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Filter Coffee: Akshay Subramanian

August 29, 2022

Akshay is a 2021 graduate from the Metallurgy and Material Sciences department. He has won the Director’s Gold Medal and Department Gold Medal for being the best all-rounder amongst all graduating students at IITR (2021). He has done some amazing work in the field of Machine Learning and Materials Science. Having interned at the Berkeley Lab and IISC and published two brilliant research papers, he is now set to pursue a Ph.D. in Materials Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT. Here are some excerpts from our conversation with Akshay.

WO!: Hailing from the South, what was your first impression of IITR, in terms of the academia, student community, and the campus in general? Any stark differences in the culture or the general proceedings here, up North? Did you face any difficulties adapting to the northern culture?

Akshay: When I joined IITR, the first thing that struck me was the language. I am not very comfortable in Hindi, and the language barrier was difficult to overcome. It was only in the second year that I took the initiative to start conversing in English. Previously, it was just me in my shell thinking that I wouldn’t fit in owing to this language barrier, but despite talking in English, it turned out really well for me. So, my advice to all those who face similar issues is to open up and start talking right from the beginning rather than waiting for a year as I did.

WO!: Recently, the SMP (Student Mentorship Program) has taken many initiatives concerning this issue. Was the SMP this active during your time? Did you reach out to them?

Akshay: I didn’t reach out to them, and I don’t think SMP had any initiatives at that time. For most people who face similar barriers, it is difficult to reach out and actually accept that this is a problem and take some initiative. That in itself is an issue.

WO!: Like many students, did you try changing your branch in your first semester, or were you interested in Materials Science from the very beginning?

Akshay: Yes, I did try for a branch change to CSE or ECE in my first year. But, Materials Science was one of my top choices since I understood that it has a very large scope. Materials Science is applicable in almost any field- aerospace materials, electronic materials, polymers, computational material science (where you can design algorithms or apply software development in materials science), and so on. So, you can enter almost any field through Materials Science, and I was lucky enough to understand this at the very beginning and not worry too much about branch change.

WO!: Do you really think that the course structure of B.Tech Metallurgical and Materials Engineering is robust enough to address the enthusiasm of all the students?

Akshay: I think the course structure definitely needs some changes. Currently, the program is Metallurgy and Materials Engineering but is very focused on Metallurgy. There are a lot of fields in which Materials Science is applicable, and we need students to have a foundation that covers this wide variety of applications rather than spending a majority of the time on Metallurgy with just a small introduction to Polymers, Electronic Materials, and so on. Most universities abroad and IIT Kanpur, IIT Delhi, etc., have a more general program called Materials Science and Engineering. Also, we need to have more computational materials science courses rather than just 1 or 2 courses during the course of four years, which would be great for people like me who wish to enter the computational field.

WO!: There are very few professors who are interested in this field. So, how easy was it to reach out to professors or take courses from other departments at your time (currently, the only means of doing so being opting for NPTEL or taking a minor)?

Akshay: The process and concept of choosing Open Electives at IITR are not very flexible. We had only two open electives in the entire 4-year duration, and even those were courses that students may not be interested in. There wasn’t any elective for ML. And as far as research is concerned, there aren’t many professors who are working in the computational field. However, recently there has been an increase in the number of professors in this field, at least in the Metallurgy Department.

Moreover, as an undergraduate, it is difficult to decide which research field you would like to pursue. For example, during my first year, I wanted to explore core machine learning, materials science, and some experimental work, and I wasn’t sure which field I wanted to enter. So, there should be some freedom to explore different research areas without any consequences of failing, at least during the initial days of your undergraduate so that you can decide which research area you wish to pursue. If you just reach out to different professors, take up different projects, and leave it midway, it wouldn’t work out well for both the student and the professor. So, there should be some flexibility in the same.

WO!: Software Development to Machine Learning to Research, there’s hardly any field you left untouched. How did you get started with each of these?

