Through the Goggles of a Graduate: Hari Ramachandran

To begin this year’s edition of Through The Goggles Of A Graduate, we have the multitalented Hari Ramachandran. Hari graduated in 2020 with a Dual Degree in Metallurgical and Materials Engineering and is now pursuing a PhD at Stanford with the Knight-Hennessy scholarship. He shares his adventures over his five years in the campus and being awarded the Governor’s Prize – dabbling in everything from entrepreneurship, to theatre, to research, to waste management projects. 

It’s been 3 months since I received my degree in the mail, 6 months since I knew I was graduating, 9 months since I vacated room 4007 in Narmada and around a lifetime since I took that left turn off of Sardar Patel road for the first time. The pandemic has affected our perception of time – days pass by excruciatingly slowly while months fly by without notice.

I’m writing this in part to recount some of the time I spent in insti, in part to pass on some nuggets of wisdom that I learnt first hand or obtained from those who came before me, and in part to seek the closure that my incomplete final semester was supposed to give me.

Fresher Pastures

To a freshie, insti is a full-frontal assault on the senses. The new sights, smells, tastes and sounds make a student’s first year a long trip outside their comfort zone. What takes even more getting used to is being faced with the idea of freedom. After the grind of entrance exams, having the option to engage in non-academic pursuits is liberating in some sense, but mortifying in another.

You can build a new you in IIT – it’s the closest I’ve ever come to having a clean slate. Having been a textbook good student until that point in my life, I decided in my first year that it was time to graze on fresher pastures (pun absolutely intended). I did something extremely uncharacteristic – I tried to startup with some of my friends.

We’d workshopped some grandiose ideas on revolutionizing waste management, pitched them at an ECell startup competition and won! In the true spirit of entrepreneurship, we decided to rechristen the “prize money” we were awarded as our “seed funding”, and we proceeded to spend the summer of 2015 working on our vision, to little avail. My tryst with waste management was a subject of great humour to one of my school teachers, who repeatedly used to tell me that I was destined to collect garbage.

Trip to Pondicherry with the Informals crew

After briefly trying my hand at all the CFI freshie events, I moved on to my second year confident that engineering was not for me and convinced that I had found my calling – PoRs. I was devising wild, impractical Saarang games with the Informals team, trying to get Virat Kohli’s email ID to invite him for a Shaastra lecture and interviewing cool alumni for Chennai36. Informals was an eccentric team that operated with the motto “no idea is a bad idea”. Nothing highlights this better than Freshie Weekender in 2016.

In an attempt to max out our recruitment, all the team members got their legs waxed – which led to massive registration for our events and a very stressful three-month spell of me being unable to wear shorts.

Working with the lectures team at Shaastra was a lot more serious and taught me a lot about writing formally, talking to big shots (such as Nobel Laureates :p) and thinking on your feet.

My second year ended with me attending a student entrepreneurship summit at Stanford University. The summit’s theme was “Technology in entrepreneurship” – it was made for me. We discussed market entry strategies with the co-founder of Whatsapp, learnt about the scope for technology in the growing South Asian marketplace from economics professors and even got to put forward a small business pitch. I came back from the summit jetlagged, full of really cool sounding startup-hustle culture-related maxims (“Don’t be the best – be the only”, and “Prioritize between learning and earning”, for instance) and a new avenue to pursue, one that I thought was at ends with the entrepreneur-PoR related profile I’d been building for myself – I wanted to engage in scientific research.

Hari 2.0

It was a confusing conclusion to arrive at, at that point in time. Research had been relegated to the “maggus” – and my CGPA had been dropping as I invested more and more time into my waste management project and in accruing fundae to climb the Shaastra-Saarang organizational ladder. Nevertheless, talking to people who knew me well reaffirmed the idea that I would feel the most satisfied while working on hardcore scientific problems. This did not mean I had to move away from entrepreneurship – my week at Stanford showed me how the two could be deeply intertwined. I made the conscious decision to rebuild myself – Hari 2.0, if you will – in the mould of a researcher.

Electronic Materials and Thin Films Laboratory, 2020

The first step was finding a guide. I lucked out IMMENSELY when Prof. Parasuraman Swaminathan agreed to let me join the Electronic Materials and Thin Films laboratory in my 5th semester. He was all I could ask for in a mentor and more – he allowed me to find my own feet in the lab while ensuring I was never lost. He encouraged me to form my own ideas and pushed me to pursue research internships abroad. The group members helped me build and refine hypotheses, and Jahanara, the graduate student I was working with, taught me the ethics of experimental research.

On Prof. Swaminathan’s advice, I spent the summer of 2018 in Purdue University and the summer of 2019 in Argonne National Lab in Chicago, working on diverse projects – nuclear detectors in the former and bacteria-sensing photonics in the latter. The people I got to work with and talk to during these interns helped me figure out how research in the US worked, and what problems excite me. 

