Liya, what brought you to study at Université de Rennes 1?
I first came to the university in 2011 to do the Erasmus Mundus Mamaself programme (Master’s in Material Science exploring large scale facilities). It is a two year European Master’s degree built into the framework of the Erasmus Mundus programme. The programme is made up of a consortium of 5 European universities which have a solid background in materials science and a long collaboration with large scale facilities. The students, who come from all over the world, carry out their studies in three of the universities (or in a partner institution).
I spent my first year at Université de Rennes 1, the first semester of my second year at Università di Torino, Italy and my final semester at the European neutron source, ILL based in Grenoble (a Mamaself programme partner institution). At the end of my Master’s, I had the opportunity to do my PhD at Université de Rennes 1. So in total, that’s 4 years in Rennes!
You’ve just defended your thesis in physics in Rennes. What did you work on exactly?
I guess in general I can say that, in our research, we use light (like laser light and X-Rays) to study photo-sensitive materials. We use laser light of a certain energy to change the properties of these materials and then we use laser light of a lower energy or X-Rays to detect this change. The goal is of course to understand the mechanisms and physics behind these changes of material properties under light irradiation. My fellow PhD students and I made a short film on the research in our laboratory.
Why did you decide to study abroad?
I’d had the idea of studying abroad for some time before applying for the Mamaself programme. In fact, it goes back to when I was 19 and I worked in the United States for three months. I was just doing odd jobs, but I loved the experience of living and working in another country, discovering another culture and speaking another language.
When I went back to Russia, I was a trainee researcher and continued to travel outside the country, for conferences for example. I enjoyed travelling but I wanted to live and work in another country again and this time in a scientific context.
So I started to look into the possibility of doing a study programme and found the Mamaself programme. I knew that I’d need a full scholarship and the first time I applied, I was only entitled to half the scholarship. I carried on with my research in Russia, gaining valuable experience which I was able to add to my application and a year later I was accepted with a full scholarship!
Why did you choose the Erasmus Mundus Mamaself programme?
I have a bachelor’s degree in Applied Mathematics. What interested me most of all about this particular master’s was the practical and experimental side of the degree. I wanted to orient my studies towards a more applied, or ‘real-life’ context. And of course, there was the international aspect of the degree.
What do you feel you gained from this experience?
For one thing, I gained confidence. In the large scale facilities, we manipulate large installations and our professors give us that responsibility and trust us.
It’s also an extremely motivating environment to work in. As places on the Mamaself programme aren’t easy to obtain, students are highly motivated and determined to make the most of the opportunity. I was able to discuss scientific issues with my fellow students! We were all scientists and we lived together on the campus, so we had plenty of opportunities to do that.
The international aspect is very rich too. Students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and we learn a lot about other cultures, and most importantly, we develop our culture awareness which is vital to working in an international context.
The Mamaself programme helps students to develop their leadership qualities. One example in my case would be the Gordon Research Seminar on Conductivity and Magnetism in Molecular Materials that I coorganised in Boston, USA. The aim of the GRS was to allow young scientists at the graduate student, postdoctoral level to share new results and was organised in parallel to the Conductivity and Magnetism in Molecular Materials Gordon Research Conference (GRC). The Gordon Research Conference (GRC), held in Boston, is an internationally renowned event where scientists come together to discuss their pre-publication research.
Was the experience of studying in France very different to Russia?
Yes! In France, we have more autonomy and can organise our schedules more easily. The gap between professors and students is wider in Russia.
Your English is excellent! And how about your French?
When I was a Mamaself student, I didn’t get much opportunity to practice my French. We study in English and I spent a lot of time with fellow students from all over the world and our common language was English. In the three years as a PhD student, I made a lot of progress in French as I worked with French native speakers in the laboratory.
So what are your plans now?
I’m considering doing a post-doctorate in another country. I’m not sure I want to go into industry for the moment. I’ve thought about Poland or Scandinavia. It depends on the opportunities in my field of research in fact. In physics, there aren’t as many opportunities as, for example, in biology or chemistry.
But first I’m going to take a break with my Mamaself friends as the last few months have been very intensive!
During your PhD, were you and Liya working in similar subject areas?
Broadly speaking, we were both in the nanosciences group. But her focus was different. I’m more focused on studying nano confinement phenomena. What we basically study is the structure and dynamics of liquids in nanoporous media. I worked with soft matter and she was more focused on crystallography.
Did you work in the same laboratory?
The term laboratory is sometimes used as an institute and sometimes as really the laboratory in which you work. So if we’re talking in the terms of laboratory, the Institut de Physique de Rennes, IPR (UMR CNRS-Université 6251), yes, it was the same place but we worked in totally different scientific fields. We weren’t using the same facilities other than for general things such as chemistry lab work.