Akshay: I started Machine Learning just before I came to IITR. My twin brother, who’s currently pursuing his undergrad in BITS Goa, introduced me to various courses on Coursera. Initially, I had no goal in my mind. Tempted by the buzz around ML, I started Machine Learning just to explore.

WO!: Despite cracking GSOC in your sophomore year, you went on to pursue research in applied Material Science. So how did you come up with the idea of using Machine Learning in Material Science?

Akshay: I started doing Machine Learning independent of my course curriculum. Until my sophomore year, I was just exploring. I did projects in Machine Learning, and I also did a couple of projects in experimental Material Science. It was after the summer of 2nd year that I thought of combining the two. I looked up some literature, looked at what people had done before in the field. I found them fascinating. The first thing that I did in this direction was to reproduce the results of a paper that I read. After that, I took up a research project with a professor in IITR, and that’s how I went ahead with the idea of fusing Machine Learning and Material Science.

WO!: Usually, after exploring development and Data Science, students, especially in IIT Roorkee, start preparing for the intern season or go for industry-oriented internships. Hardly anyone goes for a research internship or takes up a project with a professor. Do you think the notion of “Do industrial interns for getting industry roles” or something similar in the research domain is still justifiable today?

Akshay: Research projects are definitely helpful for Ph.D. admission, but the lesser-known fact is that these projects are also helpful in applying for jobs. Students usually think that in the end, it’s only competitive programming that’s important to get a job. But, having these projects positively impacts your profile while applying for jobs. I was also initially unaware of this. Some of my friends who were into research and are now going for jobs did mention how important these projects were during the interview. So whether or not you plan on doing a Ph.D., I would advise students to take up some research work in the institute just to make sure that they explore the avenue. There’s no harm in it; rather, it opens up new opportunities.

WO!: Most of the students are not quite sure about what they wish to do, whether to go for research or for jobs. So, when exactly did you decide about what you wanted to do? Also, what’s your advice for students who have explored both the fields?

Akshay: I never really thought of taking a job as an option. I have always considered pursuing higher education, and I guess this stems from the fact that both my parents have done their masters. So for me, the dilemma was whether to do an MS or a direct Ph.D. I was only able to make this decision in my final year. Until then, I wasn’t sure about what I wanted to do. After my internship at Berkeley, I was sure of my choice.

I can’t speak much about jobs because I don’t have much experience. But from what I see, there is a clear divide with a lot of people going for jobs and a very small number going for higher education. So there would be very few people who have this dilemma between taking a job or research. In this regard, I can only say that research is a really attractive opportunity. People think that there are no monetary benefits in research which isn’t true. There are a lot of companies like Apple, Google, Samsung, Pfizer, etc., that have good RnD jobs. So there are good research opportunities in almost every field. It’s just that people are not exposed to it coming in as an undergraduate. Research is a really good field in terms of money and the quality of work; also, you get to enjoy campus life, which you lose out on if you go for a job. So for me, it’s like the best of both worlds, and that’s the message I would like to put across here too.

WO!: Considering the fact that you have interned in both an Indian and a foreign university, so according to you, how is interdisciplinary research proceeding? Is it going in the right direction both in India and abroad?

Akshay: I think, especially in the area of ML applied to Material Science, in India, there aren’t many groups working on this, and even the job opportunities are bleak. The center of research, at least in this area, is mostly in the USA and Europe and for computational material science, going abroad is definitely a good option to get exposed to cutting-edge research, but also important to have and promote this interdisciplinary research in India. Right now, what I see is like in each department, there are professors working in a particular field of research, and there isn’t much intermingling between the departments in doing collaborations on interdisciplinary areas. Like I would love to see some collaboration between profs in the metallurgy department and those in CS, because the combination of this expertise would make for some really good and exciting research in these areas, so definitely I would like to see collaboration improve in the future both in other groups within the university as well as industry collaborations which are much more common in universities abroad. The project which I will be working on to start off my Ph.D. at MIT will be in collaboration with an industry in Japan. I think these kinds of opportunities are unique, and universities in India should also try and get some industry experience both in India as well as abroad.

