Interview with Dr. Deep Jariwala

Dr. Deep Jariwala is Resnick Prize Post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Applied Physics & Materials Science at Caltech. Recently he made it to Forbes 30 under 30 Science list of 2018. Starting January 2018, he will be joining University of Pennsylvania as an Assistant Professor of Electrical and Systems Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering.

His primary interest areas are semiconductor device fabrication, exploration of novel materials for applications in electronic and photonic devices, and studying fundamental physical and quantum phenomena in condensed matter. He has over 40 research papers, 4500+ citations, numerous awards, multiple patents, and cover features in prestigious journals like Nature Materials, Advanced Materials and PNAS. Additionally, he has delivered numerous invited talks.

He earned his Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engg. from Northwestern University in 2015 and his B.Tech in Metallurgical Engineering from IIT-BHU in 2010. In his undergraduate days, he was a summer research intern in Prof. Pulickel Ajayan’s research group at Rice University. There, he co-authored a research article1 in Nature Materials which has garnered over 1100 citations.

Presenting to you an excerpt from his interview taken by the Student Alumni Interaction Cell, IIT (BHU), Varanasi where he talks about his journey from IIT (BHU) to Northwestern and Caltech, his life in academia and outside of it.

Q. Thanks for connecting with us, Deep. It has been a long time since you left Banaras in 2010. How do you remember your life at IIT BHU? Please share some memories from your institute days.

I remember my time spent at BHU very fondly. I made some life-long friends and memories. That is why I make an effort to visit BHU every time I come visit India. Having been brought up in Mumbai, coming to Banaras was a sea change for me in terms of culture, lifestyle, food and general mannerisms. Slowly it grew over me and I fully assimilated myself in the campus and Varanasi city life. The greatest memories I have from the 4 years spent are of hostel life. The tense late nights before exams and partying on the weekends are times that I dearly miss, and wish I could relive those days. I also have a great deal of memories from participating and organizing various events and campus festivals. I had an extended friend circle outside my branch as a result, which made my BHU experience more diverse and memorable. I think that the ghats and Godowlia are truly mesmerizing and many natives perhaps do not realize their charm, significance and attraction. We used to go to Assi Ghat quite often. I also fondly remember the time spent at VT and Limbdi corner. Being in metallurgy we used to end up spending more time at VT than most other people and I still miss the flavours of all the delicious offerings there. Overall, I miss the campus, friends and city a lot and while I do not have any friends left among students on campus but I have a lot of close connections with the faculty.

Q. You had a stupendous research foray right in your undergraduate days. Please tell us about your experience as an undergraduate at IIT BHU apropos academics and research.

I was always more inclined towards fundamental physical and electrical sciences, even before I appeared for JEE. The materials related disciplines are somewhere between fundamental sciences and engineering in fact. So, I was ultimately quite happy that I got Metallurgy at BHU as it was a very well-known and respected department in the country back then at-least. Within materials, my interest was further focused on electronic and optical materials as I had prior knowledge of the fact that materials lie at the core of the entire micro-electronics and opto-electronics industry. So I made a conscious effort to do my self-study and reach out to the relevant professors to get further knowledge in these areas. After knocking on a few doors, I got in touch with GVS Sastry in Metallurgy who guided me as I started doing some research on molecular dynamics simulations of trapping water inside nanotubes. We saw some very interesting simulation results which we wanted to verify experimentally and this is where he made a conscious effort to get me in touch with Ajayan who had just moved to Rice from Rensselaer back in 2007–08. Ajayan called me over to Rice in the summer of 2008. There he introduced me to graphene which was still in nascent research stages back then and asked me to focus on graphene synthesis and opto-electronic applications instead of nanotubes. I think that was the turning point and I will forever be indebted to GVS Sastry and Ajayan for that.

Q. Did you have plans for higher education before entering the institute? What were the factors which shaped your decision and did you initially plan for a career in academia?

Yes, I did. I was determined to do an MS from a top-tier US institution even before I got into IT-BHU but I had never thought about a career in academia until I got into the Ph.D. program at Northwestern. My goal was to get an MS in Materials Science from a top US school and work for a semiconductor giant such as Intel or TI or IBM. However, after going to Ajayan’s lab at the end of my second year in BHU, I realized that an MS may not be the right thing to do and Ph.D. was the real deal if you wanted yourself to be recognized as a credible scientist. As a part of my experiences at Rice and at BHU, I also realized the inner workings of the scientific research world. I learned that research is not unconstrained be it academia or industry. There are constraints such as funding, personnel, vision, profits, facilities and several others. So you can’t do whatever you like to pursue your intellectual curiosity, or solve a problem that you think is important. Industry, for instance, is far more restrictive than academia. Academia in USA has the best personnel, facilities and resources as opposed to in Asia and Europe (though this is changing). In my first few weeks at Northwestern, upon interacting with some leading professors in Materials Science and Chemistry there, I was convinced I wanted to get into academia, specifically American academia.

Q. Please tell us about your experience at Northwestern — the ground zero of materials science education2 in the world.

Northwestern is a very special place, especially if you work at the interface of materials and chemistry or are into nanotechnology or bionanoscience. It has two world leading departments in Materials and Chemistry which are situated right next to each other and therefore have heavy collaboration between them. This makes Northwestern very strong in all emerging disciplines such as nanotechnology and nanomedicine. In terms of pound-for-pound comparison, it is hard to find another Materials department which has multiple world-leaders in all sub-areas of research including metals, ceramics and structural materials, electronic, optical and magnetic materials, soft, polymeric and bio-materials as well as energy materials and computational materials science. All this in a department with fewer than 25 core faculty members is quite remarkable. So I had a very enriching experience at Northwestern interacting with a very diverse group of students, postdocs and faculty both intellectually and culturally.

