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'Academia gives you the freedom to try new ideas and the urge to keep learning'

Faculty Interview - Prof. Saurabh Lodha 

Prof. Saurabh Lodha, professor at Electrical Engineering department at IIT Bombay has received the Young Career Award in Nano Science & Technology (2020), Swarnajayanti Fellowship(2016-17)  by DST among many other recognitions. His research interests span the areas of CMOS process integration and device physics, 2D materials and devices, molecular devices, metal-semiconductor interfaces and wide bandgap power devices. He has co-authored over 120 papers in peer-reviewed international journals and conferences. We are honored to interview him today.

1. You’ve been awarded many awards and recognitions throughout your career. How did you feel when you got these numerous recognitions, and how did it help you grow?

I think that the awards are a recognition of the efforts of many people, especially the students who have worked with me, the lab staff, the department and the Institute. I try to remind myself, every time the work of my research group gets recognized, to not lose sight of the science behind it and to continue learning new and re-learning old things from the basics. This has helped me explore new areas and research problems, and also collaborate with scientists the world over. 

2. You are one of the leading scientists in the field of advanced transistors. You have worked with many researchers and scientists around the world. Is there anyone you consider your mentor/inspiration and who has influenced you as a person and scientist?

Several of my teachers and colleagues have inspired and mentored me during my career. I would like to mention Prof. Juzer Vasi, who was my B. Tech thesis advisor more than 20 years ago and now my colleague at IIT Bombay for his meticulous and multi-tasking approach.  Also Prof. Supriyo Datta at Purdue University who inspired with  his technical depth and breadth and lucid teaching style, and my mentor at Intel, Dr. Seok-Hee Lee (currently CEO of SK Hynix) who trained me on engineering problem solving, especially under pressure with tight timelines. Interacting with students in class and in my research group, also influences me both as a person and a scientist on a day-to-day basis.

3. You were awarded the Young Career Award by DST for your contributions in development of logic transistor technologies beyond silicon and nanoelectronic devices based on two-dimensional Van der Waals materials. You were working closely with Applied Materials Inc – the world’s largest semiconductor equipment manufacturer for approximately eight years on the project. Could you please explain the project in layman’s terms and what are its applications in real world.

The project with Applied Materials explored the feasibility of transistors based on Germanium (Ge), instead of conventional Silicon, to enhance the performance (higher speed) of future microprocessor chips that can be used in servers, PCs, laptops and mobile phones. We explored different Ge transistor designs as well as materials and processes employed in their fabrication using some of Applied Materials’ advanced production and R&D equipment. The project involved extensive experiments as well as simulations. On the other hand, two-dimensional van der Waals materials, such as graphene, offer the possibility of scaling transistors in future electronic chips to ultra-thin dimensions (~1 nm) for low power consumption (longer battery life). We demonstrated solutions to some of the fundamental bottlenecks in fabricating transistors using ultra-thin 2D materials.

4. Would you like to elaborate on your Swarnajayanti Project ‘ High-speed 2D electronic and optoelectronic devices’?

The Swarna Jayanti project is based on exploiting the rich physics offered by 2D materials such as graphene and its analogues for realizing technology-relevant high frequency RF transistors as well as visible and infra-red photodetectors. The project involves material growth as well as transistor and photodetector fabrication and characterization. We are exploring some new ideas that involve suspending these materials across metal contacts/cavities (like a bridge), stacking different kinds of 2D materials on top of each other  (like Lego blocks) and integrating nanometallic structures on top to enhance performance.

5. Can you share one breakthrough moment in your research career which was an Eureka moment? It could even be the most memorable moment you had in your career, ever since you were a Ph.D. student in Purdue or a professor here at IIT Bombay.

After about a year of joining IIT Bombay, the first experimental result that we got on making low resistance contacts on Ge was the memorable moment, for it was a simple and elegant idea that we had attempted. It also laid to rest my apprehensions about being able to start my own experimental research group in India.

6. What are some notable researches done by your colleagues that you admire?

My colleagues and collaborators are carrying out excellent work in diverse areas. At IIT Bombay, Prof. Ashwin Tulapurkar’s work on spintronic devices and Prof. Udayan Ganguly’s research on neuromorphic computing are noteworthy. Amongst my collaborators, I find Prof. Siddharth Rajan’s work on wide bandgap devices at Ohio State University and Prof. Peter Steeneken’s work at TU Delft on optomechanical sensors quite fascinating.

7. Being a senior member of the IEEE, such a coveted society in this field- must have helped you gain insight into many things, even as simple as research papers, during their numerous conferences. You have also co-authored over 120 papers in peer-reviewed international journals and conferences. Do you have any advice for someone writing and wanting to publish a paper now? Any common mistakes you’ve noted that they can avoid?

Paper writing according to me is very much like telling a story with an interesting plot and setting (background). It should cover previous work and state-of-the-art well and discuss the results in detail with a future outlook, instead of simply reporting data. With a large number of papers being published, it is also important to benchmark your results against published literature. I typically work on the figures and benchmarking first before writing the text of a manuscript.

8. Are there any significant changes you have noticed in your field of research since the time you joined? 

 One significant change in the last decade is an explosion of journals in the research areas that I work in, making it harder to choose the most appropriate one for publication. Increasingly one also sees more collaborative papers being published. In the Indian scenario, there is a stronger push to convert fundamental scientific research into industry-ready technologies, products and start-ups. 

9. You’ve studied in IIT Bombay as well as Purdue University. Were there any key differences between studying in India, vs studying abroad? In this aspect is there something you would like to improve at IIT Bombay?

When I joined Purdue after my B. Tech at IIT Bombay, I noticed a substantial difference in the emphasis on research and research infrastructure. However this difference has reduced by a large amount in the last 10-15 years. Purdue being a university offered greater exposure to non-science and engineering schools, one could audit courses in foreign languages or international films, for example. While Purdue was richer in student diversity, especially at the masters and PhD levels, the undergraduate peer group and experience at IITB is very rich and unique. 

10. Is there any professor during your B.Tech at IITB who inspired you to build your career in academia? And any advice for students that may motivate them to take up research instead of jumping on to the corporate bandwagon without much thought.

I was inspired by Prof. Vasi to come back to Indian academia, who once mentioned to me that while I could be one of many semiconductor experts abroad, it is possible to have a larger impact in India being one amongst a few. For students, I would say that if the freedom to try out new ideas and the urge to keep learning new things interests you then academic research is a good place to be, although a stint with corporate R&D can certainly help in bringing more focus and discipline to your research.