10 Questions with Rachana Acharya
Rachana Acharya, 24, from India is a Ph.D. student at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, Germany.
Her research is in the field of organic electronics, more specifically, organic thin film transistors in which the semiconductor is an organic material. Her research topic focusses on a metal-organic hybrid gate dielectric in the transistors.
Rachana is a participant of the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting which is dedicated to the field of physics in 2016.
Enjoy the interview with Rachana and get inspired:
- What inspired you to pursue a career in physics / STEM?
I would have to say it runs in the family. My grandfather played a pivotal role in developing the electronics research scenario in India, among other scientific achievements. I grew up listening to his stories and we built small circuits in our home-made electronics lab. At some point in my high school education, I started appreciating the logical thought process and scientific reasoning principles involved in mathematics and physics.
- Who are your role models?
My biggest role model will have to be my mother. She is a Professor for German Studies and has taught me to appreciate and love all faculties of science equally, apart from giving me immense strength and courage in the face of social and academic adversity. Her tenacity and dedication to her work along with a healthy work-life balance is inspiring. Another figure of inspiration for me, even though not from the field of science, is Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. She is constantly urging women to take up more leadership positions through her books and TED talks.
- How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I started out with a bachelor’s degree in Engineering (Metallurgical and Materials) in a national level institute in India (NIT Nagpur). They were one of the best days of my life, where I was newly introduced to a concept of research in engineering. A key motivating person was Dr. Jatin Bhatt in my department who always pushed me to aim high and never settle. I decided to pursue a master’s degree in Materials Science and got admitted to University of California, Los Angeles in the United States. During my masters, financial stability was a major obstacle I faced and balancing academics with a job was tough, but a learning experience of its own. During my masters, I came to Germany for an internship to the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart, and at the end of the internship my advisor offered me a PhD position here. I have recently started my PhD work in April 2016. Being away from my family and friends and my home country is harder than I expected it to be, but over a period of time you learn to make your own support structure wherever you live.
- What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
My current PhD topic would have to be the coolest project of research career. The transistors we make are fabricated on flexible substrates and opens up the whole world of flexible electronics and devices. Basically, if all goes well, we might have those Harry Potter style newspapers one day with moving images and gifs embedded into them.
- What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
After I finished my masters and before starting my PhD, I visited my home town in India and paid a visit to my high school. I was talking to many young school children there and trying to explain to them what I do. Many of them were very amazed and looking at their awe-filled faces made me feel immensely proud. I thought to myself that it would be a huge personal success for me if I had inspired even one person to pursue science as a career, and take pride in it.
- What is a “day in the life” of Rachana like?
I usually reach my institute by around 9 am, and do a few organizational tasks before heading to the lab. I like to start my mornings in the lab as its when my energy is the best and I’m feeling fresh and excited to work. Some afternoons I spend analyzing my results, or reading research papers/books and designing new experiments. In the evenings I like to go for a swim and head home after that.
- What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
My career goal is to establish myself as a scientist and carry out high quality research in India. The research scenario in India is rapidly growing and I would like to contribute to that, once I finish my education. I also aspire to teach at the graduate level, not only in a scientific way but also try to encourage young students to enjoy what they are doing, and make responsible decisions. I believe all career paths are equally important for a well-functioning society and I want to inspire students to choose a path which they genuinely love.
- What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
Luckily I have been away from home for the past few years and I really enjoy travelling to nearby places when I am free. I enjoy exploring new cultures, meeting new people and reading on train journeys. On a day to day basis, I like to cook my own versions of restaurant dishes and take-out food, so that it’s healthier, and in most cases tastier as well!
- What advice do you have for other women interested in physics / STEM?
I would have to say that women not only in physics but in all fields need to start believing in themselves more. If you don’t think you have the potential to achieve, nobody else will. At the same time, using your position as a woman for an undeserved and unequal advantage is quite discouraged and frowned upon by me. Have faith in yourself, and focus on doing good science, that comes above anything and everything else.
- In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physics research?
Maybe this is wishful thinking, but I believe the next breakthrough will be in astrophysics or cosmology where we discover new frontiers of our universe. With Juno (the space probe to Jupiter) and extreme quality telescopes being built, we can expect something exciting and new.
What should be done to increase the number of female professors of physics?
Providing childcare services and a holistic health care plans would be short scale ideas on an institute or organizational level. But if we want any real change to happen, it needs to occur on a societal level where we see women outside of family and caretaker positions. We need to allow women to choose the path of their own lives, and not let society be an influential factor in making their decisions for them.