Monday, May 19, 2014

An interview with Dr. Mukti Aryal

We present a candid interview with Dr. Mukti Aryal!!
Born in a remote village of Nepal, Dr. Aryal's journey has inspirational stories as he represents one of the best achievers among the Nepalese physicists.
Please read on!

Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself? (Where did you grow up, where and studied etc.) 
Thank you for this interview Nabin ji, I appreciate it. This is a good opportunity to share my academic experiences, and about myself. I was born in Darlamchaur, Isma Gulmi; a hilly region in western Nepal. I am from farmer’s family, one among nine kids of my parents. Most small farmers like us used to hardly make their living from farming. However, since my father was an elementary school teacher in our village, we had an additional income. That means we had a little more comfortable living since my father was educated and that’s why my parents were very much aware of importance of education. In my time, most parents in my village were either unaware of importance of education or they would require their kids to help them in the farms. Most kids used to help their parents in household work such as taking care of cows, buffaloes, cutting grasses, chasing monkeys from corn field etc. while I did take part in such activities and farming only in the morning and evening or in my free time. I was curious and very disciplined in school and used to do my homework regularly. After I passed grade five I had to help my parents at home and left school for one year. I started again after my eldest brother got married and my sister-in-law came to help at home. After that I continued my education and I was doing excellent in my study from very beginning. I am a PhD now and I want to say to school kids from village of Nepal who are barely getting chance to go to school: kids! You can do it as I did! I did my primary school (1-3 grade) nearby my home (15 minutes’ walk), sitting in the lawn under open sky with two teachers and one of them was my father. Middle school was about 1 hour walking but had to leave home for grade 8 and up. I did my high school, SLC from Mahendra Ma. Vi. Tamghas, Gulmi in 2045 B.S; I. Sc. from Tansen Palpa, neighboring district; B.Sc. from Tri-Chandra College Kathmandu; master in Physics from TU Kritipur and finally I did my PhD from University of Texas at Dallas in 2010. After PhD, I went to University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill for post doc and finally I am here in California for industrial job working as a process engineer/research scientist. 
What was your aim in life as a teenager? How did you decide to study science and then physics? Did anyone, in particular, influence you? 
You probably meant professional aim. As a son of a farmer and a teacher, I had an aim to be a good teacher and a good farmer following the footpath of my father. Every kid is naturally curious. However, unknowingly parents or elders kill the curiosity by discouraging them from asking questions and stopping them from exploring things. That did not happened to me, instead my mom used to keep interest about what I read at school, wanted to know the stories from my books while she was illiterate. I was always among top students in class so I was advised to take science and major math in high school. One of my elective subjects was Agriculture. It was exciting because I wanted to be a good teacher and a farmer. In school, I learned that traditional agriculture system was one of the main reasons for poverty of villagers. I and my elder brother and classmate Baburam were working together in farm to grow better. We really set example of good farming growing crops in our fields using knowledge learned in class at that time. My science teacher in high school once suggested to take science major in college and I liked that idea. There was no science college in Gulmi district at that time. I went Tansen Papla to study science. However, first college degree in science major (I. Sc.) was very tough for me and it is tough for anyone whose SLC is from government school where courses are taught in Nepali medium. Some of my schoolmates dropped science because they were not coming for their own but were sent by parents. I had no choice but success because study science was my choice not my parents’. I had determination so I was patient and I could complete I. Sc. in physics and mathematics. As a scientist, of course, I advocate science. For new generation I would like to say that I. Sc. was my greatest achievement and a financial freedom. I. Sc. was my reason for financial freedom because I was not dependent on my parents anymore. For the first time I felt like I could stand in my own feet. This is because it was relatively easy to get teaching job after I. Sc. at that time. I might not find one where I wanted to, but there were so many schools looking for math and science teachers in Nepal at that time. Even now, if you want to go villages or remote areas you can get job after I. Sc. This can be a very good reason for one to study science. This should be the real motivation for science major. There are still more chances of getting teaching jobs for science major than other subjects. If one has more choices, or one thinks that he can get job s/he could gain a lot of courage to move forward and courage to take risk that applied to me as well. Though my parents were not able to support my further education, I came to Kathmandu to see if I could still survive and peruse my education. Otherwise I would take a break for teaching to make money for my study. Therefore, I strongly recommend young generation to start college with science major. If you succeed, you have so many doors open. You can always change your mind and move to arts and commerce, you can find teaching job in schools, you can do tutoring to high school kids and so on. Moreover, you can understand basic principle of natural phenomenon. Finally, science major led me to physics. Physics is a beautiful subjects as we get chance to understand the nature and express natural laws in mathematical relations. It requires a lot of thinking. I used to love to read literatures but that I would understand without much effort and without taking any classes. Physics requires brain exercise and more I read it more I get interested. Moreover, I study physics as I saw more chances of getting job after graduation in physics. 
