#LINO19 young scientist Somnath Biswas from India is a graduate student at the Ohio State University (USA), pursuing his PhD in Physical Chemistry in the laboratory of Professor L. Robert Baker. We talked with him about his research, his academic career and his expectations for the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting dedicated to physics.
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Somnath, what inspired and motivated you to pursue a career in science?
Being an inquisitive child, science has always fascinated me and my curiosity to learn has acted as a drive since my childhood. I was born in a remote village in the eastern part of India, where electricity came after 2009 and till date the internet connection is extremely poor. But, the lack of resources could never stop me from dreaming big. Learning about the discoveries of great Indian scientists like C. V. Raman and S. N. Bose was a turning point in my childhood. The story surrounding the discovery of Bose-Einstein statistics had a major impact on me and made me realise that science can’t be restricted by geographical boundaries. This motivated me, boosted my confidence and I started dreaming of pursuing higher education in science. However, given the financial situation of my family, I soon realised that I must secure an external fellowship in order to achieve my dream of becoming a scientist. Fortunately, I was among the top 1% in the 12th grade in my state (West Bengal, India) to secure INSPIRE scholarship from the government of India that provides financial support to pursue a Bachelors and Masters degree in basic science. During my BSc at Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandira, I found that my passion lies in the area of chemical-physics, more specifically in spectroscopy. To obtain a more in-depth research exposure in spectroscopy I joined the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, as a masters student. After completing my Masters, to gain a global exposure and diverse experience in spectroscopy, I flew to the United States and joined (2015-present) Baker research group at the Ohio State University as a graduate student (PhD).
Could you tell us more about your current research interests?
During my PhD, I worked towards improving the efficiency of next generation solar cells by studying the photo-physics of these materials. More specifically, my aim is to understand the critical role that surface electron dynamics and interfacial charge transfer have on the efficiency of photochemical energy conversion processes. Towards this goal, I have developed a lab-based x-ray absorption spectrometer to study the electron dynamics at photochemically relevant surfaces and interfaces. Because x-ray absorption is element-specific, I can track electron and hole dynamics with site-selective resolution by measuring transient oxidation state changes in real-time. I have employed this technique to probe surface electron dynamics showing ultrafast charge separation, trapping, injection and recombination in a variety of relevant photochemical systems. These experiments are contributing to a much clearer understanding of the interfacial processes that mediate charge separation and energy conversion efficiency in catalysts and devices. I anticipate that in the future, these methods will continue to significantly advance the field of surface chemical dynamics with important applications for light harvesting and energy conversion catalysis. I have published a total of eight research papers in several peer-reviewed journals including in Royal Society of Chemistry and in American Chemical Society.
The academic system in India is undergoing a rapid development. How would you describe the situation for research in your home-country?
High quality research depends primarily on the sustainable research funding, academia-industry collaborations as well as on the international partnerships. Oftentimes developing countries allocate their funding to other priorities. As a result, the governmental research funding in India has remained static at about 0.7% of GDP during the past two decades. This is much less than the GDP (gross domestic product) spent (>2%) on R&D (research and development) activities by more industrialised countries across the globe and is a major setback to pursue cutting-edge experimental research for Indian scientists. However, with this limited resource, India has achieved several scientific successes in the last decade. Notably, Indian Space Research Organization’s Mars Orbiter Mission (2013) is more cost effective than any satellite that has ever made it to Mars.
Recent efforts of Science and Engineering Research Board of Indian government offer several start-up research grants that prevent brain-drain and facilitate young scientists to start their academic career in Indian academic institutions. Additionally, fellowship opportunities are available for those scientists who want to return to India from abroad and start their independent research programmes. Various institutes started international and industry collaborations for a broader and global impact of their research. These efforts show a sign of optimism, and I am hopeful that additional schemes will be implemented in future to further the quality of research in India.
The 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting begins in less than two weeks. What are your expectations and what do you look forward to?
The Lindau Meeting will be a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to connect and discuss innovative ideas with the best scientists around the world. I am excited to meet the laureates and have a discussion on some of the global challenges with them. I am very passionate about my research, which primarily focuses on studying photo-physics of solar materials. Like me, an extensive number of researchers around the world are also trying to engineer the next generation solar cells with improved efficiency. Discussing this global problem with the Nobel Laureates and young physicists may lead to new ideas for better energy conversion applications. This experience will inspire me and help me stay motivated throughout my whole academic career. I am looking forward to being a part of this prestigious meeting and gain some valuable insights from it.
When you think of your future as a scientist, what do you want to achieve?
As a scientist the best possible way to serve my country is by offering high quality research and teaching in academic institutions. Quality of research in academic institutions of a country reflects its development as well as the overall quality of life of its citizens. While I am aware of the struggle of Indian scientists, I can’t wait to start my independent career in an Indian academic institution. Along with offering high quality research programme and teaching, I plan to motivate the underprivileged students in remote villages by making them aware about the benefits of science in our lives. I feel fortunate and thrilled to have experienced a wonderful journey from a small village in India to where I am now. I look at the hardships I faced as mere obstacles that bring me closer to my dream of becoming a scientist. I believe that encouraging the younger generations to pursue careers in science will add to the prosperity and development of the nation by producing future leaders in science.