Living in the same city as top-notch scientists and Nobel laureates makes life at Harvard University exciting, writes Aakash Ravi

In the summer of 2013, I began my long academic journey. The end goal: a doctoral degree in Physics. One and a half years in, I have already learned so much, and there is yet much more. And it has been and continues to be a rewarding and delightful experience.

My specific topic of research is ultracold molecules, and this falls under the area of atomic, molecular and optical physics. I work in an experimental research group on an experiment which aims to laser cool and trap simple (diatomic) molecules. Much of the work is very hands-on and requires engineering and fabrication skills.

All of us in the group are required to take a machining class, as we routinely design and make custom metal parts for our experimental setups. We are nicely outfitted with many tools such as waterjet cutters, mills, lathes, laser cutters, and 3D printers.

We also have the ability to braze and weld parts as necessary. This is only one side of things, generally associated with cryogenic and vacuum components.

This is necessary as our experiments are often done at very low pressures and temperatures. The other side of things involves light. We work with lasers and electronics. I am very fond of such work, and I spent a good part of my initial time in the group aligning a dye ring laser from scratch.

Teaching while learning

At Harvard, there is excellent funding for research and many opportunities to attend conferences and discuss results. In fact, since I joined the group, I have been able to travel to France and Spain for conferences, and to Boulder, Colorado, for collaboration. In addition, there is a strong collaborative culture locally, primarily due to the Center for Ultracold Atoms, which is a joint institute with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is just down the street. With so many top-notch scientists (two Nobel laureates included) in the field being in Cambridge, it is a really exciting place to be for research in atomic physics.

While doing research, I am also taking graduate courses. Unlike undergraduate classes, which typically end with in-class exams, many graduate classes end with open-book take-home exams, papers or presentations. Much of assigned homework is quite difficult, so we are encouraged to work together to solve them. This is a great place to learn from others, share your strengths, and make friends. Many of the courses I have taken thus far I have found to be very helpful for my area of research. In addition to courses, we are required to teach for at least one semester. And there is also an oral exam for PhD candidates, which is typically taken two or three years into the programme.

Charm of Cambridge

Cambridge is a city which lies across the Charles river from Boston. It is quite an old city with many squares and dense one-way streets. There are great restaurants and cafés everywhere. Much of the population consists of students, and cyclists and runners are a frequent sight. The Harvard campus is a walled area in the western part of the city; here, red brick is ubiquitous. Though it took me some time to adjust, I quickly grew to like the city. There is a warm, welcoming atmosphere, and it's a great place to meet students from all over the globe and make lasting connections.

The writer is pursuing his PhD in physics at Harvard University. Email: aakash.ravi@gmail.com