Sounds like you worked and studied together. So, how did you balance work and study? How did you succeed? 
If there is a will, there is a way. I came to Kathmandu for my bachelor’s degree in science (B.Sc.). Sometime teaching in boarding school, sometime tutoring math and science to high school kids I managed to work and study. Sometime I had to skip my classes for work. The day I completed my B. Sc., my confidence level reached to the highest level. I was encouraged by my own success; I was interested in reading by more reading. Nothing extraordinary, I just kept doing and I think this is the key to success. I wanted to continue my study to master’s in physics. By that time my professional aim was changed and I wanted to be a physics professor in a university in Nepal. Obviously I had to work and study for my master as well and this time I had to support my younger brother too! As you know Master level courses in physics are very tough in Nepal. Basically, we learned taking classes but that was not enough. Discussions among friends, collections of old questions and solving them in groups, sharing class note among friends and finally memorizing formulas and equations were major strategies to succeed the Tribhuvan University comprehensive exam, which is very tough annual exam. I would suggest to new generations not to panic if you don’t understand at first, continue to ask and discuss with friends. Our teachers are so helpful, take full advantage and success is in your hands. After you succeed there in Nepal, you can compete with anybody in the world. All graduate from Nepal are doing excellent around the globe. Data show that they are doing equal or better than the students from anywhere else. 
You said that you wanted to become a physics professor in Nepal. What makes you come to USA?
Well, it did not go as I thought. TU did not open professors’ positions for long time. I was mostly teaching in English boarding school and as a part-time lecturer in TU. Though one could get teaching position after MSc, a PhD would be recommended and most of physics professors in TU were PhD holders. To that front, I was looking for options for further education as well. The trend to come to USA for further study was just about there. I was in contact with Dr. Jagat Shakya and Dr. Naveen Jha who were already in USA. I was not sure I would be able to come but just took TOEFL exam and applied a couple of places. I got admission with scholarship at Minnesota State University and got visa. To get chance to come to USA was considered a good option and I had no many choices. So, I came for master program in physics to USA in 2003. Nowadays, it is a lot easier. There are a lot of Nepalese around the globe now; you can find information in Nepali Physicists around the globe in this website here Thank you Nabin ji and team for this good work. I really appreciate your effort. Internet access is easy nowadays, you can get connected via email, facebook, linkedin, twitter and most of the time you can get response instantly. My advice to new generation is that please take full advantage of it. 
Could you please tell us about your research interest. 
I came to USA in 2003 and started first research at Minnesota State University, Mankato Minnesota in 2004. There I learned about doing research by preparing high temperature ceramic super conducting samples, used X-ray powder diffraction and measured its magnetic and heat capacity etc. My PhD research in UT Dallas was about organic solar cells (plastic solar power) which have potential for low cost production and the flexibility would enable the solar to wrap around any types of curved surfaces like clothing, cars etc. Another area of my expertise is nanofabrication of photonic structures. In my post-doctoral research I was able to fabricate photonic nanostructures of the butterfly wings, that are consider most complex structures in nature. Using low cost method, there I demonstrated that the current engineering technology was capable for mimicking the most complicated photonic structures in nature. These photonic structures have several uses such as black wings for maximum light absorption, other colors for chemical sensing, bank note counterfeiting etc. 
