Assistant professor Sourabh Saha joined the Woodruff School the summer of 2019 and is still getting settled in as he adjusts to life on campus in the heart of Atlanta. In this Q&A he talks about his path to Atlanta, the motivations behind his research, and what drew him to Georgia Tech.
Where are you from and how did you end up at Georgia Tech?
I'm originally from India and I did my undergrad at IIT Kanpur, then I moved to MIT for my PhD. All of my degrees are in mechanical engineering. For the last four years, I had been working at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, first as a postdoc and then as a member of the technical staff. I started here at Georgia Tech this summer. Being in academia was always my plan and I was searching for a place that values hands on engineering, fundamental science, and at the same time, is focused on making an impact on the world. I knew little about Georgia Tech when I interviewed here. And when I interviewed, it felt like the right place for me, so that's why I'm here.
Why did you choose a career in academia?
I chose a career in academia for two specific reasons. The first one is the type of research that I can do. The type of research that I can do here is focused on long-term impact and not just on short-term profit-making goals. Then there is the broad impact aspect, which is where the work is not just for a very specific mission, but is broadly applicable. And another important aspect is the intellectual freedom, which is being able to choose the problems that I want to work on. And that's not quite possible in industry or national labs. And the second part really is the training opportunities- being able to train the next generation of the workforce. Students here at Georgia Tech are very excited to learn new things. You wouldn't get that excitement in the industry workforce, or even with partners at national labs. It's exciting to work with that kind of people on a day in day out basis.
Who has influenced you in your career?
My research mentors, starting from my internship during undergrad, my Master's research advisor at IIT Kanpur and then my PhD advisor at MIT. All three of my research advisors had an influence on my career. In addition to that my parents had a strong influence on my career trajectory. My mom is a retired school teacher and my dad is an electrical engineer and I have now merged teaching and engineering in my career.
What are you teaching this semester?
This semester I'm teaching ME 3210. It's a required undergraduate class in mechanical engineering and it's on manufacturing. The way I'm teaching it is for students to role play as real world engineers and to learn how to make good engineering decisions within the context of manufacturing.
What is your research area? My research is in the area of manufacturing, and specifically focusing on scaling of advanced manufacturing processes. It involves building tools and generating process knowledge to scale up the fabrication of micro and nano scale structures for use in real world applications.
Why did you get interested in this particular field?
So, I was always interested in making things and that got me into manufacturing for my graduate education at IIT Kanpur back in India, and even in my PhD program at MIT. But the focus of my current research, which is on scalability and making sure we have the manufacturing technology to bring ideas from research labs to the real world- that focus started really, in my PhD, due to personal reasons. And the personal story there is that due to a death in the family, I realized what we do in the research labs could literally save lives. Ironically, I was working on the exact same thing that could have saved a life, which was on early cancer detection. But at that time, we lacked the manufacturing technologies to really bring that solution from a lab bench to someone who could use that. And that pushed me in the direction of needing to make sure there are advanced manufacturing technologies that can be used to make products that people on the street can go and buy in a store. It's not just confined to one lab.
So the goal is to scale up and bring these manufacturing technologies to the market?
Yes- to the market and to the end user, and making an impact on people, not just focusing on understanding the basic science, but actually using it for applications.
What research projects are you going to be working on here?
I'm excited about two research projects that I'm working on right now. The theme of both of these projects is predicting pattern formation in manufacturing processes. The first project is on nanoscale additive manufacturing, which involves making complex 3D structures with nanoscale features. We recently scaled up the process and are doing pretty good in terms of throughput and resolution . But we are not doing very good in terms of predictive capability. If I want a specific structure, I don't necessarily know how to tune the parameters to get there. I want to understand this process better to a point where I can predict this process and tell you what the inputs should be for whatever your desired structure is.
The topic of the second project is self-organization or self-assembly, which could be as simple as the wrinkling of clothes, but finely tuned to generate features on the micro and nano scale. And the problem there is that it's very easy to make these structures, but very difficult to predict the inputs that would generate your desired structure. Again, similar themes, but then the physics of the two processes are fundamentally different. The goal here is to answer how do we generate and analyze new process knowledge about self-organization to a point where you can predict the inputs that give you a particular structure.
How many students do you plan to have working in your lab?
The guiding principle here is that I don’t want to treat my graduate students as an extra pair of hands. They're really going to be encouraged to take ownership of their own projects. So, the number of students will scale with the number of projects that I have. At the same time, I need to make sure that I can give them individual attention and guidance and mentoring. So that puts an upper bound on the number of students that I can have. At this time I do not know the right number for me, but I have started with one graduate student in my group.
What is the biggest challenge of being a new Professor on campus?
The closest analogy I can come up with is that being a new professor on campus is like trying to jump on to a moving train. That has been the biggest challenge. Academia is an enterprise where professors do a lot of different things. On the same day, you could be a teacher, you could be a mentor to your graduate students, could be a fundraiser, or just presenting to the external world what you're doing, and doing all of these things on a daily basis is not something that I've done in the past. I've done all of these things, but not necessarily on the same day or even in the same week. So that's a challenge. Our senior faculty seem to be pretty good at this, so I'm trying to ramp up to that. They have given me something to aspire to.