Q. Please tell us about your current stint at Caltech and life in LA.

Caltech is a very, very special place. I do not think there is any educational or research institution in this world that can be compared to Caltech. It is very, very small in size and pretty much a world leader in every field that it has a presence in. With < 300 total faculty and < 2500 total students, it cannot afford to have expertise in all areas of science and engineering. So, it maintains a very strategic vision and presence in very selected areas and stays a world leader in them. One of those areas is optics and photonics. After some careful thought I decided that doing photonics on the same set of materials would be an appropriate choice.

Life at Caltech is hard and intense but wonderful. It is a very quiet and serene campus located in a very good suburb of LA with mountains flanking on the north and the city on the other side. Caltech has so many academic celebrities that you get used to the awe of spotting greatness. Often times while buying lunch in the cafeteria a Nobel Laureate is standing right next to you in the line. You also get a chance to have lunches and informal conversations with them. Stephen Hawking visits Caltech couple of weeks every year during winters. Einstein, Pauling, Millikan, Feynman all walked through the hallowed grounds of Caltech so the place is rich with history. LA on the other hand is a very glamorous city. It was a pleasant change of weather for me when I moved from frigid Chicago to LA. The beaches are great, food is delicious and breweries are plenty. The traffic drives me insane though and reminds me of growing up in Mumbai.

Q. Please tell us something about your ongoing research.

At Caltech, I work in a large group comprising of > 50 members. The group is led by Harry Atwater, a world-leading figure in nano-photonics, photo-voltaics and the pioneer in the field of ‘Plasmonics’. I am supported for my post-doc by a fellowship from the Resnick Sustainability Institute, Caltech’s largest endowed research program to investigate sustainable energy and environment related technologies. The big picture goal is to make solar cells from just one mono-layer of atoms. Now while that sounds promising since the thinner the better in terms of solar-cell efficiencies, there are many challenges and caveats. Over the last couple of years working with theorists, we have solved some of these challenges and have realized solar cells with just 9 nm in active layer thickness, nearly 100% absorption and > 50% of quantum efficiency. These are record-breaking numbers and lays a new path towards ultra-thin, ultra-lightweight photovoltaics for applications ranging from wearable power to space-based solar power where weight is a critical part of the design. Outside of photo-voltaics, I am also working on nano-photonic switches and optical modulators using 2D materials.

Q. How do you like to spend your time outside of work and what are your favourite hobbies?

To be honest I do not get much time outside of work. Whenever I do, I like to go to the beaches of LA or hike in the hills and mountains close by. I also like to watch sports and follow a number of sports including European club football, tennis, American football, NBA basketball, Formula-1 et cetera. Whenever I get a chance I go watch one of these sporting events live. Other than that, I get to travel a lot as a part of work, attending conferences and giving talks. Sometimes you get to travel to very fun and exotic locations in Europe and Asia. When I was in Chicago, I would go explore downtown Chicago in all its glory. Chicago has a great offering in terms of food and improv comedy as well as lively theatre scenes. So, an occasional live comedy show was always worthwhile. I am also a big food aficionado, so every major city or area that I have visited or lived in, I have tried my best to try the famous restaurants of that place, including several Michelin-rated restaurants and ones that frequently make it to the world’s best restaurant lists.

Q. You last visited IIT BHU in 2014 for an invited talk. What are the changes (if any) that you observed? What are some specific initiatives that you feel should be introduced at IIT BHU?

I honestly spent very little time going around in BHU so I do not remember many changes aside from a few constructions of new lecture halls and hostels. One thing that I didn’t see any noticeable change in is the faculty and research scene. One would’ve hoped that the IIT tag would bring in a lot more research money, top-class faculty, equipment and facilities. Back in 2014 I didn’t see much change in any of this. Most people get me wrong when I say this and I might as well cause a controversy with this, but research is the core of any higher education institution. Once an institution has a top-class research backbone and infrastructure, teaching automatically improves. One of the obvious things to do is to improve the core-curriculum more on the modern technological side rather than on the social and humanities side so as to get more students excited about their core disciplines and research. Finally, I think there is strong need for improving communication and inter-personal skills of students; the real world demands these skills more than the technical knowledge. Absence of these skills prevents a professional’s transition from a worker to a leader.

Q. What are some key insights and advice you would give to the student body at your alma mater?

I think I have covered most of the points but I will summarize them in a few key points:

1. Don’t be obsessed with the IIT brand name. It means nothing if you are not good enough. Focus on excellence of your skills (both technical and inter-personal) and avoid petty politics.

2. Follow your heart and shoot for the very best in whatever you go for. You should choose solely based on your interests.

3. Focus on the right problems and what really matters at the end of the day in terms of creating impact.

4. Chart your own path out irrespective of what other people think. Take timely advice from relevant people at every stage of life and career. There are plenty of alumni out there.

5. Campus placements are overrated. They are by no means a measure of any success.

6. Jugaad is good, but true excellence and hard work will separate out the winner in the end and ultimately determine success.

7. Keep good relations with people in your alma mater and give back as and when you can.

Thanks a lot, Deep, for taking time out from your schedule to talk to us.