here celebrating Ugadi, Diwali and almost all other Indian festivals with south Indian food and cultural programmes. So there is small India here!
Trinity college is a historical seat of learning and science with its Book of Kells library, which celebrated 350 years recently. My lab is a mind blowing mix of nationalities with lovely people from Ireland, Scotland, Australia, Germany, India, Pakistan, China, Romania and more. Prof. Coleman is an exceptional, world famous graphene research scientist.
Difficult accents, expensive living
The English accent in this country is a bit weird. Sometimes it is hard to understand.
Dublin is well developed but if one visits the countryside, there are very few people and most houses are empty. People have either migrated to Dublin or left Ireland due to unemployment. Another worrying thing is the cost of living, it is very difficult to live here if one is not earning sufficient money. Much of the property is held by the banks, which borrowed money from other countries to build them. The buildings remained unsold for a long time and the country went into recession.
Indians do have a great opportunity here as postdocs in science and engineering fields. The good thing is if someone has the potential, it doesn’t matter where they are from. This country encourages them to grow further and help its national economy. My advice to Indian postdocs is to take decisions at the right time and look at labs that will help them grow in their research goals.
I miss my home and family at Raithunagaram village in Nandyal, Andhra Pradesh. My family lives in the small, culturally-rich village with a population of 1500 and green rice fields all around. My parents came to this village from another far-off forest area called Nallamalla, where people don’t even have the basic amenities of life.
I know there’s stiff competition for a research job in India. But I am enthusiastic to start a science career in my homeland. India is a great nation with excellent human resources and intellectual property. All we need to do is create good work environments and be more productive.
I am very keen on propagating science education in rural India. Whenever I go home, I carry science gadgets, tool kits and do-it-yourself stuff for school kids in my village and explain to them the underlying science. They love it. I got a solar cooker model kit and a wind turbine model from science museums in London and Singapore for primary school students. They assembled these models and experienced first hand how these gadgets work. The important thing is: we need to teach kids when they are supposed to learn, not later.