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.
In this blog, Sivasankaran Harish, an alumnus of the College of Engineering, Guindy, Chennai and a postdoc researcher at Kyushu University in Japan tells us about making the most of the opportunities life throws at us. Harish’s other fascinating experiences at CERN on the Franco-Swiss border; Stanford University, USA and The University of Tokyo, Japan have taught him an important lesson: “Believe in your instincts, build on your strengths, but most importantly, focus on your weaknesses.”
Small is fascinating
I am particularly fascinated with ‘small’ things. I always liked looking at biological cells using an ‘optical microscope’. So medicine/microbiology should have been an obvious choice of study. However, I wanted to study mechanical engineering going by ‘my instincts’.
The fascination for ‘small’ (scientifically the relevant term now is ‘nano’) things remained but I did not know how to pursue it. Sometimes I thought it was just another childhood interest, just the way I wanted to play cricket like Sachin or Warne.
I studied engineering with limited interest for more than two years. During that time, a lecturer from my alma mater Dr. Albert Bensely asked me to work in his research work on cryogenic treatment of metals. I agreed without much of an interest on the topic. But it helped me work again at an advanced level of ‘microscopy’ to understand properties of materials. It was a difficult but I liked it more than my course work.
Starting to read relevant literature, I realized that small/nano was not just a medical term but had wide implications in the field of engineering. Being naturally inclined towards thermal sciences, the idea of exploring thermal properties at nanoscale was interesting. (I still wonder why Dr. Bensely asked me to work for him ignoring the many top ranking students in my department at that time. I would have ended up doing a normal job and would have had a huge bank balance now, if he didn’t ask me to join him!).
I completed an undergraduate in mechanical engineering at College of Engineering, Guindy, Chennai. Unlike most classmates, I was not interested in working in an IT firm. My interests were in higher studies but I failed to clear the qualifying GATE or CAT examinations. Eventually, I ended up working in a small control valve design firm in Chennai. The job was easy and I had plenty of time to think about further studies abroad. I was interested in going to Europe, especially to The Netherlands. The decision was not well received by my family members. However, I was fortunate to get full financial assistance for a masters degree programme from many reputed US universities and also from Eindhoven Institute of Technology, The Netherlands. I decided to accept the latter offer.
Enter mechanics and nanomaterials
I was predominantly working on topics related to fluid mechanics and heat transfer during my master’s programme. I happened to see summer internship openings at CERN and applied hesitatingly to the highly reputed institute. Surprisingly, I received an offer for internship in the electronics cooling division of CERN.
During my stay at CERN, I happened to learn a lot of serious heat transfer issues in micro and nano electronics and the need for advanced thermal management systems. The experience ignited my interest in nano materials and in harnessing the thermal properties of such materials for energy systems. This interest got me a scholarship to The University of Tokyo, Japan. I worked in Prof. Shigeo Maruyama’s research group for a doctoral degree on thermal properties of carbon nanotubes.
Also, during my stint as visiting researcher in Prof. Kenneth Goodson’s laboratory at Stanford University, USA , I worked on state-of-the-art techniques for measuring thermal properties of industrially important nanoscale materials. (Imagine measuring the thermal transport properties of an individual wire/tube which is 100 times smaller than a human hair.)
I joined Kyushu University as a postdoctoral researcher in 2013 with a fellowship from the Japan Society of Promotion of Science. Presently, I am working on developing advanced thermal energy storage materials with carbon nanostructured additives. I also work on measuring the thermal properties of thin films used in fuel cells in collaboration with the material science research team at International Institute of Carbon Neutral Energy Research.
Resources aplenty but language an issue
Top academic institutes in Japan are always equipped with plenty of resources for research activities. The standard of facilities in Japan is much higher than the facilities in USA. Considering the kind of facilities available in Japan, the amount of scientific work done is relatively low. Inability of the Japanese students to communicate in English is one of the major reasons for this. This is also an area where academic institutes of native English speaking countries outperform the rest.
Nevertheless, people in Japan are very polite and helpful. Though language remains a hindrance on many occasions, they are forever willing to help you. Moreover, I often see significant cultural similarities between India and Japan, which makes it easier to interact with people here. However, I must admit that among the countries in which I spent a significant amount of time, I would consider Switzerland the best for it’s lovely working atmosphere, very helpful colleagues and the country’s scenic beauty.
Starting in Japan was not easy especially after graduating from Europe. The language was/is a major barrier. Sometimes, it is frustrating to communicate with people here since you do not know the language.
On the funny side, when I came here, people had difficulty understanding my English. To understand me better, they always asked ‘Sushmita Sen?’ whenever I was trying to strike up a conversation. I wondered why everyone in Japan was so curious about this Bollywood celebrity. I thought the former Miss Universe Sushmita Sen must have a special place in the hearts of the Japanese. It took me a while to finally understand that the word was sumima-sen (and I wrongly heard it as Sushmita Sen all the time), and it meant ‘excuse me’ in Japanese!
In general, if you eat vegetarian food, then Japan is not the right place. Besides, outside Tokyo it’s almost impossible to find a south Indian restaurant or the real taste of Indian food.
Commitment and hard work make the difference
The intellectual acumen of people is the same here as in India, or perhaps is better in our country compared to many others. It is essential that we use our postdoc experiences to understand and learn things we are not very good at and which make other countries shine. I would say the most important qualities to learn are commitment, sincerity, self-discipline and hard work. If you lack these four qualities, intellect will be fruitless.
Believe in your instincts, build on your strengths, but most importantly, focus on your weaknesses.
Academic profession still neglected in India
I miss my friends from back home. I also miss celebrating festivals, weddings, anniversaries, parties and religious functions with family members. I certainly miss the Diwali sweets, Christmas cakes and the Ramzan Biryani.
I would love to come back home and work. But my concern is the kind of facilities in India and the position of academics and teachers in our society. In Japan, being a professor in a good University is considered quite prestigious and is viewed at par with a chief technology officer position in a reputed company. I wonder if professors in India get the same respect as faculties in developed countries.