The thrill of discovery

A chat with physicist Suchitra Sebastian, whose passage from Chennai to Cambridge is strewn with laurels.

September 21, 2013 05:48 pm | Updated June 02, 2016 02:00 pm IST

Suchitra Sebastian

Suchitra Sebastian

Currently a Royal Society University Research Fellow in Physics at the University of Cambridge, Suchitra Sebastian was recently awarded the 2013 L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science U.K. & Ireland Fellowship at a ceremony in London. Suchitra has won a string of prestigious awards, grants and fellowships over the years, including the President’s Gold Medal in Physics on graduating from the Women’s Christian College in Chennai, the Lee Osheroff Richardson North American Science Prize, the Young Scientist Prize from the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, and the Institute of Physics’ Moseley Medal and Prize. Excerpts from an interview:

What inspired you to study physics further?

What I remember best from when I was young are hands-on science projects like bubble-ology, rocket building, circuit making, snake handling, where I got to experiment and explore for myself. I remember the excitement when my creations worked, and the wonder at discovering new things. I didn’t realise at the time that’s what research is all about!

Has a career in research always been your ambition?

As an undergraduate, I enjoyed physics, but I also enjoyed the broad curriculum and extra-curricular activities that contributed to my being more well-rounded and less of a nerd! I remember exploring the option to study physics, literature, engineering, or an MBA after my undergraduate degree in physics. I ended up doing an MBA at IIM-Ahmedabad, and working as a management consultant for a few years. But, at the end of the day, I missed the thrill of discovery. So I switched to a PhD in Applied Physics at Stanford. While I did encounter caricatured single-minded scientists, I discovered that needn’t be me, and surprised myself somewhat by finding my groove doing research.

Were your parents supportive of your choices?

My mother has always been my biggest cheerleader throughout.

You’ve recently won an extremely prestigious research Fellowship. Could you tell me a bit about your work and its possible future applications?

I work on superconductors — materials with the remarkable property of zero resistance below a certain ‘superconducting’ temperature. Superconducting materials have more than a hundred times the current-carrying capacity of traditional materials such as copper. However, existing superconductors are limited to temperatures below -100° C. My research seeks to understand the origin of elevated temperature superconductivity in currently known materials, and to discover new materials with even better superconducting properties, providing a boon to sustainable energy solutions of the future.

You’ve lived abroad for many years now. Was your childhood also spent outside India?

I grew up somewhat itinerantly, with spells in Chennai, the U.K., and the U.S. My nationality is still Indian, and this isn’t about to change. I travel to India quite often, and think I retain many aspects of Indian culture wherever I am. Some of the things I cherish about India are the rich sensory experiences all around — from sights and sounds to crafts and folk art, the roadside vendors, the hustle and bustle, the astonishing diversity, and the feeling of community.

How do you think physics ought to be taught, to inspire a greater interest?

The aspects of learning I enjoy most are open-ended projects. I think it’s important for students to think for themselves. Often science in school is presented in the form of historical concepts to memorise, as though everything is already known. But most things are yet to be discovered, and we’re constantly learning more about what we don’t know! An aspect in which women often differ from men is the extent of bluster and bravado they portray, which often means young women doubt themselves more, and sometimes hesitate to aim high. Women-only schools and colleges are a great way to give young women the space to be themselves, and to develop the confidence to learn and grow in their own style.

What advice would you give a young woman going into your field today?

Science is remarkably diverse, and so should scientists be. We need different types of people doing science. I would strongly encourage young women to explore science for themselves; to find out what they are passionate about, and to seek out as a career what makes them happy. You don’t need to be like anyone else — you’re unique, be yourself!

Have you faced any major challenges in your career so far?

Being in the extremely competitive area of cutting edge physics research is a constant challenge. You are always being questioned, challenged, pushed to be the first to make new discoveries, and under pressure to defend your findings. It isn’t a vocation for the faint-hearted. I keep the fun in physics alive by placing it in perspective. I need my space to spend time with family and friends, do spontaneous fun activities, and take off on expeditions to pursue other interests.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I enjoy acting in theatre. I’ve performed in various university groups. Most recently I travelled with the Cambridge Rickshaw theatre project to do theatre workshops with street children in Delhi, Lucknow, and Kathmandu. I’ve performed at the Edinburgh Fringe festival with the theatre group Two Shades of Blue from Cambridge. I love travel, especially backpacking to unusual destinations off the beaten path, from Asia to South America to Europe. I tend to wander in search of adventure. I’m also passionate about supporting anti-war causes, and participating in volunteer efforts. Perhaps unusually for a scientist, I believe life is so much more than science. I’m a Christian, and I believe there is purpose in life far beyond science.

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