From Formula 1 to Nanocalorimetry

By Alec Arbia, Written Communications Assistant

Lakshmi Ravi Narayan, UConn MSE alumna (‘22), conducting experiments on chip-sensors that she fabricated in one of the clean room facilities at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

MSE alumna Lakshmi Ravi Narayan has known she’s wanted to be an engineer since she was eight years old. “I was watching Formula 1 races and thinking about how fascinating the jobs were in the garages and pit walls. As I progressed in my education and career, I became interested in manufacturing processes and the underlying science behind them, which is how I found myself in the field of materials science and engineering (MSE).”

Lakshmi received her Ph.D. in MSE in 2022, and mentioned multiple UConn professors that inspired her. “My Ph.D. advisor, Professor Rainer Hebert, showed me that research is not about the number of publications, but rather the quality and value of the work that we do. He also taught me that playing by the rules is more important than gaming the system, and that a good balance of work and life is necessary. I now know that a supervisor should be understanding, flexible, and kind, because that type of an environment brings out the best in people.”

“Professor Lesley Frame is the kind of researcher I hope to be,” Lakshmi continued. “She has such a depth and breadth of knowledge that one comes out of an interaction with her having learned so much and with renewed insight into one’s own work. She is able to see so much in a piece of data and can foresee so much even before you complete an experiment.”

Lakshmi then spoke highly of Professor Harold Brody. “He has always made me feel good about myself – even when I was a half-baked experimentalist – and that helped me a lot during my Ph.D. work. I am proud to have had one of the biggest names in the field on my committee, but I will value him most for always building me up.”

Currently, Lakshmi works for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as a foreign guest researcher. “NIST has a global reputation that is unmatched, particularly in the field of metallurgy and thermal analysis – my chosen areas of research. When I would use a method or technique and cite a NIST work for it, Professor Hebert never questioned it, and I wanted to go work at the place where the quality of research is of that caliber.”

When asked what her job typically involves, Lakshmi said, “I am at the post-doctoral stage of my career, which varies in nature from place to place. At NIST, some post-docs go on to academia after a couple of years, and their projects are short-term, but others who intend to stay pick up longer term projects. My group at NIST is now working on a few CHIPS-funded projects, and my project involves applying thermal analysis techniques to semiconductor devices – scaling down calorimetry to the nano-scale. We make the chips on which the experiment runs, the associated electronics and instrumentation, and the Labview codes to run them. Then there’s the experiment itself. This is a rather uphill path for me as I had never made chips before or encountered circuits beyond an undergraduate textbook.”

Lakshmi’s current work is something called the Nanocalorimetry project. “What we do is develop thermal analysis techniques at the nanoscale, to study the effect of rapid thermal cycling on the performance of semiconductor materials and devices. You know when you’re scrolling through instagram and your phone gets too hot, until one day it dies? That’s what we’re working to prevent.”

“It is definitely a privilege to work alongside some of the most brilliant people,” Lakshmi said regarding her favorite part of her job. “In fact, as I type this, there is a Nobel laureate in the building across the courtyard! While very arduous, the huge upskill from what I was doing before to what I can do now is very satisfying. It is indeed rare to be able to do fundamental research with all the resources at one’s disposal.”

When asked about the most difficult part of her job, Lakshmi explained, “Making chips is physically exhausting, and trying to keep up with very brilliant people in things like electronics and circuitry that are outside my ken can be hard on the spirit – but I try to focus on the kind of researcher I am going to be. That makes it alright.”

Lakshmi also mentioned several ways that interested individuals could get involved at NIST. “NIST is always seeking postdocs, but often the positions are not posted formally. That is because they can be tweaked to suit the interests of the applicant. I encourage Ph.D. students to directly contact the person at NIST who’s work seems interesting. The NRC program is open to citizens and there are postings on the website, but there are other means to be hired as well. CHIPS is looking for many postdocs to hire right away and is open to everyone. I also recommend the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) to undergraduates who would like to experience a large lab and do hands-on work, but with a healthy side of fun.”

Networking with alumni can be incredibly important for students of any major. It can provide amazing opportunities, open doors that were previously closed, and help pave the path to the career a student is striving for.

Lakshmi’s final words of advice to current and prospective MSE students are as follows: “If you are good at it, you can make a living out of it. If you are comfortable with math and don’t mind getting your hands dirty, MSE is for you.”

Published: May 15, 2024

Categories: alumni, news, post doctoral researcher

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