It was on 9 April 2006 that Priyank Vijaya Kumar took the first step along the path leading to working in the world’s leading research group in the field of materials science. This was the date when he passed the entry exam for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chennai, India’s top engineering school. Every year 300,000 applicants sit the admissions exam. Only 5000, or barely two percent, are accepted - and Kumar was one of them.
He spent two years studying hard for the exam. This involved extra physics, maths and chemistry tuition every day. Despite the hard slog, Kumar has fond memories of this period: "That’s when I got to know some of my best friends," he explains. "We were all very ambitious, worked very hard, but still had a lot of fun together". For example, whenever the study group met in the evening for a game of cricket in the streets of Bangalore, the city of 8 million people in which the son of bank manager parents grew up.
Priyank Kumar actually has to thank his older brother Pavan for being accepted into IIT. He was the one who encouraged Priyank by instilling a passion for maths at an early age and giving him extra tuition outside school hours. After Pavan failed the entry exam for IIT, he placed all his hopes in his brother - a smart move, as it turned out.
No idea about metallurgy
At the age of 18, Kumar moved from Bangalore to Chennai, a city on India’s south-east coast, an eight-hour bus journey from home. He originally wanted to study electrical engineering. However, he had to register for the metallurgy and materials science course, since study places at the IIT are allocated on the basis of the results of the admission test. Kumar’s exam result was not good enough for computer science - the most popular course of study - or for electrical engineering.
"I had absolutely no idea what metallurgy involved and what to expect of my course," he recalls. But when he found out that his studies went much further than simply learning about processes for manufacturing metal from iron ore, and that mathematics was a core skill for this discipline, his interest was aroused. Another important aspect was the fact that two young professors started working at his institute around that time. They were very interested in mathematical solutions in material sciences. "After the lectures finished, they usually showed us computer-based simulations and explained the necessary codes and programming. I immediately thought to myself "Wow, I want to be involved in something like that as well!"
Kumar then had the chance to do so while on a three-month internship with the National Aerospace Laboratories in Bangalore, India’s leading research centre for civil aerospace. In the Department for Computer-based Fluid Dynamics, he learned how to use programming languages such as Matlab and Fortran, and started to program simulations himself.
After completing his studies, Kumar only had one ambition: to build up his knowledge in this area, preferably through a post as doctoral assistant abroad. He sent off 10 applications to American universities. After being turned down by Stanford, Princeton and Ohio, he started to think that he would never win a place at a good university. But out of the blue he received an offer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, America’s most famous engineering school. His wildest dreams had come true.
Spotlight on graphene oxide
At MIT, Kumar was part of the research group led by Professor Jeffrey C. Grossmann. This group explores new materials for energy transmission and storage, for photovoltaics, thermal electrics, hydrogen storage and the production of solar fuels. Over the course of five years, the doctoral assistant focused mainly on the characterisation of graphene oxide, a precursor of graphene, a two-dimensional molecular matrix with a honeycomb structure.
"My greatest success was providing proof of a previously unknown phase transition when graphene oxide is gradually heated." Priyank Kumar, materials scientist at ETH Zurich
When Kumar started his research back in 2010, there was a keen interest in graphene because of its unique electrical, chemical and physical properties: it is extremely tough (as strong as diamond), but still flexible. It has exceptional load distribution in the molecule, is a good conductor and under certain conditions is capable of generating very strong pseudo-magnetic fields.
"My greatest success was providing proof of a previously unknown phase transition when graphene oxide is gradually heated," explains Kumar. In this process, the oxygen atoms are arranged in a regular pattern, thereby improving the material’s optical and electronic properties. This phase transition can be used in two different areas of application: to improve the conductivity of electrodes and for efficient cell isolation in biology.
The appeal of top European universities
It was at MIT that Kumar met his current wife, also a materials scientist. After completing his doctoral thesis, it was she who persuaded him to apply for a post in Switzerland. "My wife is Italian and loves Europe. So, she was keen to move back," he says. He decided to go for the ETH and EPFL, as he thought they were Europe’s top two universities in his field of research.
Since August 2015, he has been working as postdoctoral fellow in the research group led by ETH Professor David Norris. This group has a reputation for ground-breaking research in the area of optical material properties and the possibilities of modifying them in a systematic manner to produce materials with completely new properties not found in nature.
Searching for new forms of photocatalysis
Kumar is currently working on new forms of photocatalysis. He is exploring ways of catalysing chemical processes through light rather than heat. These processes are fundamental to new technologies for producing renewable energy, such as the manufacture of hydrogen catalysed by sunlight. "Photocatalysis, directly on metallic nanoparticles, is still a relatively new field with many unknowns," Kumar explains.
To run simulations of photocatalytic processes, Kumar needs extremely powerful computers, such as the ETH’s "Euler" cluster. He says the centralised, well-maintained infrastructure is extremely important for his work. It’s also more efficient than the set-up at MIT, where each research group maintains its own computer cluster. On top of that, he finds it more relaxing working with his colleagues in Zurich. "The competitive atmosphere at American universities is motivating, but at times can be demanding." He also sees differences in the area of collaborations with industry. In Boston, hardly a day went by without some company presenting itself on the campus to try and recruit students or establish research partnerships. "You become increasingly aware of the commercial aspect of your research and are more eager to find suitable applications," Kumar says. "At ETH, the fundamentals are far more important."
Proud of his Indian roots
Today Kumar lives with his wife in Uster. She works as a postdoc at the University of Zurich. Doesn‘t he miss India and his family’ Since working in Zurich, he feels a little closer to his parents in Bangalore, he says. He visits them three times a year, and often his extended family as well: counting all his cousins, nephews and nieces this can be as many as two hundred people. Twice a year the big family gets together and travels to the countryside in two rented buses - to play games, dance, eat and have fun, and for excursions to Hindu temples. Kumar loves such communal rituals.
Kumar has never felt an outsider in Europe. Even during his exchange semester in Stuttgart and his internship in Italy with the automaker Ferrari, he has always received a very warm welcome. He is now as much of Europhile as his wife, he says. He is particularly amazed by the incredible diversity in such a small space. And he sees a lot of similarities with his own country of birth: "Both have a wonderful cultural heritage stretching back many centuries."
For his next career step, he has his eye on a professorship - at a European university, of course. Does he fancy an appointment at ETH? "Teaching posts at ETH are extremely popular and the selection process is very tough," he observes. "First, I would probably have to acquire some experience at other universities before I’m ready for the challenge."