From MSE Graduate to Professor in Materials Science Innovation

By Alec Arbia, Written Communications Assistant

Professor Rohit Batra, UConn MSE alum (‘19) and current assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.

UConn alum Rohit Batra suspects that he may have been unconsciously influenced to enter the field of materials science and engineering (MSE) by his father having owned a small electroplating plant when he was a child. “Seeing him work around several day-to-day items based on metals, and processing them to appear fancy and useful, did impact my decision.”

Batra received his Bachelor of Technology in metallurgical and materials engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee in 2011 before deciding to pursue his Ph.D. at UConn. “A couple of seniors in my undergraduate institute were pursuing their Ph.D. under Professor Rampi Ramprasad at UConn. Before even applying, I talked to them and learned about their experiences and possible future opportunities. They motivated me to apply under Professor Ramprasad as well. After my undergraduate and before starting my Ph.D. I did explore industry for around three years. However, I did not enjoy my work and decided to go for a Ph.D. instead– where I could gain more technical knowledge and train myself to solve more technically challenging problems.”

Batra holds Professor Ramprasad, his Ph.D. advisor who now teaches at Georgia Tech, in very high regard, along with several other faculty members. “I found professors at UConn to be quite approachable, knowledgeable and very helpful. I had good discussions with several of them both on the professional and personal level.”

During the pursuit of his Ph.D., Batra enjoyed learning different skill sets and using them to solve challenging technical problems. “I picked up computational methods to simulate materials (such as DFT, MD simulations) as well as machine learning based methods. I enjoyed how I can use these methods to understand some of the mysteries of nature – the intricate interactions between atoms happening at the micro-scale but resulting in the macroscopic behavior that we see with our eyes. I also loved how I can use these methods to design or discover new materials that can solve the demands of the future, such as generation or storage of clean energy, sustainable polymers, etc.”

Currently, Batra works as an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. He explained that his job involves three different realms of responsibility: teaching, research, and administration. “Under teaching, I teach core courses (theory or labs) and also design new elective courses that allow students to be more aware of the current research activities or perhaps become more employable. For instance, after joining IIT Madras, I floated my elective course titled “Machine Learning in Materials Science”, in which I cover several aspects of how AI/ML methods are being used to accelerate the process of discovery and design of new materials for several applications. Under research, my job is to train students at various levels (PhD, MS, M.Tech, B.Tech) to carry out research projects. This involves meeting with them regularly and advising them on how to conduct research and how to communicate their results. This also involves traveling to conferences to communicate my research and find new projects and collaborations. Under administration, I perform several department or institute activities to ensure smooth functioning. For instance, I am part of a committee responsible for Ph.D./MS admissions interviews. We also have a facet regarding the mental well-being of our students, and as part of that I meet with about twenty students every month to listen to their various issues.”

Batra proceeded to explain his personal teaching style. “I like my classes to be interactive, and therefore while teaching I pose lots of questions to the class. I only move forward with a topic after students answer my questions. I use a mixture of presentation slides, hand-written lecture notes, software programming codes, video links, etc. In my elective I do not conduct an exam but only grade based on project and assignments. I also conduct a few interesting and graded class competitions such as technical pictionary or buzzer games to make class fun. Students seem to enjoy activities like that a lot.”

Professor Batra and his team at The Materials Informatics Lab

At his institute, Batra leads a research group called The Materials Informatics Lab. “We try to use data driven methods coupled with materials computations to find new materials. Specifically, we develop ML/AI methods to accelerate discovery of materials. For instance, we are working on a project to find new polymer electrolytes that have Li-ion conductivity and could possibly help resolve the safety issues concerning present Li-ion batteries in the market. In another project we used ML/AI methods to come up with a new class of non-intuitive and unusual peptide sequences that show b-sheet self-assembly. Such peptide materials could be useful for catalysis, drug-discovery, or metal recovery applications. Similarly, we are working on projects that involve the discovery of high temperature shape memory alloys and AI-driven autonomous materials laboratory for thin films.”

When asked what the most rewarding part of his job is, Batra mentioned two different aspects. “Firstly, I feel very happy when my students get offers from a good industry or academic institute. I get to share their joy and that is one of the most rewarding experiences. Second, when you do a good job as a professor, students really respect you from their heart. I also find it very rewarding when students genuinely respect you for the hard work you have put into their training.”

Batra then elaborated the impact of working with students on his personal research and outlook on life. “Teaching is the best form of learning. Because students are new and still learning, they ask questions from several different angles. This mere interaction with them forces you to think about technical concepts and research from several perspectives, which ultimately enhances your understanding of the topic and makes you a better researcher. I also find it interesting that this job allows you to interact with students from various backgrounds, cultures, upbringings, and personalities. I would like to believe that closely interacting with such a diverse crowd makes you a more open, humble, and good human being.”

When asked what advice he has for current MSE students, Batra said the following: “There is a lot of scope in this field. There are many materials challenges that need to be solved to meet future energy and sustainability goals. Try your best to grasp the fundamental aspects of this field, to do projects in research groups that allow you to get hands-on experience on what research is being conducted and how the concepts you learn in your coursework are utilized. If possible, along with MSE also try to gain basic software programming and ML/AI knowledge. These skills are becoming quite important and will allow you to do even better work in the field of MSE.”

“Overall,” Batra concluded, “I really enjoyed my time at UConn. Some of the friends I made at this school are life-long and I’m still in touch with them, even after moving to India. I feel that UConn provides a good learning environment for international students.”

Published: May 29, 2024

Categories: alumni, computation, news, research

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