IOP puts the spotlight on early-career physicist

15 March 2016

The IOP has decided to give a fuller picture of its Early Career Award winners through profiles of each of them, and the third of these focuses on Dr Rahul Raveendran-Nair.

Dr Rahul Raveendran-Nair

The IOP presents three Early Career Awards each year to physicists who are in the first 12 years of their professional lives, allowing for career breaks – the Maxwell Medal and Prize, the Moseley Medal and Prize and the Paterson Medal and Prize.

In 2015 the Moseley Medal and Prize, which is given for distinguished research in experimental physics, was awarded to Dr Rahul Raveendran-Nair for “his outstanding contributions to our understanding of the electrical, optical and structural properties of graphene and its sister compounds”.

Raveendran-Nair is a Reader and Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Manchester. Among the discoveries to which his research has led are that graphene-based membranes, while impermeable to helium atoms, are highly permeable to water, and that graphene absorbs precisely πα=2.3% of incident light, where α is the fine structure constant.

We asked what first attracted him to physics and how his career has progressed so far.

How did you first become interested in physics?
Mathematics was my favourite subject during my high school years and I wanted to become a mathematician. However, priorities changed during my higher secondary school years – I had a great physics teacher there and his lectures were highly inspirational and that motivated me to explore the world of physics further.

Did you always want to study physics at university?
Of course, after my higher secondary I was 100% sure that I wanted to pursue my higher studies in physics. During my undergraduate and postgraduate studies I got many opportunities to interact with many leading physicists in India and that helped me to keep my Interest in physics.

What was the focus of your MSc (at Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala)?
I always believed that I have an inherent interest in materials physics and so in my physics MSc I specialised in materials science at Mahatma Gandhi University, which made that interest flourish further. I got opportunities to visit and be involved in some projects at India’s premier research institutes such as Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, and Raman Research Institute, Bangalore, during my master’s degree, and got excellent exposure to newer advances in nanoscience and technology, which initiated my research interests.

Your first research position was as a research assistant at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, where you conducted research on Raman spectroscopy and field emission of carbon nanotube/polymer composites. Why did you choose this field?
After my MSc I got selected to work as a project assistant under Professor Ajay Sood FRS in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. My first project with him was on Raman spectroscopy but soon he realised my interest in materials science and directed me to concentrate my work on carbon nanotube polymer composites. He provided complete academic freedom for me to design and perform this experiment. This project allowed me to explore the wonders of carbon nanomaterials, especially carbon nanotubes. During this period I was also working on another project concerning water purification using carbon nanotubes and magnetic nanoparticles. Both of these projects were successful and we published the results in academic journals. Interestingly, the latter field (water purification) has become one of my current active research fields!!

What made you want to come to the University of Manchester for your PhD? Was it the opportunity to work with Professor Andre Geim and others, or an interest in graphene, or something else?
I came to know about graphene and its properties from Prof. Sood’s lab. He was working with graphene in collaboration with the University of Cambridge at that time. After realising the potential of graphene in pure and applied science I was sure that I wanted to do a PhD in graphene. After securing a UK-India Education and Research Initiative Scholarship I got many PhD offers from various UK universities, including Cambridge. I was in a dilemma at that stage but Prof. Sood convinced me that the University of Manchester is the leading institute in graphene research and recommended me to join there with Professor Andre Geim.

Did you have to compete for the UK-India Education and Research Initiative Scholarship through which you came to Manchester?
Obviously, there was fierce competition as this was a national level scholarship. Selection was through shortlisting the applicants followed by personal interview held at the British Council office in New Delhi.

After Geim and Professor Kostya Novoselov won the Nobel Prize for Physics, there was inevitably a lot of attention focused on the department you are based in, not least from the press. Was that something that you welcomed, or was it distracting, or did it hardly have an impact on the conduct of your research?
I didn’t feel much distraction. In fact, the Nobel Prize provided more visibility for our work and helped us in progressing further.

Why do you think you were chosen to receive the IOP’s Moseley Prize?
It is hard for me to tell why I was selected. However, I was lucky that I got the opportunity to work with two world-leading scientists and that helped me to do many ground-breaking researches in two-dimensional materials and to carve my academic career.

As well as several scholarships, you have also received the Young Scientist Prize of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, and have been awarded research fellowships from the Leverhulme Trust and the Royal Society. Does it seem a tall order to live up to this record of success, or do you feel quite confident about the future trajectory of your career?
I am very optimistic and feel confident about my academic career. I am in a process of building a research group and was recently awarded a prestigious starting research grant from the European Research Commission. I hope this will help me to continue my record of success.

The IOP recently highlighted the difficulties and uncertainties that some postdocs experience. How have you found life as a postdoc, and do you think there is anything that could be done better to help people at this stage in their careers?
I really enjoyed my postdoc experience. My supervisors were considering me as their colleague rather than as research staff. This helped me to become independent in my early academic career.

Have you done any teaching at university level, and do you expect this to form a part of your career, or will you focus entirely on research?
At this stage I am mainly focusing on my research and I have only limited teaching duties because of the Royal Society Fellowship. However, I do expect more teaching in the near future and I am looking forward to that.

Have you been involved in physics communication or outreach and would you like to continue to be involved?
Sure, I have been involved in many outreach activities in the past and would like to continue to be involved. I have found outreach activities are very important to inspire or motivate young students to ignite their interest in science, which is very important to create excellent future scientists and engineers.

Do you intend to stay in Manchester, or in the UK, for some time to come, or do your plans include pursuing your career in India at some point?
My future vision is to do world-leading research and to achieve that I would like to keep my door open to all opportunities. Having said that, my current intention is to stay in the UK.