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Filter coffee: Sidharth Thomas

September 13, 2020

Sidharth is a recent graduate from the department of ECE (Batch of ‘20) and has worked extensively in electronics research. After two foreign internships and a smashing BTP, he will now begin a PhD at UCLA, working with THz circuits. Here is an excerpt from our conversation with Sidharth.

Watch Out! - What is the craziest thing you have done on campus?

Sidharth - I have several crazy but fond memories from IITR. During one particular birthday celebration, we painted an old Thomso banner with some questionable graphics and made a friend wear it.

Watch Out! - What do you do in your free time?

Sidharth - I usually don’t get much free time, but when I do, I spend my time reading or watching some random sitcom. I have also started practising the piano recently.

Watch Out! - You changed your branch from Chemical to ECE in your first year. What were your reasons behind this and was it on your mind since the outset of the 1st semester?

Sidharth - Like any other first-year student, a branch change was on my mind the moment I started at IITR. I did not have any interest in chemical engineering, and strangely, my original plan was to shift to Mechanical. However, towards the end of the first semester, I followed the questionable CSE>ECE>EE trend, with no particular expectations. Eventually, I landed in ECE, and I believe things have worked out pretty well since then.

Watch Out! - For a multitude of reasons, research is not popular among the UG junta, so much so that most people would not even know about their own classmates doing exceptionally well in research. What do you feel are the problems that result from this? What would you suggest as a means to improve this?

Sidharth - Yes, I feel IITR has a poor research culture among undergrads compared to other top IITs. There are multiple reasons behind this, but mainly, I think this is because of our hugely popular coding culture, and students wrongly associating a high GPA as a prerequisite for research. This creates a herd mentality where students rarely explore their departments. Professors also develop trust issues with undergrads and become reluctant to provide them with good projects. Moreover, IITR has very few collaborations with reputed universities. Some institute policies make things difficult for students doing foreign internships or semester exchanges. I feel first-year students should be provided more opportunities to be involved in research, such as a paid on-campus summer internship. Course projects and assignments need to be more open-ended and design-centric. There should be a greater amount of academic flexibility and more international collaborations and tie-ups. At the ECE department, we discussed making the BTP optional so that students interested in research get more attention and resources. That being said, things have been steadily improving in the last two years.

Watch Out! - You did two research interns abroad, in Israel and Canada. How was your experience? What do you think are the differences between research abroad and in India in electronics?

Sidharth - I had an amazing experience at both places. These internships helped me understand how it is to pursue research as a career and was instrumental in me deciding to join grad school. I met some great researchers and had intriguing discussions with them. Besides this, I feel living independently in a foreign country has helped me gain a broader perspective.
I feel there are equally talented people in India and abroad. But there is a vast difference in funding. Funding is critical in cutting edge research. I also noticed a high level of collaboration and interdisciplinary research. For instance, the group that I worked with in Canada had partnerships with a hospital. Most of the research groups had close associations with the industry. This ensures that the projects they work on are relevant. Besides this, people were very professional and treated me as their peer and not as a student.

Watch Out! - How did you decide that you wanted to do a PhD? Having worked with different types of circuits, how did you narrow down your area of interest?

Sidharth - I think the two internships helped me get a good taste of research. It is, at times, frustrating, requiring long hours of reading and a ton of patience. But the result is worth it. A job in the industry would mean that you work on a part of a random project, but in a PhD, you usually get to decide and design your own project. It is ‘your’ brainchild, and you become the absolute ‘expert’ in your domain. This holds a certain beauty. I am also open to pursuing a career in academia. So, I feel a PhD is the right logical choice for me.
As an undergrad, it’s quite tough to find an area that interests you. The only way is to keep an open mind and explore. I tried my hand at ML, computer architecture, and device physics, before switching to circuits. And then, I studied circuits, working on different applications. I was always interested in 5G/6G communication technology and how circuits behave at such high frequencies. This eventually led me to the domain in which I am pursuing my PhD.

Watch Out! - You are among the few on campus to work on RFIC and THz circuits. What advice would you give to others who would like to do research in areas where local guidance is scarce?

Sidharth - This is a good question and is especially important, considering the current pandemic situation. In the absence of local guidance, you probably will not be able to work on a project directly in your area of interest, but you can work on similar or complementary areas. There are several directions to approach a problem. If one particular direction requires guidance, which is scarce, you can try a different one. All this adds to the experience. You can also try pitching your idea to a professor. He/she might be interested in exploring this area with you, and in fact, this is how I started my research at IITR. Also, look for internships. I would recommend reading as much as you can. Try reading papers, PhD theses, and books, anything you can get your hands on. Participate in online discussion forums. Look for pioneers in the area, what they are doing now, their peers, etc.

Watch Out! - Considering that you moved to Roorkee from Kerala, what were the main challenges, if any, while adapting to the culture on campus, including language and communication barriers. Do you think that some groups struggle more in adapting to college life, even though there’s a pan India populace on campus?

Sidharth - I struggled a bit during my first year due to some communication barriers. I left two campus groups during my first year since I could not follow their conversations. There were also labs where I got fewer grades since I could not communicate answers in Hindi. I did adapt eventually, but to answer your question, yes, there are groups that struggle in adapting to IITR due to language-related issues.

Watch Out! - If you had the time and resources, what campus group would you start and why?

Sidharth - This is not something that I would be interested in. However, I wish people at IITR would stop joining groups merely out of peer pressure or for a POR, and instead, follow their interest.

Watch Out! - As a member of the IEEE Student Branch SIG, what is the best thing about the group? What do you think is the future of the group?

Sidharth - The purpose of the IEEE Special Interest Group is to bring together a group of students who are interested in electronics. We have tried to create a culture where there is no ‘secretary’, ‘associate member’, or even a ‘sir’. Anybody can drop-in, interrupt, or leave a discussion. I like this informal nature of the group. Last year, we helped organize a project demo for the first year ‘Intro to ECE course’. It was a fun experience, and our juniors had some amazing projects on display.

Watch Out! - Customary question: What do you think of Watch Out!

Sidharth - I think you guys are doing a solid job. I remember reading Watch Out ‘Summer Diaries’ back in 2016.
That being said, this interview has been fun and unexpected. Thank you!