In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Shanti Bhattacharya—a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT Madras), Chennai, India. Bhattacharya completed her Ph.D. in physics at IIT Madras before later joining IIT Madras as a faculty member. Her research interests include beam shaping, diffractive optics, and metasurfaces as an alternate means of shaping light.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
I have a very mixed background. My parents were teachers in a school in Zambia, Africa, so I was born there and did all my schooling there until 10th grade. I did the last two years of my schooling in India, which plays a very large role in why I took science.
There was a large gap in the educational systems in Zambia and India. I was a good student in Zambia, but I failed every subject when I came to India. It was a nightmare. The only subject that made any sense to me was physics. I don’t think I knew I wanted to be a scientist. I started in physics because it was the only subject that made sense, and then I continued because I enjoyed it.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
When light is really fun to work with—I enjoy it when you theorize something or use equations to make predictions about a particular behavior. It never fails to excite you when you go to the lab and switch the laser on, and that beam does what you thought it was going to do. There’s a lot of pleasure in that.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
I would say that conferences are very important for networking, especially in-person conferences. Nothing beats meeting people at these kinds of venues. It was not always easy to get funding for international conferences from India. If you have a choice between buying a piece of equipment or traveling, you might choose to buy a piece of equipment, so you don’t travel or go to as many conferences as you should or could.
One important point is that people tend to go to a conference in very large groups. I think it’s important to make an effort to meet other people because that’s how you get to know other people in your area, or more importantly, how they get to know your view in that area. A lot of these conferences will have a cocktail evening or a free session on something. It’s informal and easy to start a conversation with someone you don’t know.
What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?
I find it useful to have subscriptions to places like Photonics Media or OPN. I confess, I never read them to the extent I feel I ought to, but sometimes you will pick up one article and get an idea. You might see an ad for a new device or equipment and say, “Oh, this is possible now.” Another thing I find really useful is the updates that organizations send about the latest papers or the most-read papers from a journal.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
You must be willing to go to the lab and work. I also find that even if you’re an experimentalist, it is very important to be able to do some amount of coding and programming because a lot of the equipment communicates with the computer. You need to be able to control that.
The other important thing is, it helps if your English is good, because most of the publishing happens in English. If you’re not able to effectively communicate your ideas, even if you’re doing something brilliant, it will just get lost. Lastly, it is important to have good organizational skills because you can quickly get inundated with teaching work, research work, undergraduate student work and funding work.
What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?
When I’m stuck in a technical problem, or when I feel disheartened about something, I find it helps to write down clearly what it is that’s troubling you. Writing my thoughts down and getting them out of my head and onto paper often helps because it often seems much worse in my head than when it is down on paper. This allows me to pinpoint what is discouraging about my job. If you break it down into small problems, you can find a way to solve that problem. But, when you just have this general unease that things aren’t right, it’s very hard to fix that.
I really like my job because there are so many different things I can do—I can teach undergraduates, postgraduates, do consulting or do work for my institute, such as helping with a 10-year plan. I’m doing so many different things, so if I don’t like one aspect, there are so many other things that will satisfy me. There’s lots of variety and always something to like about my work every day.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
It would have helped a lot if I had focused more on one topic without jumping so much between topics. If you really want to stand out as a leader in your field, you have to have a primary focus, which is probably something you have to start early on. If you work with that intention, then you increase the chances of that happening a lot more.
What has been the most motivating factor throughout your career?
I can’t say that it’s one thing, but, for example, in teaching, there’s nothing that can beat the adrenaline high of stepping out of class when you’ve had a good class. When you can see the students have enjoyed it, you’ve had fun teaching, and you’ve got a difficult concept across, and everyone enjoyed it. Nothing can beat that high.
What habits do you frequently rely on that help you to succeed?
I get asked quite often to review papers, which can be overwhelming, but I say yes because that pushes me to read more. Every time I review a paper, I learn something from either the manuscript or references they provide. It always enhances my knowledge in that field.
I also find meditation to be incredibly helpful. And sort of related to that is, I try very hard to schedule an afternoon off from meetings or lectures or from preparing for a seminar or class once a week. This allows me to stop and think about a problem, such as helping a Ph.D. student who might be stuck. I don’t get enough time to just think about a problem because I’m always in a troubleshooting, problem-solving mode. In a sense, meditation makes you do that at some point in the day, giving you a calming effect that allows you to bring yourself back to your base.
If your ten-years-younger self was looking at your career now, what would he/she be most surprised by?
How much I’ve traveled. I never thought as a scientist that I would travel as much as I have. I have hit every continent except South America, and it’s on my list!