Opening for Classical Night at Saarang 2019

As Hari 2.0 was building up the necessary credentials for a graduate application (research projects, conference posters, GRE scores, etc.), I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt at abandoning my foray into the waste management space. As luck would have it, I came to know of a research project led by  Prof. Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy (Aerospace) and Prof. R. Vinu (Chemical) on producing eco-friendly fuels from municipal solid waste. They were looking to take their product to the market and I had a good network of connections and background knowledge in that space. I joined their startup, X2Fuels and Energy Pvt. Ltd., in my fourth year. The work was super exciting for me because I got a sneak peek into what I imagined my own future to be – having developed a technological solution, we had to implement it at scale. Satya sir (or Mama, as we called him) proposed wild solutions to humanity’s great challenges, and I got a front-row seat to watch him do this.

There was never a dull moment working with him – he’d have me spend one day writing to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation about making water neutral toilets and the next at the Archeological Survey of India office, learning about the geographic features of the Deccan coastline to see if we could store steam in underground cave networks. 

The Secret Sauce

In all of the excitement and hustle-bustle that accompanied the work I was engaged in, it was the more mundane things that kept me sane. I attended mridangam classes throughout my 5 years. Music was something that gave me a lot of satisfaction and my neighbours a lot of headaches. I was asked to perform the background score for Thespian Drama club plays and the wonderfully supportive people I met encouraged me to try my hand at acting.

Auditioning for plays easily ranks among the most stressful experiences I’ve had to endure, but the practice sessions and subsequent friendships that stemmed from it made it all worthwhile. I met an incredible group of people through drams, and the long practice sessions I got to spend with them around SAC yelling my guts out still make me smile.

Finally, Schroeter Waterpolo was my even sem staple right from my first year to my final one. The core of the Mahanadi Waterpolo team (the freshie hostel I was in) ended up in Narmada with me, and we assembled every February like clockwork. The adrenalin rush that accompanied the starting whistle was unparalleled. One of my fondest memories was winning a 3rd place playoff match against Jamuna in 2017 – our keeper made a fantastic save 10 seconds prior to the end of the fourth quarter, he lobbed it long to me. I carried it forward and passed to our captain who scored as the final whistle! 

The poster for “The Nether”
The 2020 Narmada Waterpolo team

Having said all of this, my biggest takeaway from insti – the reason I got through my undergrad, has to be the friends I made. To (poorly) paraphrase Odin from Thor: Ragnarok, “Insti isn’t a place, it’s a people”. I was fortunate to have an amazing set of friends, people who made me laugh, cry and think, people who kept me afloat when things were going south and people who ensured I stayed grounded and did not lose my way – they were my greatest strength in college.

Impromptu trips to the beach, the long walks through the campus, visits to Mummy Daddy and the K Gate Chai Shop (RIP), TV binge-watching sessions, intense, one-off workouts, or even just hanging out in the corridor late at night, passing stories around, taking in deep breaths of the forest greenery that surrounded us – there’s no end to the memories.

I feel cheated in a sense – the abrupt end to my final semester meant that I did not know when the last time I got to share those memories with them. Would I have been able to deal with knowing that it was my last time? Is there a way to prepare for saying bye? I’m not sure. 

…And Thanks for All the Fish

But, dear reader, of what interest is my meandering rambling to you? What can you take from the way I spent my insti life? In true engineering fashion, I’ve condensed some of the important lessons I learnt either myself or from friends that I wish I knew earlier – a TL;DR, of sorts. These are Haristotle’s adages, in no particular order. 

1. Don’t sell yourself short. If you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else will.

Insecurity is as common as undercooked rice in insti – that’s what happens when brilliant people are put in a bubble together. Never lose sight of who you are outside the bubble – the respect and gravitas that accompanies being from an IIT is colossal.

I realized this only in hindsight – all three of my intern mentors, right from my second year to my fourth year were from IITs. The safety net that is afforded to you is huge simply by virtue of where you studied. Take advantage of that. 

2. Have that extra conversation. This was hard for me to wrap my head around, having been an introvert through school. Having said that, my most influential internship resulted from having conversations – I was introduced to my mentor at Argonne through Dr Peter Littlewood, who was a speaker I was assigned to during Shaastra 2017. 

3. Your resume should be an accounting exercise, not a marketing exercise. This particular nugget stuck with me from a senior in my second year. Find things to do that keep you fulfilled, don’t do things simply because people around you are doing them.

There is no shortage of opportunities around you, even outside the three or four conventional “peaks” that you see most people pursuing. Don’t stop trying out different things until you find what makes you happy. And don’t worry about not finding what you like doing early – see adage #1. 

4. Definitely take your thesis seriously, especially if you aren’t interested in research. You’re in IIT right now because you are superb at finding the right answer to questions – research is likely the first place where you’ll have to contend with the possibility of there not being a correct answer. It’s a scary feeling, like someone pulled the ground out from underneath you, but unfortunately, that’s how life outside of college is. Take the opportunity to face that particular demon within the safe constraints of a thesis. 

5. You are the mean of the people you spend your time with. Nowhere is this more true than college – I started hanging out with a fitness freak and I began working out, I became friends with a business-minded guy and I started up soon after.

Find traits in your friends that you admire, and aspire to emulate them. I’ve been lucky to have had several such people around me, and I’ve learnt and grown immensely just by watching them go through their lives. 

Graduation Photoshoot

Look for yourself in the forest, and you’ll be surprised at who you meet. I guess this is it for MM15B040. 

You can follow Hari on his Instagram

Editor’s Note: You can also read the other articles from this series from the years past here.

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