Science

An Engineer Who Optimises in Electronics as Much as in Life

“People ideal for research are those who don’t care too much about money. You need a life which is okay for you and where you feel comfortable. That defines the level of financial strength you need in your life.”

Maryam Shojaei Baghini. Credit: Nandita Jayaraj/TLoS

Maryam Shojaei Baghini. Credit: Nandita Jayaraj/TLoS

The Life of Science – “People think engineering is something that is already developed, something that you just need to blindly apply. It’s not like that at all. Engineering requires the development of science and its own research. It’s not just a routine work like most people think,” says Maryam Shojaei Baghini. She came to IIT Bombay as a post-doctoral fellow in 2001 from her home in Iran. Over the next few years, Baghini impressed IIT as much as the institute impressed her, and she decided to take up the offer to stick around.

Today, as a professor in the electrical engineering department, Baghini is researching techniques to improve the performances of electronic devices. She uses her technology to create better practices not just for the electronics industry but also in society.

For example, her lab develops soil sensors for farmers to optimise how they use their water, especially for irrigation, based on factors like soil nutrients, pH, temperature and moisture. The paper where this project is described won Baghini the Richard Feynman Prize for the best paper published in this journal in 2013.

Her fascination with electronics began early. “Even in primary school, I liked devices that worked with electricity,” she recalls. “An uncle of mine had a habit of opening instruments and then rebuilding it by himself. I was always sitting adjacent to him and looking at how he’s doing this.”

Making better devices

One of the major research problems Baghini is trying to solve today is the scaling up of device density and integrated systems. Integrated electronic components are getting smaller and smaller in size with no compromise on their capabilities; in fact, if anything, the list of features is lengthening with each newer and more compact version.

Moore’s law observes that over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years. Baghini credits the tools used for techniques like photolithography and fabrication for giving us sophisticated processors that have tens of millions of transistors in a small area, of the order of a squared millimetre.

Baghini is particularly interested in the technology underpinning composite metal-oxide semiconductors, which the transistors of most of our everyday electronics are based on. It uses the principles of semiconductivity, where a material that does not enthusiastically conduct electricity is made to do so by adding impurities, creating a transistor that controls currents so well that almost no power is used when not needed. Baghini tries to improve this system even more to create more advanced devices, integrated circuits and systems.

She sums up the problem facing such a pursuit: “Scaling up of devices comes along with power density and power delivery limitations. To deliver power, you need to apply either high voltage or high current [power = current * voltage] or both. Since the supply voltage has reduced [to reduce energy use and power demand], we must apply high current, but for high current, you need huge devices. This is not always practical.”

Her lab engineers devices to handle higher voltages without having to increase their size by complementing these low voltage devices or chips with an external voltage that is higher. Now, the power is increased without having to increase the current and enlarge the device.

“Eventually, I’m looking to put together device engineering and circuit design to make circuits more optimised for handling high power. The CMOS platform is ideal as it is established and relatively affordable.”

Baghini also notes that Moore’s law has almost hit a wall. As a result, she finds herself intrigued by alternate technologies, too. “For example,” she says, “organic transistors can be developed by looking into how things are made and developed in nature. This will help make these areas eco-friendlier and closer to platforms already available in nature.”

Life in Iran

Baghini was very focused on her field from the start, procuring a bachelor’s, masters and a PhD in electrical engineering from Tehran’s premier Sharif University of Technology. She’s puzzled by the perception of people that life in Iran is very different from what it is here in India. “It was not difficult to move out at all. There was no culture shock. Even there [in Iran], there were many female students in engineering. Education there matters a lot to families and there is no difference between females and males.”

So satisfied was Baghini with her experience in Sharif University that she had no intention of moving westward. “Also, my family was in Iran so I thought, ‘Why go abroad?’” However, she had heard much about the research and the atmosphere at IIT-B, so she decided to give it a chance, and applied for a postdoctoral position.

Though she herself was never tempted by the lure of a lucrative job in the industry, Baghini sees that this is not the case with her students. “Most of them are job-oriented, some want to get some experience in the industry before studying further and settling in academia, and some directly go for higher education.” But she admits that we also need good people in our industries. “It is good to have a mixture of both. This is the cycle that feeds the engineering area.”

“People ideal for research are those who don’t care too much about money,” says Baghini. So does this mean a researcher has to resign herself to being poor? Far from it, she assures us: “You need a life which is okay for you and where you feel comfortable. That defines the level of financial strength you need in your life. This much is definitely possible with research. You can even support your family with no difficulty.

“But suppose you want a luxurious life… even then, luxury doesn’t have limits! You will never ever be happy because you desire more than what you have and it’s endless. Somewhere, sometime, you will want to enjoy what you are doing and what you have. For me, as long as I am not facing a lot of challenge, that’s enough.”

Girls need to know engineering is no problem

However, it would seem that not everyone shares her sentiments about life in engineering research as Baghini. Only 12.7% of India’s science and engineering workforce comprises women. The relatively low number is a reflection of a mindset in the whole world than any actual limitations in women, according to Baghini. “Maybe they think in engineering they need to apply force and so they need to be very strong?” she laughs. “This is not the case at all,” she stresses. “I have worked with electrical motors and faced no problems. Women need encouragement. It’s a matter of telling girls that engineering is the same as other areas.”

The numbers can definitely improve if the family becomes supportive and if they let children choose any area. “It’s happening, because here I’ve had many female students. I’m happy to see them graduate because each one of them becomes a symbol.” Once in science, there’s not much to fear, at least as far as Baghini has experienced. “I have travelled to many countries for conferences and many of my collaborators are male. I’ve only felt respect because I’m a woman.”

India is a good place to be

She believes India is a great place to study electrical engineering, citing the example of the great feedback she’s received from international scientists who examine IIT-B students’ theses. That experts from the outside who have their own students and their own benchmarks are impressed by the quality of her students’ work is something that Baghini finds very encouraging.

At the same time, she acknowledges that for a huge institution like theirs, there is a problem of space. Labs here work 24/7, she informs me; this is to accommodate the high demand, sometimes from people visiting from different labs and countries. It’s not uncommon, she says, for time slots to be booked in the middle of the night. “But this is also part of research,” chirps Baghini with the air of a serial problem-solver. “Managing a limited space, this is nothing but an optimisation problem!”

This piece was originally published by The Life of Science. The Wire is happy to support this project by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj, who are traveling across India to meet some fantastic women scientists.