My publications can be found in
 Linkedin page 

What strategies did you use to be successful in research, Any advice? 
There were challenges and opportunities to succeed and do research of my interest. To choose a professor and a research topic is challenging and the success determines future career. It may be helpful for beginner researchers if I go over a little bit detail on this. The choice of research topics depend on several factors: research interest, availability of research and vacancies with the professor etc. I think it is important to think what you want to do after graduation. I chose a research which could open doors for industries and academia so that it might be easier to find a job after graduation. As I understand today, the research skills such as sample preparations and characterizations are more important than the research topic itself in industrial jobs. Academia needs more publications and in depth understanding of the topic and creative ideas. I got interested in solar energy, best renewable energy alternative to current fossil fuels and coals. There have been solar power in the market but expensive to replace traditional electric powers such as hydroelectricity and fossil fuels power plants. My research focused on plastic solar cells as mentioned earlier. The best part of my research was I could learn nanotechnology, nanostructure fabrication and characterization and other related skills that could fit for academia and industries. My research helps in fundamental understanding of conducting polymer. Let me tell you about plastic solar cells. In high school, we learned that plastics are bad conductors. First conducting polymer was discovered by Nobel laurel Alen Heeger and his team in 1990s. Research in plastic solar cells was a hot topic when I was about to start my PhD research. Plastic solar cells have potential for low cost but their efficiency is poor. One way to improve efficiency was by controlling nanostructure morphology. In that front, my group pioneered in nanostructured organic solar cells that I proved that nanostructured morphology can be controlled by nanoimprinting. I presented my research in MRS Fall meeting in 2008. This was my first conference presentation that happened in front of large audiences where one of which was Nobel Prize winner Prof. Alen Heeger, all seats were full and people were standing on back of the room. I published my first paper in 2008 which is cited 76 times as of today. The excitement was high in the beginning. The efficiency of organic solar cells at that time was about 5% and we were hoping to reach 10% with our techniques. However, there are always likely to have ups and downs in research. Likewise, the efficiency of our cells was much lower than we expected. Again, I did not give up but continued to explore the reasons behind the low performances. Around that time I found an interview by Alen Heeger on conducting polymer. At the end of interview on the question of long term goal, Dr. Heeger said (2nd last paragraph): “Polymer chains are disordered like cooked spaghetti noodles , what you really want, if you want very high performance, is more like spaghetti in the box before you cook it.” I started looking if I can really do that. Finally, I was able to show that that can possibly happened by the technique we were using to fabricate organic solar cells. All I needed to show was, that was really happening. In 2009, I published a paper on polymer chain alignment, which is my biggest contribution in understanding of fundamental polymer science. This paper attracted many researchers around the world (cited 122 times). We wrote a review in the topic after that. Very recently I contributed in a paper published on the similar topic in April 2014. This is how my PhD was so exciting and fun. My PhD advisor is Prof. Walter Hu who thinks that Nepalese students are very bright. After my PhD, I moved to University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill, North Carolina for new challenges and opportunities. My postdoctoral research was also nanostructured organic solar cells but this time the focus was to maximize the light absorption. The concept of national science foundation (NSF) funded project was to mimic black spot of butterfly wings and utilized it in solar cells for maximum light absorption to increase solar cells efficiency. As a nanofabrication expert, I had given a most challenging part of the project to mimic the butterfly wings photonic structures or fabricate the similar nanostructures of butterfly wings. These structures are of interest since 1970 after Helen Ghiradella, a pioneer in this field Now the topic is interested to physicists and engineers see examples here  However, the research is conducted using natural wings of butterfly and nobody even knew if the current engineering technology is able to mimic such complex photonic structures in nature. After several failure and frustrations, most exciting time finally came. I was able to demonstrate that photonic nanostructures of the various butterfly wings can actually be fabricated using existing conventional engineering technology over large area in low cost. (Read my interview in Beneath the AVS Surface, Replicating Nature: A new method to mimic the light-manipulating properties of butterfly wings: in AVS highlight at In a very short period of time, I made breakthrough in my major project and made several outstanding contributions in the team. Since I left too early my post-doctoral research (left just after 1 year) to join a startup in California; So, I could not continue my research in that topic for more breakthroughs. 