WO!: You’ve interned in IISC, Berkeley Lab, and even grabbed the MITACS intern. First off, were they remote interns? How did you apply? and how was your experience in each of them?

Akshay: First of all, as a disclaimer, I was offered MITACS, but I didn’t take it, so it was a choice between Berkeley and MITACS. But the two internships that I ended up doing were the IISc one and the Berkeley one. The IISc internship was an in-person internship which was much before this COVID situation. I actually went there, and at that time, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do computational material science. It was an experimental research project where I had to actually prepare samples, do microscopy, etc. So that was an experience that did not directly help me towards my Ph.D.. Still, I think it helped open my eyes to some of the things that I wanted to automate in experimental material science, why certain things needed computation to actually automate them. Hence, it gave me those kinds of perspectives. Also, the facilities at IISc were great; I worked at the high-voltage engineering lab there, which had some outstanding facilities.

On the other hand, the Berkeley lab internship was fully remote because it was during the pandemic. Also, it was fully computational, the work was completely ML-based, and so it was completely the opposite of the IISc internship, but it was a great experience and unique due to the fact that I had an opportunity to collaborate with a lot of different groups within Berkley as well as outside Berkeley. So I think the key difference was the fact that this was fully computational and that it was fully experimental, and also the fact that there were a lot more diverse collaborations that I got to get involved in during the Berkeley internship.

WO!: How did you get into MIT? Like people doing their Ph.D. right after their bachelor’s isn’t something which is really common, so we wanted to know the entire story leading up to that?

Akshay: The story is pretty short. The four years led to the selection, but the final application I did in just a couple of days, I think. The application season usually starts by October, and then you are expected to submit all the applications by December. MIT, like other universities, also had an online application process that required you to submit your SOP, GRE, and TOEFL scores and everything. In that sense, it was very similar to the other applications, but some important aspects of the applications are LORs (which I think is really important), research experience and publications are definitely a big plus, and CGPA. Universities weigh all this in a way that we are not aware of, but I have heard from some of the professors in US universities that CGPA is also one of the important factors that they consider, while a low CGPA doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go for a Ph.D. It’s definitely helpful to focus on your CGPA, as that will boost your application and reduce the load on some of your other achievements because if you have a slightly lower CGPA, you would have to make up with excellent research and other things. That would put somewhat higher pressure on you to perform well in other aspects. So these were the learnings that I got through the application.

WO!:What parameters did you consider when you chose to go after Ph.D. directly rather than going for Master’s first?

Akshay: It was clear that I wanted to go for research. The mentor that I got, advised me that if I wanted to go for research, then doing a master’s wasn’t really necessary. Ph.D. itself offered many opportunities to explore various fields of research. Thus, instead of going for a Master’s first in order to explore various fields and then go for Ph.D., I decided to go directly for Ph.D. Also, I want to pursue Research & Development in either academia or industry. So, having a Ph.D. will surely expand my opportunities.

WO!: Foreign universities do provide a lot of opportunities in terms of research, what are your views on the opportunities for research in India? Especially going for a Ph.D. after completing your graduation?

Akshay: Definitely! There is a program in IITs under which students can go for Ph.D. directly after they complete their undergraduate. Also, this scheme is fully funded, so I think it is a great opportunity. So, in my opinion, Indian universities are providing Ph.D. opportunities similar to the foreign universities, but with respect to my case, the field of machine learning for materials and design, I think right now the research culture, the areas of research, and the number of people doing research are more in the European and US universities. This is why my top priority was to apply for research in universities in the US and Europe.

WO!: You’ve already published two research papers and another one is under preparation, which is certainly an amazing feat. While browsing through your Google Scholar profile, we came across a paper on COVID Scholar and Rapid Reviews, aimed to curate and accelerate COVID related research. Can you give more insight into the same?

