FameLab Conversation – Sauradeep Majumdar, International Champion 2020

auradeep is a 27-year-old doctoral researcher at the department of chemistry and chemical engineering at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). In his impressive talk at FameLab, Sauradeep explained how scientists are working to combat climate change by making new materials that can attract and capture carbon dioxide molecules. We hope that this article…

auradeep is a 27-year-old doctoral researcher at the department of chemistry and chemical engineering at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). In his impressive talk at FameLab, Sauradeep explained how scientists are working to combat climate change by making new materials that can attract and capture carbon dioxide molecules.

We hope that this article will serve as inspiration for those of you that are passionate about science communication! Enjoy 😉

Watch the 2020 FameLab International Final here.

Sauradeep’s talk at FameLab Switzerland 2020.

V.D: It was great to see you win the Famelab semi-final, and I for one am very proud that it was you heading out to represent Switzerland, as well as your own country and institution.

S.M: Thank you for that, and thanks to the BSNL team, whose positive vibes and encouragement really helped with my nerves on that day. Most of us had doubts as to whether the Famelab finals would happen at all.

V.D: Our pleasure! You’re now studying Chemical Engineering and Molecular Simulations at EPFL. What were you studying before, and what led you to choose your university in Switzerland, and your topic?

S.M: So I did my studies in Chemical Engineering in India, and it was during my Master’s on the subject that I was introduced to Molecular Simulations, an interdisciplinary area, with people from Chemistry, Physics, Bio sciences, Material Sciences all coming together to simulate things at a molecular level. This new science fascinated me, although I had always been interested in carbon capture and climate change. I was working on projects which involved renewable energies and carbon capture and wanted to add the dimension of molecular simulations to my work. I was unsure of whether to move into an industrial role or do a PhD, and while applying for the latter I worked for a year in industrial R&D at Tata Steel, in India. One of the leading authorities in this area, who authored many of the books and articles we read, was Prof. Berend-Smit. He was in U.C. Berkeley then EPFL, and I applied to work with his group there, and he took me in.

V.D: So what was it like meeting the top of your field, your icon so to speak?

S.M: It was very… surreal! One moment, you’re starting out and reading his books and the next you’re in front of him. It was also intimidating; I’m really grateful I got the opportunity to work with him, and happy to be here.

V.D: So you did research in an industrial setting, and then moved to academia. Can you describe what your ideal job, your next occupation, might look like if you could pick anything in the world?

S.M: I would prefer to remain in a research role, but in exactly what setting, it’s too early to say. I will see how the 3-4 remaining years of my PhD go. Right now, choosing with no constraints, I would want to work in projects that have some degree of application in industry. For example, I am working on finding materials for carbon capture, so going ahead I would love to be involved in a project interfacing academia and industry and being actually implemented in the latter.

V.D: So you’d like to see the fruit of your labour come into the world and make a difference. What are the skills you’ve acquired and still need before that dream can come true?

S.M: One thing stands out. Carbon capture tech is in big demand around the world right now, and at the end point, when we decipher those problems and break them down into small steps, each of these steps poses problems in its field. What we’re doing right now is summing up the steps; that is what I’m aiming to do with my PhD: to detail what the consequences and limitations of a particular step are, assess what’s good about a material from an industrial point of view, and from a carbon-capture point of view, conciliating the scientific consensus with practical considerations. These skills will, I hope, come in handy later on in my career.

V.D: So setting down the trade-offs between what you study in academia and what the industrial world can apply of that knowledge.

S.M: This is something I realised: you can find an amazing carbon capture material, that’s top of your list from a scientific point of view, but doesn’t really fit with an industry’s practical considerations. Maybe it’s too big of an investment, maybe it’s complicated to use it. That’s when you move on to the second- or third-best material on your list. It might be cheaper, easier to make in bulk amount, something like that, but at the same time you have to make sure that you are not compromising on scientific accuracy when making that trade-off.

V.D: So while you’re working on acquiring these skills, and setting yourself up for that, what does a typical day look like for you? I imagine a lot of zoom meetings like these?

S.M: Yes, many of us are working from home. I live near campus so I come to be in that environment and in proximity to colleagues, as being confined for very long periods of time doesn’t work well for me. On a typical day I might work till lunchtime and then, in between non-work conversations, use the opportunity to talk to a senior scientist about a work topic. Working on simulations, we get much less time to interact than experimental people, we mostly interact with our machines.

V.D: So you have to use every opportunity to talk shop to bring it together.

S.M: Yes, we use those moments to work out some particular things. Sometimes we’ll be out of office but running something on the supercomputers at night.

V.D: Is there anything missing from that picture, anything you’d like to change at your workplace, maybe your equipment?