How is your experience in joining Rolith, Inc. as a Process Engineer? Was there any culture shock in moving to industry?
Rolith Inc. is a startup nanotechnology company (see application page for here ). I am here almost from the beginning of the company. A startup company has to develop from the proof of concept to manufacturing level. Of course, a small company has limited resources and a fixed target as compare to research institute where one can have freedom for various researches and access to many instruments. Working in Rolith, a startup company is more or less similar to research institute with limited facilities and certain research goal. There was not any cultural sock for me after I moved from my postdoctoral research to Rolith. It is also because of my research interests. My research interests of nano-fabrications for various applications such as anti-reflecting surfaces etc. are well match with the interests of this company. After I joined Rolith Inc, I made some breakthroughs, contributed US patents and several conference papers. In academia I was highly appreciated by my PhD advisors, post-doctoral advisors and the people in the field. I could present in several conferences in front of large audiences. Here probably not as much, but I am happy from what I could contribute to the company for moving forward. 

 A general perception is that industry experience is very demanding. How do you balance life and work? 
It has been great so far! Though work hours are long, I don't need to work from home. While I am at home, I give time for my family. I live with my wife, a nine year old son and a five year old daughter. Evening time and weekends are mostly for family. I think a professor has to be much busier than an engineer in industry. We don't need to worry about a grant proposal, publications, and class preparation and so on. There are of course pros and cons in everywhere. For example university jobs are stable, while people tend to move frequently from one job to another in industries. 
 Could you please give us a snapshot of your one day in office? How much of table research versus the experimental work is involved? 
The short term and long term goal of the company are discussed in the meeting and the work is assigned for the week. As an employee my goal is to complete the assign tasks in timely manner, find the solution of the problem by designing experiments and performing them, and report the progress or difficulties in the meeting. Everyday is not the same but in general more time is assign for experimental work than literature search. Working hours are flexible but it’s about the feeling responsibility and performing as much as I can to complete the task. In general my office starts around 8:30 in the morning and end at 6 PM. In between, I come home for lunch as I live about 5 minutes’ drive. .
Could you please share one or two interesting ‘aha’ moments in your research career or industrial job? 
Yes, I can share a couple of interesting moments with you. In 2008, my team published concept paper of nanostructured organic solar (plastic solar) cells and we applied US patents as well. So there was lot of excitements. Pretty soon we realized that the efficiency was much lower than we expected. Life is full of ups and downs like sinusoidal curve. It happens almost everywhere in life. The best scenario was to get high efficiency but it was not happening. When I was trying to find the reason behind the unexpected results, I discovered a fundamental polymer behavior due to Nanoimprinting. At that moment I was so excited that then I could get a good publications and my PhD. Next moment I want to share that was happened when I was doing post doc at UNC. Several times I hoped to get pine tree structures similar to butterfly wings’ in the sample while observing under scanning electron microscope (SEM). It had not happened several times for long. It was November 2010 and I was imaging. I saw pine tree structures under microscope and I shouted and jumped high like a soccer player had made a goal! I was alone that time and right after I saw my co-worker at the door and I showed him the results. I and my team finally proved that we could fabricate most complex structures of nature, photonic structures of butterfly wings. 
The technology evolves fast, are the requirements and qualifications/experiences/skills for a new hire changing in the similar rate? Any words of wisdom for the new comers into the industry, or in general which kind of skill sets are on demand? 
Technology evolves fast is true and the requirements for new hire are also changing. However, the requirements for a new hire may not be changing in the similar rate. I think evolution of new technology is the results of mostly advancements in thoughts or creativities. In other words performance of new jobs may not always require new skills just like using same pen and paper we can write different stories. However, competition increases more and more over time. The more skills we have more the chances of getting hired. The skill sets depends on the types of jobs so it is hard to say what kinds of skills are required in general. It is good to have access in modern characterization tools such as scanning electron microscopy (SEM), tunneling electron microscopy (TEM), atomic force microscopy (AFM), and X-ray diffraction (XRD) among others in nanotechnology research. Nowadays it looks like if you don’t have some basic computer programming skills, you are lacking something. 
