2023 KNI Catalyst Award Profile: Prachi Thureja

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Prachi Thureja is a fourth year graduate student researcher in Applied Physics in Harry Atwater's lab

Prachi Thureja

June 30, 2023

What is your research focus and areas of scientific interest? How has the KNI played a role in your research?


My research focuses on the design, fabrication, and experimental demonstration of nanostructured active metasurfaces that are used to control various properties of light. By integrating the metasurfaces into programmable circuit boards, we can actively control the scattering behavior of light. This characteristic makes such reconfigurable, chip-scale metasurfaces particularly interesting for applications in optical imaging, communication and computation. The KNI has played an integral role throughout my research by providing access to several fabrication and characterization tools, including tools for optical and electron beam lithography, physical vapor deposition, and microscopy. The KNI has further facilitated exciting collaborations outside of my primary research project, including an opportunity to work on solar cells that were deployed and tested in space.


Why did you decide to come to Caltech for your graduate studies?


Caltech is a very special place to be. I had the opportunity to come here as a visiting student for my Master's thesis prior to grad school. One of the things that struck me most was the exposure to various industries, even while working on some of the more fundamental problems. This environment led to a constant flow of new ideas during our meetings. As a student, it was very fascinating to experience these interactions while gaining insights about industry requirements that need to be met to make our devices useful for real-world applications. Another aspect that I really appreciated was that there was a tight-knit community of researchers across campus, both amongst faculty and students. This made it very easy to form collaborations and exchange ideas. Furthermore, being part of a smaller campus had the added benefit that I could quickly expand my social network and meet like-minded people who shared similar interests.


Please say a few words about your academic path. Was there anything in particular that drove you to continue in STEM?


Growing up, I always loved learning new things. So (according to my parents) when my elder brother started going to school, I used to sit by his side and pretend to study the same things as he was at the time. Since he had strong technical interests and I always looked up to him and wanted to be like him, I credit him for igniting my initial fascination with science and technology. And this passion lasted throughout high school and evidently beyond.

When it came to my undergraduate studies, I knew that I wanted to pursue a degree that would allow me to be creative and continue exploring my scientific curiosity. I therefore pursued my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. It was during my undergraduate thesis that I encountered my first opportunity to work on a bigger scientific project involving the design and fabrication of chiral nanostructures. I really appreciated this experience and found joy in the process of investigating problems that had not been explored before and assembling our knowledge in a way that would allow us to push the current boundaries of the field.

During this time, I was fortunate to have an amazing thesis supervisor, who is also a great mentor and friend now. Her and I spent hours together contemplating ways to advance our research and potentially implement improved technologies for the healthcare industry using our devices. She was always very supportive of my ideas and encouraged me to pursue the path that I would regret not taking otherwise. And I am glad that I followed her advice. After obtaining my degrees at ETH Zurich, I joined Caltech as a graduate student in Applied Physics.


What volunteer or community service-based work have you been involved in?


Both during my undergraduate and graduate studies, I have been involved in volunteer work focused on promoting female and female identifying scientists in STEM fields. During my time at ETH Zurich, I was involved with an organization called Ladies in Mechanical and Electrical Studies (LIMES). As a committee member, I contributed to organizing several events that aimed to connect current students with industry, and also conducted outreach activities consisting of lectures and lab tours for high school students from all over Switzerland. At Caltech, I continued these efforts as a member of the Womxn in EAS organization which was founded in Fall 2021. I had the opportunity to be part of this organization from the very beginning, first serving as the Academic Chair and more recently taking the role of Co-President. Our goals have always been threefold: Fostering connections among womxn students and faculty members across the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, providing resources to support further academic development, and actively engaging in outreach activities.


What inspired (and inspires) your involvement in these areas and activities?


As I progressed in my academic career, I increasingly recognized the significance of having role models in my life. I came to appreciate the importance of surrounding myself with individuals I could relate to and connect with on a personal level. When I joined Caltech, I felt extremely grateful for the opportunity to work within a research group that is very diverse in terms of nationalities, cultural backgrounds, and gender representation. However, I was always well aware that such diversity is not the standard in STEM fields. This realization really strengthened my belief in the importance and necessity of providing equal opportunities to all individuals, irrespective of their gender, age, race, or other societal barriers. Engaging in volunteer work has therefore become my way of cultivating a sense of community and belonging for my peers and hopefully also for future generations. It is ultimately our responsibility to create and drive the change we wish to see in the world around us.


What ways have you found to balance the responsibilities and activities you partake in? What does your support network look like?

My family and friends (both overseas and fellow grad students) have formed an incredible support network throughout my academic journey. I recently came across a post which said that good friends see your potential before you can, and that really resonated with me. I am incredibly grateful for the people who have supported me over the course of my career. The fact that they believed in my dreams and ideas, no matter how ambitious or far-fetched they seemed, has been a huge source of motivation for me.

Weekly to-do lists have been a lifesaver for me. Planning my tasks on a weekly basis has allowed me to effectively manage deadlines, oversee multiple projects, and ensure that my research is progressing in the right direction. Things often don’t go according to plan in research (and life in general), so it helps to have a list of tasks that need to be completed so that you can make the most efficient use of your time while trying to maintain a balanced routine.


In what ways has your experience at Caltech shaped your identity or values?


My time at Caltech has been one of the most transformative periods of my life. In a way, grad school helps you in evolving from a student to a teacher in one specific field of research. At the same time, you are constantly exposed to so many different ideas (both within and outside of your field) so that you learn to broaden your perspective and identify your own individual areas of interest. There is so much professional growth in terms of technical know-how, but also in terms of the development of essential soft skills, such as effective science communication and project management. On a more personal level, my experience at Caltech has taught me to be patient and resilient, and to embrace setbacks as an opportunity for growth. Furthermore, it has really instilled in me the importance of community and collaboration by showing what we can achieve through collective effort, support, and teamwork.


Is there anything you wish you’d known when you started grad school that you know now? In other words, what advice would you give to your younger self?


Find a method that works for you to consolidate all your notes in one place. Electronic notes are very useful because you can easily organize them by topic areas and scroll back to track down thought processes or important points from previous meetings. In addition, maintain a comprehensive master slide deck with all your key results. This helps a lot when you need to share information with someone about your prior work or prepare slides for an upcoming presentation.


What plans or goals do you have post-graduation?


I am currently evaluating my options, however, I am leaning towards a career in academia. I would like to further explore and drive applications in the field of active nanophotonics, while continuing to mentor students and collaborate with a diverse group of individuals.