S.M: Here in Sion, we’re a small family, about 300 people. This is cool, but we’d love to have a games/recreation/relaxation room. Say we’ve worked for 5 hours at full concentration, it’d be nice to play some table tennis, get freshened up and recharged and come back to work.

V.D: So, an informal place to put some R&R in the R&D.

S.M: (chuckles) Yeah!

V.D: You’re mentioning COVID-19, and obviously it’s on all our minds, there’s an uptick of cases all around Europe. How has it affected you, at work and personally, not seeing your family back in India?

S.M: The last 6 months have definitely been harder; I have not visited my family in a long time. (although I might around Christmas) As I mentioned after the Famelab swiss final, where emotions flowed, I wanted to say that with the travel restrictions and quarantine, that has been very challenging. There are positives, however – over the last few months, I spent a lot of time with myself. Being in a foreign country, in a new culture and setting, that time let me reconnect with myself. This is a time where I could map out a lot of different things in my head, find time for other of activities, like music; I like to sing and play guitar, and dance, but with PhD work indulging those hobbies became very difficult. So the COVID-times let me better balance work and personal time, letting me engage with public speaking, like at Famelab… I love teaching, and I make the most of my TA hours, and during lockdown we came up with a new course for doctoral students at EPFL. Due to lockdown they couldn’t really access their experimental facilities and had more time to include simulations in their research. We did it all through Zoom and I saw a lot of the two sides coming together, so I think COVID did open up new ways of dealing, new ways to cope as this became the new normal. And through the experience of Famelab in the last few months, I also enjoyed the experience of sharing my research in greater details with my family, friends, lab-mates, the Famelab alumni and other people. Their feedback on my practice talks and their questions on my research really helped me in shaping my talks and also viewing my research from different perspectives.

V.D: Do you know what’s next for Sauradeep, where you want to live and work?

S.M: Right now and for the foreseeable future, I will be staying in Switzerland to push my PhD forward and experience life.

V.D: I’m sure your PI’s glad to hear that.

(Both chuckle)

S.M: I mentioned that I love dancing. After our PhD defences, we have a small apéro, and each person brings food from their country; it’s a nice interaction (and a chance to taste international food). We also have a dance night, and I as love Bollywood dancing, it’s my ambition to teach it to people here. One of my most memorable experiences was doing just that, having this moment where people forget who’s their senior, or their junior, and just dance to different tunes even though they don’t understand the language. That was a very special moment and I really hope we can have more of those activities and get-togethers. Other than that? I am by nature an inquisitive person, and I like to learn things. Science communication is something I would love to be engaged in more; I loved public speaking even back in India, and used to do debates, but it’s really through Famelab that I got into this. My Labmates, and PI, and so many people from EPFL watched the semi-final online, it was a new concept for them and it was a great outreach activity, so I’m looking forward to participating in more of that.

V.D: Good to hear that you’re interested in that; I hope we get to cross paths again in that context.

S.M: At the very least, after seeing me communicate it in 3 minutes, I hope that many more people back home and here are more aware of the work we are doing; that the bigger picture of what we are trying to solve is clearer.

V.D: Bonus question: you’re a person who likes to learn, and who likes to share that knowledge. What’s your advice to people looking to start a PhD in your field, broadly speaking?

S.M: I am still in the relatively early stages of my PhD, but based on my experience, I feel it’s important to have this quest for knowledge, asking questions, wanting to know more than we do now!! You realise there’s so much more to find out; but you also have to clear up with yourself what exactly you are expecting from a PhD. It’s a very personal journey, different for everyone. It’s a long time to spend on a topic, and many things can happen in that time, from a professional but also a personal point of view, so what you expected from it might not be what you get. Most, maybe all, PhD students have these moments, along the way, of questioning why they do this at all, or feeling it’s too tough, or too long, and those are the times where you need to feel connected to yourself. To ask: why did I make that decision and why was it important? It’s your decision, and I believe that if one stays true to one’s own self, it clears out a lot of issues, provides a lot of solutions. You know what you are doing; it may not be the best thing for everyone, but it’s the best thing for you. I learned this from one of my idols Hrithik Roshan (an Indian movie actor), my parents, my sister, and my lovely friends, that it is crucial that we become the best version of ourselves. The point is not necessarily to be the best chemical engineer in the world, or best so and so, but to be the best version of yourself. That is when you bring something new to the table; your own identity.

V.D: So: knowing your motivation behind starting a PhD, being authentic, being ready for and open to change – I think that’s good advice in general.

S.M: The thing is, we don’t know what the outcome is; you may get a positive or negative outcome, we don’t know, but it’s the process in between, and what you learn, that matters in this.

by Valentin Donzé

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