FROM a young age, Dr Kedar Hippalgaonkar believed that the way for him to make a difference to society was through the academic route. In 2000, at the age of 15, he was among the 50 students who left India for Singapore after being awarded a Singapore AirlinesYouth scholarship to study at Hwa Chong Junior College. In 2002, Dr Hippalgaonkar was awarded the prestigious National Science Scholarship (PhD) by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University in the United States. He went on to complete his PhD in mechanical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley in 2013. That year, he received the Materials Research Society Silver Award by the Materials Research Society for outstanding graduate research. “Research seemed to be an enticing opportunity to learn new stuff. Plus, the allure of getting a higher education that would be completely paid for was an exciting prospect for me at that age,” says Dr Hippalgaonkar, 33. “My parents were brave enough to let me be independent at that early age. I wanted to continue my higher education in the best possible school. “Since I was young, I believed that a scholarship is an avenue to a better life and contribute more to society — a belief that has been reinforced over the years.” He is now a research scientist with the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering, and an adjunct assistant professor at the Nanyang Technological University School of Materials Science & Engineering.
Passion to discover
But doing a PhD may not suit everyone. “I know of smart and talented scholars who realised late in their careers that they did not enjoy research,” admits Dr Hippalgaonkar. He says he is lucky that he enjoys the process of discovery and innovation. “Be aware of your interests and actively pursue research activities early to find out if you enjoy the process,” he advises. “It is fine to want to win scholarships, but a research scholarship is unique in that it entails a long process that will only bear fruit after more than a decade. “Aspiring scholars should ensure that they are curious and keen to learn new things — as both qualities are paramount for the PhD path,” he adds.
Dr Hippalgaonkar hopes to use his research, which focuses on fundamental problems in materials science and matter, to make people’s lives better. He says: “I build experimental tools to try to understand how heat, currents and light move and interact with matter — specifically, starting from fundamentals at the nanoscale and atomic level. “I also apply these new concepts to functional devices that will hopefully be useful to society in the future.” One particular interest of his is extracting electrical power from heat. “Converting one type of energy (heat) into useful electrical power is a difficult challenge that excites me,” he says.
In March last year, A*Star announced that Dr Hippalgaonkar and his collaborators had found a metal called vanadium dioxide that can conduct electricity without conducting heat. This discovery enables the heating of electrical devices to potentially be better managed in future. Dr Hippalgaonkar says he and his team are also working to understand how things work in nature, especially in physical sciences. “This way, scientists and engineers can build devices that are useful for people. For example, the design and invention of new low-cost, abundant materials that can be used for thermoelectrics that uses heat to generate electrical power,” he says. For Dr Hippalgaonkar, the most challenging aspect of his research work is the race against time. “New fields of research are being discovered every day. Identifying and making time to learn and implement new stuff is challenging and exciting at the same time,” he says. “Another important, yet difficult task is communicating the relevance and importance of our work to funding agencies and the public at large. At the end of the day, we use taxpayers’ dollars to fund our research. This makes us feel responsible — the problems that we address should make people’s lives better in the future.”