Akshay: Yes, sure. I started doing this in the Summer of 2020, when I started my internship with Berkeley. The research group that I interned with was actually involved in using Natural Language Processing to accelerate material design. They were also using the same techniques to accelerate the review process and analysis of the COVID-19 literature. Thus, while I was working on my material science project, I also got the opportunity to contribute to COVID Scholar and Rapid Reviews. COVID Scholar is a web-based platform for aggregating and analyzing COVID-19 based literature. There were a plethora of papers that started coming out during the COVID-19 period. Most of them were preprints published on biorxiv and chemrxiv. There is no system of peer reviews to get a paper accepted in these preprint servers. When the paper is submitted to a journal, there is a full-fledged peer-review process that takes place wherein reviewers discuss the paper and decide whether or not to accept that paper. Since there were so many papers related to COVID-19 that were coming out in preprints, it was important to aggregate all of them and have them in a unified place where people could find them and analyze the trends in COVID-19 research. The large number of papers coming out in a short period of time made the Rapid Reviews system necessary. Rapid Reviews was actually an initiative by MIT, Berkeley, etc., and as a part of Berkeley, I had the opportunity to develop the web portal where reviewers review the articles. Thus both in COVID Scholar and Rapid Reviews, I got the chance to work on web development, which I didn’t have experience with before. So that was also one plus point for me.

WO!: You mentioned before that the research culture in IIT Roorkee is not up to the mark. What kind of changes do you believe the administration can undertake in order to increase the interest of students towards research and improve the opportunities provided to them?

Akshay: Currently, there are many professors in IIT Roorkee who are involved in great research in IITR in various departments. So in my undergraduate years, I had the opportunity to work with many great professors and in very good labs here in IITR. So I wouldn’t say that the research culture here is bad, but there are certain areas that do require some improvement. For example, there should be more collaborations with various departments as well as collaborations with industries and universities in India and abroad. I do understand that there are restrictions in terms of funding, but I think if steps are taken towards more collaborations, then that can do wonders for the research culture.

WO!: What is the application process to grab research interns, and what are the things you have to take into consideration?

Akshay: Most students think that applying to programs like MITACS, and S. N. Bose, and so on is the only way to get a research internship, and most of these scholarship programs also have kind of a requirement of high CGPA, so I think that one way to get research internship is by applying to these programs, but then the other thing that I think everyone should be aware of is that you can send emails to profs which you want to work with. It’s much easier, and you get really good opportunities by emailing profs with your past experience and with your CV and asking for opportunities. I wasn’t aware of this earlier in my initial years, but eventually, I also ended up doing my final internship with Berkley through emailing and not through any scholarship program. So that’s one thing I think people should keep in mind, and the other thing is that after this pandemic, there is an increasing trend of universities accepting remote interns, which wasn’t common earlier and so I think people should also be open to applying for remote opportunities especially if funding is a problem or they don’t have time to travel for the internship; so in such cases, it is definitely worth trying to ask for remote opportunities. There are also cases where this increases your chance as your stay doesn’t have to be funded, and that reduces the burden on the university to which you’re applying.

WO!: You’ve been awarded the heritage excellence award twice and the ENCORE award as well this year, so what’s your entire take on the process of this scholarship thing in IITR? Do you think it’s successful in helping students?

Akshay: Both the Heritage and ENCORE are great initiatives, I think because they encourage all-round development, so it’s somewhat of an incentive for people to do a lot of things during their undergraduate. Also, I think they both have a catchphrase as well, so that’s useful for undergraduates pursuing research where going for and attending conferences is very expensive. For me actually, I think having the cash prize from Heritage helped me also and was useful. I wanted to attend a couple of conferences, but I didn’t necessarily have a paper to present there. So in such cases, the amount of registration fees is extremely high, so in those cases, I think Heritage and ENCORE awards and all the cash prizes are very beneficial I think.

