An Interview with Dr.Krishna Venkateswara

Prof Ramani Krishna Venkateswara, PhD
Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of Washington,
PhD, Physics, University of Maryland, College Park,
BTech, Electrical Engineering, IIT Madras.

Dr.Krishna Venkateswara is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Center for Experimental Nuclear Physics and Astrophysics (CENPA) at the University of Washington. He received his B.Tech degree in Electrical Engineering from IIT Madras in 2003 and his PhD in Physics from University of Maryland-College Park (UMD) in 2010. Upon completion of his doctoral studies in the area of gravitational wave detectors and the inverse-square law, he joined CENPA’s research team specializing in gravitational and sub-gravitational physics and is one of the researchers working on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) experiment. Dr.Venkateswara has specific training and expertise in the area of gravitational physics. In this interview, he talks about his journey from his days as an electrical engineering student to that of a physicist.

Having done your undergraduation in Electrical Engineering, what made you pursue a PhD degree in Physics?
Physics was something that I was interested in since my school days. When it was time to choose a major for my undergraduate studies, I chose Electrical Engineering at IIT Madras for several reasons. Back in 1999, the Bsc/Msc programmes available in Physics were not that impressive. I also wanted to keep my options open. Even though I was planning to make the transition to Physics right from start, I reasoned that if things do not go well with my graduate studies in Physics, I can always shift back to technology. Also, IIT Madras was (and still is) well renowned for their Electrical Engineering program and they had this amazing option called the minor stream where, apart from your major engineering course, you had to choose 4 different courses from sciences and humanities. I chose Physics as one of my minor courses, which served me very well.

Many students have this dilemma. They are interested in basic sciences but end up studying engineering for their undergraduate degree due to a number of reasons like family pressure, societal pressure, lack of reputed institutions in their area of interest etc. Looking back, would you have rather done your Bsc/Msc in Physics as opposed to a B.Tech in Electrical Engineering?
If I can go back, I will not change anything. I am very happy with the kind of foundation and background I got with Electrical Engineering. When you are just 17 or 18, it is very difficult to decide what choices will help you and what will not. At the end of the day, you are the sum of all your experiences. I think doing my undergraduate studies in Electrical Engineering worked very well for my career and is one of the best things to have happened to me. At that period, if I had been a 100% certain about Physics, a Bsc/Msc would have been a better option but at that age nobody is certain about what they want in life. Also, back in 1999, the BSc courses available were not very impressive, especially when compared with the engineering courses. However, things have changed a lot since then, there are many Bsc/Msc programmes offered by reputed institutions across India. IISc has this BS programme in Physics which seems very impressive and students interested in Physics at the undergraduate level should take a look at their course.

What about Engineering Physics? Why didn’t you choose Engineering Physics instead of Electrical Engineering?
During my undergraduate years, Engineering Physics was very new and was slowly emerging as a new discipline. It was not very popular when compared with Electrical Engineering. Also, the foundation of Electrical Engineering lies in Mathematics and Physics. There is a lot of Physics involved in Electrical Engineering concepts and principles. Presently, Engineering Physics is doing very well and students who are interested in both engineering and basic sciences can very well take up this course for their undergraduate studies.

Transitioning from one field to another is not easy, especially when you are applying to top schools like UMD? How did you go about achieving this successful transition?
My minor in Physics helped me immensely. All my internships and final year project were not related to Physics but I had a good Physics subject GRE score. Also, the reputation of your undergraduate university and GPA helps a lot. If your university does not offer a minor choice, then taking a few courses in Physics is a great thing to do. It shows that you are dedicated and serious about pursuing your graduate studies in Physics. When I was applying, I was very clear on which research group I was interested in working with and what I wanted to specialize in. Writing your SOP with a clear idea of what you want from your graduate studies in Physics will make a huge difference to your application. The admissions committee look for students who know what they are doing and are clear about their decisions and ideas while applying to graduate school.

Can you talk about your PhD work?
When I started my PhD, I was originally interested in specializing in the theoretical aspects of gravity but later veered towards Experimental Physics as research funding was much better there and I found it quite interesting as well. Within Experimental Physics, there are broadly two types of experiments. The first type is where you will be working as part of a huge research team (~ 100 people) for a period of 10-15 years. The other type is that of a tabletop experiment where only 2-3 people will be working together and the experiment can be completed in 3-4 years. Mine was the latter and my thesis work was in measuring the gravitational inverse square law (ISL) at the distance scale of 100 micrometers. The inverse square law is a hallmark of the best theory of gravity, General Relativity, yet there is no complete quantized theory of gravity applicable at the shortest distance scale. Testing this law at a distance scale of 100 microns was very challenging but we eventually completed the experiment and found no deviations from the ISL.

Within Engineering, it is very common for students to do internships in industry during their PhD studies. How does that work in Physics?
Within physics, it is not common to do internships unlike engineering. I personally have not come across anyone who has done internships in industries or such. However, students collaborate with professors from other universities and sometimes do a semester or more in those universities. So, within pure science there is no concept of internships. Even within applied physics, I have not seen anyone apply for internships during their PhD education.

