A post-doc regales us with
cultural and scientific obser-
vations from his trip to fiber
optics labs throughout India.
India is a culturally rich country that draws strength from its diversity. People speak many languages, eat various
types of food, worship different gods and
have a number of lifestyles. When I was
a Ph.D. student at the Indira Gandhi
Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) in
Kalpakkam, I travelled across the country by train to see how researchers from
other institutes work and the unique
challenges they face—and to experience
India’s varied cultures. My adventure,
which included train rides as long as 30
hours, opened my eyes to alternate ways
of living and working.
My journey started at IGCAR in Kalpakkam, where I pursued my Ph.D. in
fiber optics. IGCAR is known worldwide
for its work on fast-breeder test reactors
and nuclear fuel reprocessing. Kalpakkam is a small town located in the Coromandel Coast, about 90 km from my
current home in Chennai. The student
housing was only 100 m from the beach.
My classmates and I enjoyed taking
many evening walks along the water.
Wikimedia Commons/Composite image by Pandian Chelliah
A tip to anyone who
wants to strike up
a conversation with
someone from India:
Talk about cricket.
As a graduate student, I worked with
IGCAR researchers to find a way to
use optical fiber sensors for monitoring
reactor coolants. My mentors were
T. Jayakumar and C. Babu Rao, the
former heads of the project; Rao was my
thesis supervisor. Specifically, we worked
on distributed fiber optic sensors, with
a focus on improving spatial resolution,
and high-temperature strain monitoring
with fiber Bragg gratings. IGCAR is a
government-run institution, and a lot
of planning goes into each new research
proposal. Despite this, the lab environment was pleasantly informal, with
coffee breaks twice a day at 10 a.m. and
3 p.m. for catching up with friends and
discussing new ideas.
I travelled alone from the southern city of
Chennai to the heart of the country—
Madhya Pradesh (MP)—to work at the
Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced
Technology (RRCAT) in Indore. My
train followed a very scenic route through
the mountains and caves, providing views
of MP’s famous lush forests.
I didn’t have to look out the window to know I was in a new part of the
country. The food vendors’ language
and offerings changed: The shout for tea
and coffee “tea tea kaapi” converted to
“cha cha kaafi,” and the rice-paste idli
dosas of the south were replaced with
the wheat-flour poori chappatis of the
north. The train also had a steady stream
of transgender entertainers dancing,
collecting money and offering blessings
or curses depending on your generosity.
My fellow passengers talked incessantly.
A tip to anyone who wants to strike up a
conversation with someone from India:
Talk about cricket.
The first time I traveled to Indore
years ago, it was full of dusty roads and
crowded minivans. I was surprised by