Solar Energy Breakthrough: Indian Scholar Awarded Fulbright-Kalam Climate Fellowship

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A 43-year-old mother of two and professor at the Central University of Tamil Nadu (CUTN) will soon be flying off to the US as a Fulbright-Kalam Climate fellow with a proposal that has the potential to make solar energy more sustainable and scalable. Dr. Preethi Meher has proposed to use perovskite in solar cells, which can make them more sustainable as well as easy to use. Currently, the PV cells or solar plants in commercial use are rigid and need a lot of space, but with Meher’s ‘hybrid perovskite,’ they can be greener and could be used on any surface, including glass panes, foldable screens, among others. Meher has proposed to change the composition of perovskite materials to remove the led component in them and make them more sustainable and better for the environment than silicon, which is currently being used as an absorber in batteries.

As part of the scholarship, Meher will have opportunities to audit non-degree courses, conduct research, and gain practical work experience in suitable settings in the US. She will also get a J-1 visa, a stipend along with other benefits.

Fulbright vs. Erasmus

Fulbright is not the only foreign scholarship Meher has secured. During her PhD at IISc Bangalore, she had bagged the Erasmus Mundus Willpower Fellowship in the 2010s. She spent around nine months at the CNRS SPMS Laboratory at Ecole Centrale Paris. Comparing the two prestigious scholarships, Meher told Smartkhabrinews, “At the time of getting the Erasmus scholarship, I was already a fourth-year student at IISc. They found my proposal to be good enough. As a student, my institute also encouraged me to learn new techniques. Apart from my research, the institute I was studying in also played a role in my fellowship. Getting support from a renowned researcher who has been published in many good journals and was ready to mentor me was also a positive.” She also said her stay was initially meant for six months but she could not finish her experiments in the said time and had applied for an extension. To her surprise, Meher did not only get an extension but also got paid for the extra months she took to complete her research under the Erasmus scholarship. To date, she calls it an “unmatchable” experience of her life.

To get the prestigious Fulbright-Kalam scholarship, Meher had to undergo several processes including finding a host faculty in the US, charting out the common research interests between her laboratory and the host laboratory, proposal preparation and submission, followed by an interview from a national-level panel. “The toughest part was the preparation of the proposal itself. I needed to justify how my proposal will help in solving the climate change crisis. Then, I had to give a roadmap of various activities that I could engage in during my stay in the US. These were the challenges. The easiest part of the proposal was to actually get a host because research groups across the world are very interested in making progress in these areas,” she said.

At the time of the Fulbright scholarship, Meher got married and had two children. She has been teaching as Assistant Professor at the Department of Materials Science, Central University of Tamil Nadu, since 2016. Her laboratory at CUTN focuses on the study of new and better-performing perovskite halide compositions for photovoltaics and other optoelectronic applications. She is also guiding three PhD students and overseeing several M.Tech projects. She said between her two scholarships she had to prioritize personal life and is getting back to her professional life in full gear now. She is a mother to a nine-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son. “My journey was not different from any other ambitious woman. I took a break from my career twice when I became a mother. I believe it’s all about priorities. I prioritized my family when I had to and I promised my academics more when I had to. I don’t think that break makes you fall behind; in fact, I think sometimes it makes you come back with a better outlook.”

Meher completed both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Physics from Women’s Christian College, Chennai. She also holds an M.Phil from the University of Madras. She completed her PhD in the Materials Research Centre at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore. She has also worked as a research fellow at DMRL Hyderabad and IGCAR Kalpakkam. She has been working with CUTN since 2016. “Be very choosy in fixing your goals and do not commit to too many things that could put your life in a mess. As an academic, treat teaching and research as inseparable sides of a coin and do not have a bias,” she advised.

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