We recently sat down with Dr Rashid Jalil to talk about his life as a researcher and on the lack of quality science education and research in Pakistan.
Dr Rashid Jalil is an Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore. He completed his PhD from the Manchester Centre for Mesoscopic Physics and Nano-Technology at the University of Manchester, UK, in 2012 under the supervision of Andre K. Geim and Konstantin S. Novoselov, who were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010 for their discovery of graphene. He has published his research in reputable international journals including Nature, Science, Nanoletters, and Physical Review Letters.
This is the first of the two parts of the interview. The second part can be found here.
Spectra: Why did you decide to study Physics?
Dr Rashid: At first, I wanted to become an engineer but could not secure admission [to an engineering college]. I think that my subsequent decision to study physics was because of my teachers. I was a student in an Urdu-medium government school initially and then shifted to an English-medium institution. Consequently, the development of my interest in any subject depended a lot on how the teacher helped me with it. I was lucky with Physics. I appreciated my Physics teachers right from the start of my school up until my college. Even though I had obtained 95% marks in Chemistry in Matric, I preferred to avoid it during my FSc. Then, in BSc, I did develop some interest in it again, but eventually, I became more interested in Physics. One reason for this is that while we had only one book for Physics in FSc., we studied six of them at the university. This helped me explore the subject.
Was there any field that you were particularly interested in before opting for Physics?
If you look at our curriculum, you will find bits and pieces of different branches. This allows you to make the decision about your field. As you progress, you get a more vivid idea of the subject you want to pursue. It happens accidentally sometimes, as was my case. I did my MSc and specialization in Advanced Electronics and Communication. However, I had not done any research. Then all of a sudden, I joined UET for my M.Phil. and got a distinction in it. During this time, I worked with lasers. I then applied for the Commonwealth scholarship. As it is mandatory for the applicant to mention the person he or she wants to do his or her PhD with, I went to [the University of] Manchester’s website and randomly chose a professor and wrote his name on the application without informing him. The professor’s name was Andre Geim. However, before being called for an interview, the Commonwealth required acceptance from the professor. I then asked Andre Geim for acceptance and he, without knowing the source of the funding, agreed. He was already working with lasers. I then moved to electronics and later to laser-matter interactions. Nowadays, I’m working with single-atom layers, but I’m more interested in electronics and the applied nature of this subject.
Andre once said that he wrote a paper on electric field effect in 2005. It was rejected twice by Nature and published in Science thereafter. [They rejected it] because they did not believe in the results, saying that you cannot go against the theory. Ironically, Andre won the Nobel Prize primarily because of that paper.
One of the key areas of your research is graphene. Your PhD thesis was also on graphene-based electronics. Could you explain what graphene is and why did it become such a popular research topic?
There is a lot of carbon around us. Graphite is a material formed by three-dimensional layers of carbon atoms stacked one above another. Layers of carbon atoms are arranged in a regular fashion and billions of planes are stacked upon one another to produce the three-dimensional structure of graphite. Graphene is a single atomic plane extracted out of graphite and is around 0.33 nm thick. Nanotechnology deals with materials of sizes lesser than 100 nm. (We are not talking about 100 nm here, not even 10 nm; we are talking about one-tenth of a nanometer!) The very fact that you are working with a material that has a diameter of less than 10 to 100 nanometers is simply enthralling!
Graphene is a tie between theory and experiment. It has remarkable properties, which are different from the bulk of the material. In several applications, it shows more promising results. There are two factors involved with its choice: the surface area and the quantum-mechanical effects. You might know about carbon nanotubes; I love working with them.
In 2004, graphene was discovered accidentally. It took us 432 years to progress from three dimensions to two dimensions. So, sometimes it is just the simple things one never would have thought of.
You have worked with two Nobel Prize winners: Sir Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov. What do you think differentiates a Nobel Prize winner from other people in his or her field of study?
There are some markers behind winning a Nobel Prize. The first one is the number of citations you have from people around the world. The other one is making your audience believe in your research. I remember, Andre once said that he wrote a paper on electric field effect in 2005. It was rejected twice by Nature and published in Science thereafter. [They rejected it] because they did not believe in the results, saying that you cannot go against the theory. The theory says that you cannot have a stable single atomic layer because the thermodynamic fluctuations are so severe that the system cannot become stable. Ironically, Andre won the Nobel Prize primarily because of that paper.
What do you think is the current state of research in Pakistan?
To do research, you need to decide on an area you want to work in. But you must also consider the fact that you are living in a developing country where you need to hunt for resources. We have some good labs in the private sector but not in the public sector. This [UET] is a state university. So there is some restriction on the tools to start with. For instance, if you want to work with lithographic systems, you will not have a proper setup at your disposal. This then leads to collaboration with institutes such as LUMS and COMSATS that have these sorts of facilities. However, this requires a lot of time as you need to send samples back and forth between these institutions for testing. The problem is that if you want to publish in a high impact factor journal, time matters. This is because researchers all over the world are working on new ideas. Therefore, it is quite possible that one of these researchers is working on an idea similar to yours. So, the only question that remains is that who gets to the end first. Sometimes, you come up with something very beautiful, but someone then publishes on the same topic before you and you need to modify your project to a different domain. This demands that we need to have things under one roof. The Higher Education Commission (HEC) has taken some good steps in this regard. For example, they have established the National Centre of Nanotechnology and are interested in bringing different researches and facilities under one roof.
This interview was conducted in collaboration with Iqra Naveed.