WO!: You were a member of DSG, and you’re also actively involved in tennis. Did you have any other campus engagements, and more importantly, how did you manage them?

Akshay: I wasn’t part of any other groups. Most of my time was spent either in tennis or doing research. These were the two activities I spent most of my time in. As far as time management is concerned, I tried to focus on only one thing at a time. When I’m at the tennis court, I only think about tennis, I don’t think about research or academics or anything, I guess most people in IITR are involved in some of the other activities, campus groups, sports or cultural anything, so usually, they tend to study for the exams only towards the end in the last like 2 or 3 days or something. I think that’s totally reasonable but then what helped me was that when I was in class, I used to pay attention so that I didn’t have to study as much later on. So I could focus on other engagements and at the same time maintain my grades. I know being attentive in classes is very difficult, but then it’s worth it because you don’t have to spend double the time studying the same content later on. I think that’s something I learned during the four years.

WO!: Do you still play tennis?

Akshay: Yeah definitely, I’m planning to go and play in MIT too. Tennis is something that I would never stop playing for sure.

WO!: Any experiences at IITR that you would like to share?

Akshay: One special experience was the Kedar Kantha trek with HEC in my third year. It is a unique experience because it is not very common among other universities in India to have such a locational advantage. To have a trekking group in your college that is unique to IITR, and I think everyone should try that. I had a lot of fun learning how to set up a basecamp and all. On the first day, we stayed overnight in the base camp. I think that was a very difficult experience, staying overnight because of the extremely cold conditions; water and food freeze up in such cold conditions. But the next day, we started our early ascent towards the peak, and it was kind of a whole day climb. Then in the evening, we came back and had to camp for another night, then took the descent the next day in the morning. Most of us were hesitant to camp again, and I remember spending another night there, so even though it was extremely dangerous, we decided to make the descent in the night itself even though it was utterly dark and nothing was visible. That was a crazy experience because we couldn’t see anything, and our torches ran out, and we didn’t even know the directions. But we still took the risk and somehow made it back. So yeah, I think that was one very crazy and distinguished experience during my four years.

WO!: What were your go-to places at the campus, either alone or along with your friends? Like we at Watch Out! usually used to meet at the senate steps, we had all the meetings there.

Akshay: Okay, so with the Tennis group, it’s obviously either the Tennis Court, that’s where we usually meet up and with my hostel friends, I don’t think we had a particular go-to place, but hanging around the main building and canteens were something we did very often.

WO!: Having lost multiple semesters to this pandemic, is there anything you wish you could’ve done before graduation but didn’t get a chance to? With the big list of achievements, you must have had to cut down on other fun things. Do you think you missed out on things, and if yes, do you regret it?

Akshay: I think the main thing that I would have liked to do was to be there for the farewell, both with the Tennis group and my friends.

I would have also enjoyed being a part of the organizational team for Thomso or Cognizance too. With research work and tennis, I did miss the chance. Overall, I don’t regret anything. Something that I’ll remember is that IITR gave me the opportunity to travel around all campuses in India either with friends or as part of inter IIT tennis tournaments in all four years and Udhgosh. While I did miss hanging out with certain friends, some opportunities like traveling with the Tennis team were equally fun.

WO!: The penultimate question, what are your future goals?

Akshay: I have already started my Ph.D. at MIT. I haven’t exactly decided what I’ll be doing after my Ph.D., but right now, I’m thinking of going for industrial research either in computational material science or in the pharmaceutical industry. A lot of companies like Pfizer, Novartis, and GSK – all apply ML to design drugs. So, the techniques used in ML are also very applicable in the pharmaceutical industry for any molecular design problems. I’m also open to pursuing a career in academia.

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

Akshay: I have read a lot of Watch Out! posts, especially the intern diaries and the Verbatim. I remember reading your interview with some theoretical physicists from abroad. I would love to see Watch Out! expand to podcasts ranging on various topics like sports, culture, student life, or research in the future.