 There have been talks about supporting research activities in Nepal by Alumni of TU. What could be the best way to start/support/foster such activities? 
 Sharing research ideas and activities we are doing here, providing literatures that are not available/not accessible from Nepal, financial support to purchase some instruments can be some among others. Theoretical research ideas may be more useful than those requires high cost instruments. We can update new publications in common forum, share thesis etc. I had made an extra copy of thesis for physics department and dropped it there last December when I visited Nepal. One idea may be that we can discuss about conducting yearly conference meeting of Nepalese scientists in USA. There, we can discuss more about opening industries and research centers in Nepal.
 Earlier you told about your professional aim. How was your ‘aim in life’ developed? 
To elaborate more, professional aim is what kind of profession we want to choose for living a comfortable life. I think ‘life aim’ and professional aim are two different things. One can choose to be a doctor, a teacher or a farmer etc. Yes, earlier I was just talking about professional aim. It has been changing over time. In the beginning I wanted to be teacher and a farmer. Later it was changed to university professor in Nepal. Now I am working in industry. Certainly, as a teenager, my ‘aim in life’ was not to be a scientist and work for USA. Engineering or research is my profession and it can be changed too. However, life aim is developed over time through learning by experience and realizing the purpose of life, knowing the meaning of life, why I am in this earth, what makes difference if I am not here, what kind of legacy I can leave after me etc. When one achieves this aim, s/he can gain inner satisfaction. Then one can see the meaning of life. My aim in life is to help others and that was developed since I was a teenager and it is still growing and taking shape. I think that my life will be successful if I can make society move forward even a little bit. When I was teenager, I was very much impressed by life of our great poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota. “खोज्छन सबै सुख भने सुख तो कहाँ छ? आफु मिटाई अरुलाई दिनु जहाँ छ |” Translation: Where is happiness if everybody is looking for it? There where you make yourself empty giving to others. So, I developed myself that I want to help other, do social work and help society. The types of questions where I grew up, where I studied etc. make all of us emotional. We are not there where we grew up, we are not there where we learn to be human or learn to be a good citizen, where we got life. So many of us grown up, and left. Some of us left village and go to cities, some of us left country. When we thought we were successful and we left our country. If we were not successful we wouldn’t. This sounds like kind of selfishness. I like to add here that I am glad to see increasing number of Nepali physics PhD every year. Doing PhD is great and after that it is time to think what can we do back home. Let’s hope Nepal will not just be a man power producer for USA or other developed countries. As I mentioned earlier, we can help recent graduate for the opportunities abroad. However, that should not be counterproductive for the country by sending brain power abroad. In the other hand we cannot stop brain drain if there are no opportunities in the country. Therefore we have to think two things here. First: help new graduate for higher education abroad, second: do something for the advancement of the country to create some opportunity for the new comers. 
It seems you have a plan to do some social work for your society, could you please elaborate? 
To talk about myself, after I completed M. Sc., my aim was to encourage and help younger generation for higher education. I and my friends from Isma established an organization named ‘Ismali Kosh’ (now Ismali Samaj) with the aim that any student or anyone from our area could get load for his need and return later. It is still growing. Five years ago, we (I and my wife) established “Premnath Memorial Scholarship Fund” in my father’s name. Now the fund has been utilizing through Ismali Samaj Kathmandu so that the Samaj gives prize for three top SLC students from Isma village every year. We are hoping we can do more in the future. Then, we get inner satisfaction regardless the type of profession we do and it really does not matter where we stay (home or abroad). Any work that can help our society move forward is appreciated. For example, I recently learned about initiative in anti-corruption, poverty alleviation and several inspirational programs by Hemsarita Pathak Academy founded by our friend Hem Pathak and team. 
Thank you Nabin Ji for this opportunity to express my views in your blog!

It is our pleasure to have you!- Thank you!!!NKM