A passionate metallurgist, Abhishek Ravada hopes to make his mark by improving the heat resistance—and thus disaster resistance—of steels. But his conversations and experiments at ChemMatCARS have convinced him to look up from traditional metallurgy to a broader range of questions.
Through internships and work experience at a military lab in his native India, he was exposed to a range of traditional problems in metallurgy and ceramics: parts for thermal power plants; automobile parts, like crankshafts and bearings; space telescopes; missile heads. “With these hands I have made a few missile heads, myself!” Ravada said. The practical focus left him unsatisfied, however. Seeking a broader theoretical and experimental framework, he chose an international master’s program focused on the use of large experimental facilities, in which he will take degrees from the University of Rennes 1, France, and Ludwig Maximillian University of Munich, Germany. In the GSRAC program, he is continuing a specialization in X-ray diffraction by learning a variety of advanced techniques.
He heard about the GSRAC program when beamline scientist Dr. Yu-Sheng Chen spoke at a workshop in France. Ravada leapt at the chance, even though it came at a time of personal upheaval. His parents had just moved from India to New Jersey, a process they began 14 years earlier with a view to educational opportunities for Ravada and future generations of the family. Ravada is grateful for the Dr. Chen’s personal concern during the program: “He took pains to pull me all the way from France and make sure that I’m absolutely comfortable, even though my family is nowhere close to me—to make sure I feel at home in the lab and outside it,” he said.
For Ravada, the GSRAC experience has been an eye-opener. As a passionate nonchemist, he was initially glad Dr. Chen assigned him only inorganic compounds. But he came to enjoy his fellow GSRAC researcher Damola Shuaib’s passion for chemistry: “That’s why I enjoy Damola’s company; he’s absolutely different to what kind of a person I am,” Ravada said.
Like Shuaib, Ravada is astonished at the degree of autonomy allowed and expected. As an undergraduate intern, he was not allowed access to an ordinary diffractometer: “I had to sit with a scientist who used to do the job. He was kind enough to explain how each thing worked but not kind enough to allow me to touch it. But here Dr. Chen has absolute confidence in me; he will just let me use the beamline for my own experiments, which is absolutely amazing,” Ravada said. Autonomy is also expected: “Another good aspect of working here is nobody tries to spoon-feed science to you. If I ask Professor Chen too many questions on a basic topic, he will just ask me to make an effort!”
As he became more expert, Ravada began helping visiting users. In the process, he worked with a team studying very large organic molecules for organic solar cells—and discovered that organic molecules could be fascinating. He now regrets his early bias. “I had a few inhibitions; my mind was just working as a metallurgist. That’s one aspect I would like to correct if I could go back in time.”
Ravada’s advice to future applicants? “Be absolutely open to every single topic that comes your way. Just come here as a student who is studying X-ray science and see how far it takes you.”
* The interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.