IIT-B, Oxford & Now Colorado State University , The story of my experiments with Chemistry – Shree Sowndarya

  1. Briefly tell us about yourself, when did you graduate, what are you doing currently?

Hello, I am Shree Sowndarya, currently a Ph.D. student in the Department of Chemistry at Colorado State University. I had graduated from IITB in 2018 with a Bachelor’s in Chemistry, following which I pursued a Masters in Theoretical and Computational Chemistry at the University of Oxford. Here at CSU, I am working with Prof. Robert Paton majorly in the domain of Cheminformatics. 

2) What was your Motivation in going for a Masters and not a Ph.D.? (after your B.S) 

I think that Masters sets a platform where we can ‘explore’. This eventually guides one in deciding what aspects of chemistry they would want to explore and pursue. Doing a Masters also allows one to decide if they want to actually pursue a Ph.D. or work in the industry. In my case, initially, my plan was to convert to a Master’s at IITB itself as I knew I wanted to have a better background in terms of courses and research. I was sure that I wanted to work in the domain for Theoretical and Computational Chemistry – it’s super vast, I had to figure out exactly which part. This is when I stumbled upon the Master’s course which specializes in Theory and Modelling at the University of Oxford. As curriculum contained all the aspects that I wanted to explore, I gave up the idea to convert to a Master’s at IITB and started to figure out the details of the course at the University of Oxford (this involved the scholarships, etc., ) I was lucky enough to get the place in the 2019 cohort for the course and the Commonwealth Scholarship which covered my tuition and living expenses in the UK.

The Radcliffe Camera at the University of Oxford.

3) Tell us about your life during masters, any contrast you noticed between states and the UK? How are your weekends?  Friends and Social Life (also if any culture shocks)?

When I was in the UK, it was much different from what it is in the US. Oxford being a city to explore on its own, we used to walk around and learn about history, etc., Oxford was a primary tourist spot, so generally, there would be a lot of people around. Also, the university set up in the UK (at least in Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham) is different. You are a part of a college (mostly just for social life) and a department (related to work). This college structure is unique and lets you meet a lot of people within different departments. I was lucky to have a lot of friends with whom we visited Scotland and many other places in the UK.

At Lochness in Scotland
Durdle Door on the Jurassic Coast in UK

In the US, being in grad school now, I don’t stay on campus. Fort Collins is a small city in Colorado, mainly home to students of CSU and some software companies. The university campus is mainly for work and some recreational activities. Since I have friends from IITB in different places in the US, I have visited a few of them. Also, I was in the US for my intern during my third-year summer. So this place wasn’t very new and I think the transition to living in the US was rather smooth.

4) What are you currently working on? Tell us about research culture in states vs insti/India. 

I am working in the field of computational chemistry, where we primarily use computational techniques to solve problems in chemistry. The work I am doing right now is mostly similar to the work I had done as an undergraduate in IITB. Working in Prof. Sunoj’s lab helped me in gaining experience at an early stage. This also helped me decide that I wanted to pursue science in the future. As I was able to move to new places, I had learned different things from each part, and I hope all that knowledge will help me shape my research in the future.

Times Square on New Years Eve 2020

5) Apart from research work what hobbies are you still pursuing? 

Personally, I am inclined towards working whenever I have the time. I mostly just binge when I am free and want to take my mind off work.  But I do like to travel and visit new places.  I would like to explore places around Colorado and the US once the quarantine is over.  

Inside the US Capitol building, with friends from IITB.

6) What are some key takeaways you have from your experience in the UK/USA until now?

I would love to mention three things:

  1. Meeting new people and learning from each other. Be it with my Oxford cohort or the CSU cohort, I have learned a lot of things by helping one another.
  2. Experience different cultures and learn to appreciate each of them. 
  3. Learning to live independently.
The city of Bath, known for Roman-built baths in the UK, Also one of the oldest cities where the coronation of the first king took place.

7) In third-year, B.S students anyway do courses with masters students, do you feel going for masters abroad is beneficial?

This one is a tricky question. Since I found a course that specialized in my field of interest, I would say it was indeed beneficial. I would rather suggest Masters for people who would want to explore before they decide if they want to pursue a Ph.D. Also, even though you do some courses with Master’s students, you still only just get a Bachelor’s degree. Looking from the perspective of jobs, it would definitely be beneficial to have a Master’s (unless you are doing a Ph.D. – which you can do directly after Bachelor’s).

8)How fruitful was insti in shaping you as a person? 

IITB, I can say without any doubt that those were the four best years in my life. I have found friends for life and discovered what I want to do as a person. I became more human in both moral and professional sense. I chose my subject of study to be chemistry (even before IITB).  I have no regrets in doing it as I thoroughly enjoyed the process of learning chemistry at IITB. As a person, being happy with what you do is the most important thing. Since I enjoyed the process, I think I am at a place where I can march forward with no doubts.

9) What are your future plans?

Currently, I am just concentrating on my Ph.D. A lot might change in the next 4-5 years. As of now, I just say I would go with the flow and decide on what I would do in the future.  

10) Any message for students with no clue as to what to pursue as a career?

Studying at IITB definitely provides a platform to explore. I would definitely suggest working in a research lab at least for summer to gain experience and generally just to identify if you are inclined toward research. Generally, research in labs is at a higher level than what’s taught in lectures. In the first encounter, you probably would be thinking ‘ What is happening here? I don’t understand anything!’. Honestly, that was my reaction too. It is very helpful if you talk to seniors or professors. I remember I had spoken to Prof. Kaliappan (as he was one of the first professors I had interactions with because of the Department introductory course) and told him that I was interested in mechanistic studies. He had told me to talk to Prof. Sunoj and I ended up working with him for three years.  So if you have no idea about what’s happening in the department, talk to any professors, you would eventually find the place you want to work in. 

On the other side, it might happen that you are not particularly inclined towards chemistry. Though I don’t have much expertise in it to advise about what one should be doing, I’d suggest talking to people should help you figure out what you would like to pursue as a career.

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