“I want to do research, but where do I start?” – Guide to get started by Valay Agarawal

Editor’s remark: Valay is presently a senior undergraduate and the ex-DAMP coordinator. This article elucidates his research journey. We hope many juniors would gain insights into research through this. 

Written by: Valay Agarawal (valayagarawal@iitb.ac.in)

I have had a very strong interest in chemistry and have changed my branch from mechanical engineering to chemistry right after the first year.

How it all started?

My prominent interest at the beginning of the second year was in the field of Organic Chemistry, especially in the area of total synthesis. This included building a retro-synthesis of a large molecule and breaking it into simple molecules that can be later connected in an efficient manner. This puzzle-like nature of the field has always captured my interest and as a result, I decided to work in this field with Prof. K.P.Kaliappan.  

Since it was my first experience in an experimental research lab, a lot of my time went into learning the techniques of the lab and a lot of reading to prevent any mishaps, since safety is the first and foremost priority of any experimental laboratory. I worked with a couple of Ph.D. students. While I could not work on a new project initially, after some time, I was asked to work on a new project. The training period helped me to understand the nuances of experimental chemistry and how things can go sideways easily unless being extremely vigilant. This helped me to be more aware of my surroundings and being more ready for any situation in real-life as well. Apart from the academic benefits of being better at my organic chemistry courses, it helped me to appreciate the organic chemistry, being more than just science, and also reading history helps to understand the efforts given by people over time. This work and relation with Prof. Kaliappan helped me to get another internship at the University of Chicago

New Interests

After working for about a year and a half in organic chemistry, I switched to statistical mechanics. I grew the fascination for the subject around the end of my second year after doing a course in statistical mechanics. I really enjoyed the course and decided to try my hand at research on the same with Prof. Rajarshi Chakrabarti. I worked in the theoretical statistical mechanics. This experience taught me to read new topics, and not understand many things, keep struggling, and still go on. Honestly speaking, mathematics was never my strong subject, but this project allowed me to overcome the fear that I can’t do mathematics. Through a continuous effort, I was able to get something inside my head and do work. 

Switching Again

I worked in statistical mechanics for one semester. After that, I switched to Theoretical Molecular Science with Prof. Rahul Maitra. I did this for two reasons. To venture in the uncharted territory(for me) of Quantum Chemistry and Computers. I had only studied quantum chemistry in two courses in the chemistry department, both of which talked about relatively simpler theories. The second was to start working in an area which required coding which even though is one of my weak points, taken up as a challenge by me. This project helped me to develop perseverance in coding. Honestly speaking, the only experience in coding I had before starting the project was that of doing poorly in CS101 and that too in C++, whereas I use python for my project. And now I had to switch all my work on a computer, which was a big challenge for me. Apart from that, my current work included studying mathematical topics, which I had never heard before in my life. Both of these things combined presented themselves as an unscalable peak. However, this is period taught me to overcome my fear, and that the only way to get things done is to get started. As cliche as it sounds, it did really work for me and is still working.

I started my project by writing a ‘Hello World’ program in python. Over time, I have gotten better, and that’s the only way to go ahead. I still get stuck in small things, but the perseverance I have learned through the project still keeps me going. Mathematics offered another challenge since I was not familiar with the field. However, good reading and studying habits helped me to get started and got better. Using these habits, I have been able to rejuvenate my interest in music, literature, and philosophy. 

In Retrospect

My motive for writing this article is not to inform about the fields that I have worked on, or what I have achieved academically. This is to have a conversation, about what one feels when starting and getting stuck during research. Some of the readers might be wondering whether to start research during 2nd year or 3rd year and may be unsure about the success they might be able to achieve in the field. To this, I would say, if I can start with no knowledge of coding, and bare minimum physics and mathematics (the only three things required in the work), you have a fair shot at your research topic. 

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