Did you work on similar topics during the Mamaself programme?
Yes. We studied in Université de Rennes 1 for the first year and basically took the same courses. Of course, we chose different topics for our summer internship and in fact we did our PhD in the same labs where we did our internships, in the same research groups more or less.
In Turin, we had one semester together which was the study semester. The fourth semester of the Mamaself programme is for research work so that was separate. I worked in the department of chemistry with professor Silvia Bordiga and Carlo Lamberti working in crystalline matter, but focused on some different sorts of phenomena, making some new (experiments on) materials like metal organic frameworks, or zeolites, or studying the spectroscopic phenomena associated with it and how they behave in the presence of certain gases in the environment, the catalytic properties and so on. In Grenoble, Liya was working on something completely different related to DNA structure. Once again the research interests were different, but we were in the same academic structure.
What made you decide to do the Erasmus Mundus Mamaself programme?
Back home in my university, the University of Delhi, undergraduate studies don’t take place in the main university faculty but in colleges. I was in one which was called Bhaskaracharya College of Applied Sciences. In my department, the department of polymer science, there was a kind of tradition that the best students went to Europe, either with a scholarship or without, depending on how well they did. Erasmus mundus is well-known in my university. We get to know about Erasmus mundus and then browse for various master’s programmes. I was interested in materials sciences and heard about the Mamaself programme through a student in my department who’d followed the programme in 2009/10, and some others such as FAME, Functionalized Advanced Materials & Engineering. I decided to apply for the Mamaself programme as I’d had a good introduction to it.
As I’m a foreigner leaving my country to study, I really concentrated on choosing the right content. Indeed, there are material science courses all over Europe but the Mamaself programme is very different. It’s a big collaborative programme. It’s made up of 5 European partner universities and lots of partner institutions, so it’s a big network. And even if, during my entire master’s, I only went there twice, it’s a great opportunity to have access to large scale facilities. At master’s level it’s almost impossible, even in developed countries which have these facilities. They don’t exist in developing countries, or they do but they are under-developed.
The Mamaself programme was very focused. It provided a broad range of topics for us to study which were specific to using these kind of facilities. We were given lectures on solid state physics, crystallography, quantum mechanics, which are essential to understanding the basics of how these large scale facilities work. That was my main motivation for the Mamaself programme. And Université de Rennes 1 was the only university, at least at that time, which provided courses at a more fundamental level.
What do you plan to do now?
I’d like to become a permanent researcher somewhere where I can be broadly in my field but not do exactly the same research work. I’d like to extend it to another level. Now I’m working with small molecules but I’d like to expand it to liquid crystals, polymers or some specialised gels. So I’m trying to find some post doc positions.
What’s the difference between research in India and research in Europe?
Research establishments are much more mature in Europe compared to India. These establishments have emerged very gradually. Obviously, the funding is higher in Europe. The percentage of GDP that countries invest in research is much more in Europe (3 % of their GDP compared to 0.8% in India). There’s a long tradition of research. In India, the situation is a little bit different. After Indian independence in 1947, building a research infrastructure there, in spite of poverty and infrastructure problems, was a big challenge. I’m happy that they’ve achieved a lot. Research work in top labs is almost comparable to that in Europe. But there’s still a long way to go in terms of development.
In terms of funding, you don’t need so much to keep research going. The difficulty is the equipment. The equipment required is worth between 200 00 and 500 000 euros. This equipment needs to be maintained in order to last 20, 25 years, or more. Buying expensive equipment and maintaining it requires a lot of money.
I think in terms of attitude, things are changing there. A lot of people who studied in Europe or in the US come back with the same kind of research ethics and ways of working, and they are keen to collaborate.
Is it difficult for an Indian student to study abroad?
It’s very common to go abroad, particularly to the US, UK, Australia, Canada. And you don’t need to be one of the best students. Indian students can usually get into good American universities quite easily. In general, we’re used to working very hard. Resources are limited and we’re used to competing from a young age. Even students who are not so good when they go to the US do pretty well there because the education system, especially in terms of ‘thinking’, boosts them.
Do you have a very good education system in India?
Although it faces a lot of criticism for being based on rote learning and not being particularly innovative, I don’t think it’s a failure. I fitted quickly into the French education system and it’s the same for students going to the US. They generally excel there, find jobs and PhD positions.
Somehow, in North America or Europe, students are given more motivation and confidence. My professors here trust their students. This kind of mentorship, which is very positive, really helps.
Is life in France very different to India?
Life seems more organised here. The people are calmer and less agitated in France. In some ways it’s ideal.
In India things are more colourful and bustling! That’s something I miss. In summer, the cities are empty in France! In India there’s a big sense of celebration because there are many different religions and they all like to celebrate their festivals all year round.