Once you completed your PhD, you joined University of Washington’s CENPA group as a Postdoctoral fellow? Can you talk about your work as a Postdoctoral fellow?
Yes, I am actually a part of this large experiment called Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). LIGO is a very large scale experiment set up to directly detect gravitational waves of astrophysical origin. LIGO involves more than 900 researchers collaborating from various institutions worldwide. It is the largest project ever to be funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). In fact, the LIGO experiment will soon be started in India as well under the LIGO-India collaboration. It is an international collaboration between the LIGO laboratory and three lead institutions in the IndiGO consortium - Institute of Plasma Research (IPR) Gandhinagar, Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune and Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology (RRCAT), Indore. The collaboration aims to detect gravitational waves through a network (2+) of large Michelson-type interferometers. In the US, they consist of two 4-km arm-length detectors located at Hanford, WA and Livingston, LA. A gravitational wave created by an astrophysical event, such as the merger of neutron stars and black holes, would produce ripples in spacetime which propagate to earth at the speed of light. When they pass through the LIGO interferometer, they induce very tiny changes in the arm-lengths of the interferometer, which can be detected by changes in light intensity at the detector. The difficulty lies in the fact that these length changes from expected sources are extremely small, roughly on the order of 10^-20 meters over the four kilometer arms! But it can be done and the detectors will start taking data very soon. My work is in the area of seismic isolation, which tries to remove the effect of ground motion from the data.

A career in the pure sciences is not as high paying like software or management. On top of that, academia is highly competitive. What sort of mentality must students possess in order to achieve success in the sciences?
Yes, a career in physics is not going to be as high paying as certain other fields. Also, when you get into academia it gets really competitive. So, you need to be passionate about what you do. It is only the dedicated ones that persist over time. But, if you don’t want to be in academia, you can always consider other options like working in the industry or in any of the applied areas. Many students from my lab work in research laboratories in Seattle and also in Applied Physics industries. It is perfectly fine to change your career direction if academia is not working out for you.
Regarding entering academia, it is very competitive, be it the United States or India. Good journal publication is extremely important. Also, graduating from a reputed university is important as prestigious universities have great track record in research. In Physics, conference papers are not of much significance, it is only journal papers that carry a lot of weight. And some journals are way more valued than others. So, great paper count and a PhD/Postdoc from a reputed university helps a lot and can give you an edge over others in a competitive environment.

How is research in Physics faring presently in India? Can you name some institutes that are doing excellent work within your area?
I think India is doing great when it comes to research in Physics, in general. Research funding and grants have increased significantly. LIGO-India collaboration, as I mentioned before, is a huge project and will create a lot of opportunities for Physicists in India. Regarding institutions, TIFR has always been doing great work. IUCAA - Pune, RRCAT-Indore and IPR-Gandhinagar are part of the IndiGO consortium and will be involved in the LIGO project. Students can take a look at these institutions if they are interested in gravitational physics.

Apart from the United States, which other countries are doing great work in physics?
It depends on the field you are in. Within gravity, Germany, Italy, France and Japan are doing great work in gravitational physics. University of Western Australia has a large group doing gravitational wave research.

Within the field of Biology and Chemistry, Computer Science is slowly becoming indispensable due to the genomics revolution? What about physics? How important is programming and coding skills for Physicists?
Absolutely, coding is indispensable in Physics. In fact, I know some physicists who are way better programmers than some CS guys. Research in Physics is definitely programming heavy considering the amount of data analysis and processing that needs to be performed and studied for every experiment. If you are in Applied Physics, you need to know programming and hardware interfacing very well. Even within other areas of Physics, programming knowledge is very important. Within Theoretical Physics, you will be doing a lot of simulations which could involve multi-threaded programming on supercomputers. So, it can get pretty complex even with a theory based PhD.

For the past few decades, Interdisciplinary studies has become very popular. What impact has it had in Physics?
Yes, Biophysics is doing very well and there is a lot of funding in this area. Many physicists have made important contributions in new techniques in biophysical research. So, if you have an interest in biophysics then it is a great thing to do right now.

Looking back at your PhD studies, is there anything that you would have liked to do differently?
Well, there will be a point during your PhD when things like publishing papers or getting results will take longer than expected. I did get dejected for a while during my PhD years but looking back it is just a passage of rites that every PhD student needs to go through. If given an opportunity to go back, I wouldn’t get all that worried about finishing my work because you will eventually end up finishing your degree successfully. I have seen this happen to many other students as well. So, don’t get too stressed out and just keep working on your problem and do what you need to do. Even if your experiments are not successful, you can still write about your experimental techniques and what you have learned from it. Don’t get emotionally caught up with it. Just keep focusing on doing good physics and things will work out great.

Considering that Physics is highly research oriented and most jobs are in the academia and labs, is it imperative that one needs to get a PhD in Physics in order to move ahead in their career?
If you want a career in academia, then you must have a PhD. But, without a PhD you can find good jobs in the industry, particularly in applied areas such as electronics and semiconductors, devices etc. I know many people who got into Computational and Statistical Physics. In fact, many Physics students are lured by the financial industry as they are constantly looking for people who have strong statistical and quantitative knowledge and can write software that does data analysis. which is pretty much what physicists do. So, if a career in research does not work out and you don’t want to do a PhD, then you can try any one of the above mentioned options.

How vulnerable is Physics to recession and economic fluctuations?
With regards to Physics, there is a bigger buffer period. We receive funding annually or once every 3 years. So, recession does not immediately affect work in physics. Short term recession does not make a big impact on research work but a long term recession hits research really hard. In 2008, nothing much happened when the world was reeling under recession. But we started feeling the effects only until 2011. And, now it is starting to really make an impact, especially in the last 2 years.

Other than Biophysics, which other areas within Physics do you expect to see a big breakthrough in the next few years?
Gravitational physics is poised to do very well in the next few years. The gravitational waves that we are trying to detect has been theorized for a long time. There will probably be a few detections in the coming few years and once that happens, there will be a lot more interest in this area. The second generation detectors are coming up and it will revolutionize astronomy. We will start looking at the Universe in a completely different manner. So, gravitational waves in physics is going to be a big thing in the next 10 years. But then, I personally believe that students should focus on areas that they are interested in as opposed to specializing in fields that will have a big breakthrough over the next couple of years. I would advise students not to worry about which area within physics is doing well. Just focus on what you enjoy studying and look for opportunities within your realm and you will do great.