In the first post of this series, we have Abhilash Patel from the Control and Automation Lab of the EE department talk about his PhD experience so far. ----------------
Q. How and when did you realize that you wanted to get a PhD? A. I developed an interest in research while working on my BTech project. While I was looking for literature for my project, I found there’s a lot to learn beyond the textbook and the boundaries keep changing as research progresses. I realized that perhaps this is what research is meant to do- pushing the boundary in increments and one day realizing that we’ve come a long way from where we started. Also, I like teaching and PhD will be helpful in that aspect.
Q. Can you talk about your research topic? A. My thesis research comes in the domain of Control System Engineering. The idea is to develop suitable mathematical models of physical systems and play with these models to analyse the behaviour of the actual physical system. And if needed, to manipulate this behaviour using suitable mathematical approaches to achieve the desired behaviour. In my thesis work, the physical system is a biological system. So, I work to analyse and design the dynamical behaviour of a biomolecular circuit, particularly the feedforward loop. The topic has flavours of Systems and Synthetic Biology. In my case, these research problems are advised by my supervisor. Apart from this, I work on control of Smart Grid, which is continued work from my MTech thesis.
Q. How is PhD life different from UG and PG? A. The undergraduate programs invariably hover around an objective called overall enrichment of a student character. At that juncture, wide spectra of subjects are taught. With this general skill-set, students enter the professional world, but in many professional fields, the requirement is not that general. Master’s degree was one of the ways to add this specificity. It also helped me in understanding the nuances of research life. In PhD, the complete narrative undergoes a radical change. The work is more about observing rather than just studying. Life during PHD may encounter many ups and downs, some moments of insurmountable pressure, couple of rejections, and fair experience of solitude, but they are never going to persist. At the end of this tumultuous yet exciting journey, the individual becomes an asset to the community and possesses the strength to bring change.
Q. What was the biggest surprise for you when you joined the programme? A. As such, the only unforeseen aspect was finding out that my research topic involves significant biology knowledge, and I had never taken any related course in school or college. But, as someone had told me, the distance from 'I don't know' to 'good enough to work out' can be just one book.
Q. Can you walk us through your typical weekday and weekend? A. On weekdays, an active day starts around 9 AM in the lab. Mostly, the day begins with a group meeting with the advisor and planning the work for the day. The day ends around 6 PM in the lab unless there’s some pending work or a planned experiment. Also, our labmates have reserved two days of the week for colloquium and journal club. In this, students present and discuss any interesting research work or journal papers, and faculty are also invited to present their research. On the weekend, I go to the lab if there is some pending work, which happens mostly during paper-submission and review-address processes. Otherwise, I tend to go out with friends; books, TV series or movies kill the rest of my time.
Q. What is your social life at IIT like? A. I am having a pleasant social life and have made many friends through labs and clubs. I do not have any complaints in any respect. The best thing about the lab is that all of us are friends- there are no senior-junior feelings and that’s where I am fortunate. I have seen many labs that lack this friendly environment. We play MP games after lab hours to relax and many people also play cricket or volleyball on the weekends. In our lab, we have a ‘barbeque culture’, where all of us frequently visit Barbeque Nation or something similar to celebrate birthdays or paper publications.
Q. We hear that you were also a part of the iGEM team. A. When and why did you decide to join the club? And how did you manage your thesis project along with iGEM work? Yes, that's correct. I have been part of iGEM since 2017. iGEM is a technical club which invites students from all disciplines to come together and do research in Synthetic Biology. I met iGEMers in a conference at JNU where they were presenting their experience of iGEM Jamboree and really liked their journey. The thing which interested me the most was that the research done in the club is really flexible and we learn by doing instead of reading. When I joined the club, there were twenty members, mostly UGs. I have enjoyed working along with them and learned a lot. I have always believed that your thesis work should not restrict you to do something you really want. In iGEM, we used to meet to work after the office hours so there is no overlap as such. Also, when you work in a team, I guess you can manage everything.
Q. What advice will you like to give to a PhD prospective student? A. I do not feel I am wise enough to give advice, but I will definitely share three philosophies which I believe in and have been helpful to me. First is, there is no shortcut in research. No one has achieved success over one day's effort. It takes time and it demands focus. So make sure you understand the investment required to obtain a PhD. Second is, never restrict your research to the thesis only. Try to do some work beyond the thesis or even possibly in a domain which is orthogonal to your thesis but interests you. The thesis or your PhD degree is to help you to become a researcher, not the other way around. During the time of PhD, most part of the research will be the thesis, some works may appear as papers, and some may never see the light of day. But your thesis should be a subset of all the research activities you have done in those years. Third, always make your bed before you leave for the lab. Each day has the possibility of being a great day or a terrible day. Your paper may get rejected, you may not find any solutions to the problem you are working on, or maybe your experiment fails. But once you are done for the day and come back to your room and find a well-made bed to lay in and sleep, you will find hope that will say- let’s try again.