My path to the PhD program at the University of Washington (UW) has been a relatively circuitous one. I was introduced to interesting computational projects during my undergrad at the Institute of Chemical Technology, where I was fortunate to be mentored by dedicated professors with infectious enthusiasm for their work. I’d also enjoyed my rather hands-on industry internship, however, and faced the classic grad school vs. industry dilemma. With shockingly little forethought (in hindsight), I jumped into an engineering role in industry, with the vague notion that I would pivot if my plans went haywire.
Less than a year later, the initial novelty of my process engineer job had worn off and I found myself seriously contemplating a Masters’ for some much-needed intellectual stimulation, and to gauge my suitability for a PhD. And so I ended up at IITB in July 2014 for an MTech in chemical engineering. I was less cavalier about this decision in that I had a sense of what I wanted out of my stay. I wanted to increase my breadth of knowledge while learning the ways in which my ChemE skills could be put into use. A challenging project in microfluidic disease diagnostics convinced me of my interest and introduced me to the interdisciplinary bioengineering research at UW. I was especially excited at the prospect of working with leaders in point-of-care diagnostics. At the same time, I’d sufficiently internalized the uncertainty of the advisor-placement process thanks to numerous pieces of advice and horror stories from close friends and mentors. UW ChemE has an active computational research effort in Clean Energy, which meant I could go back to my first love in the event any one of the numerous realities of grad school denied me a diagnostics project. The city of Seattle also seemed a lot more appealing than other potential locations, so when I was finally admitted, the decision to accept the offer wasn’t a hard one.
The presence of multiple viable research prospects is an important consideration in picking a University, and it served me in good stead when, after initially rotating in a diagnostics lab, I converged on my current lab. My work is at the intersection of electrochemistry and applied math. We develop electrochemical models and numerical techniques to enable computationally efficient simulations of lithium-ion batteries. These approaches are quite attractive for improving the performance and safety of lithium-ion batteries during operation. For instance, we use model-based strategies to develop rational charging protocols that account for the electrochemistry internal to the battery, as opposed to conventional heuristic methods that rely on empirical models. Another aspect of my work is assisting experimentalists with design guidance through the computational analysis of novel battery electrode designs. A third piece is more fundamental, aimed at improving classical battery models by relaxing common assumptions and incorporating additional phenomena in a computationally tractable manner.
With the buzz around clean energy and energy storage, the practical value of this work is substantial. In addition, the prospect of applying my skills in rigorous ChemE modelling to a technology of such salience is a great personal motivator. It is also well-suited for a ChemE major from India, being close to the ‘classical’ work introduced in a typical Indian curriculum. The applied math and scientific computing exposure I received at IITB has been particularly useful, enabling me to contribute somewhat faster than a typical grad student. The work itself is hard, and there are long nights of reading dense papers, lots of pen-and-paper work, programming, and troubleshooting simulation failures. There is also a learning curve associated with learning computing concepts and ‘software engineering’ skills which were new to me. Overall though, it’s been a fun ride (so far!). I’ve been fortunate to interact with the true greats in battery research via collaborations and conferences. The US West Coast is a clean energy hub too, and the UW Clean Energy Institute accords numerous opportunities to network with industry leaders and start-up investors.
It is in the softer aspects of learning ‘how to work’ that I experienced some rude awakenings. I’d had a substantial taste of doing independent and collaborative research at IITB, but the PhD demands a whole new level of organization and work-ethic, something my domestic classmates appeared a lot better prepared for. This is especially true for collaborative projects across different laboratories in different locations. Top PhD programs attract students who are not only talented, they are also incredibly driven, time-efficient and professional. I faced numerous instances where I would initially grasp new material faster than my peers, but it was only a short while before their mastery of the material far surpassed mine. It took me some time to overcome this initial intimidation and cultivate a more constructive mindset, especially given the years of conditioning in the competitive exam meat-grinder. My time at IITB had taught me the importance of persistence and organization over relying on raw smarts to skate by, but the PhD has much higher stakes and a much lower margin for error in time-sensitive projects.
Things came to a head during my second quarter, where, between TAing long lab courses 12 hours a week, the stress of an uncertain funding situation, and dealing with my first Seattle winter, less-than-optimal organization meant I was constantly jaded and miserable, hampering my research progress. Instances of failing to answer probing questions during review presentations further impressed upon me the depth and thoroughness a PhD entails. I came to the painful realization that a PhD is far less about those mythical flashes of brilliance than an arduous process of developing the skills that help you engage with seemingly overwhelming amounts of new knowledge, as amply demonstrated by my peers. You also learn the importance of being ‘plugged-in’, and constant engagement with your research, and how that has a compounding effect that propels you to amazing productivity, and the lack of which can destroy your interest. Acknowledging these realities was difficult, but also liberating. Knowing my deficiencies helped me devise ways to correct them, and I now consider myself relatively free of the hang-ups and misconceptions that were holding me back.
I could not have overcome those periods of frustration without help, however – both within and outside the department. I am fortunate to be a part of a supportive department which covered my funding while I figured out a stable arrangement. I also had friends who provided much needed course-correction, and a supportive lab environment where I served my first research rotation. These experiences, and those of friends in other programs, further altered my impression of what it takes to be successful in a PhD. It’s not so much a function of one’s raw talent or convergent research interests as much as it is about one’s work ethic and the general work culture in one’s chosen research group. The attitude of the department towards its graduate students is also a key factor – you don’t want to end up with an exploitative advisor, or a department that regards its students as little more than cheap labour. I believe that location matters too – one wants to make sure they can spend five years of their life there. I have been fortunate on this score, living in one of the most liberal and welcoming cities in America, an urban forest with tons to do – the perfect foil to my PhD experience. IITB alums also have access to a wealth of guidance via alumni chapter meet-ups. Our past alumni are extremely successful and eager to help. I learn immensely from their accounts of navigating their own grad school experiences.
Interacting with successful persons within and outside campus taught me yet another aspect of grad school – communication. I find myself having to articulate my thoughts to individuals from diverse nationalities, cultures, and backgrounds. I also experience a lot of friendly but cutting criticism and having to decide between conceding a point and defending my ideas more firmly without becoming aggressive. Initially, I found I possessed an instinctive defensiveness, letting go which was difficult, yet empowering. Most engineering research is extremely collaborative in nature, a key part of which is learning to give and respond well to criticism. Not taking harsh criticism of one’s work as a judgement of one’s intelligence or abilities will save a lot of heartache and greatly speed up research. This too is a work in progress, but I’m at a much better place than I was previously. Experiencing situations where I must explain my research to general audiences in an accessible manner has also helped sharpen my thinking about my work.
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