“I hope to come back and work on nanotechnology in Bangladesh”

Nanotech engineer Nitu Syed talks to Fintech

Dr Nitu Syed is a leading engineer in the field of nanoelectronics, who is currently working in Australia at the RMIT University. The Bangladeshi expat graduated from BUET in electrical engineering. She is also a visiting researcher at University of Melbourne. Previously she was a lecturer at Bangladesh’s Independent University.

Last year Syed was acknowledged as one of the top 30 engineers in Australia.

In our video interview series titled ‘Being Bangladeshi, Making a Difference’, Nitu Syed talked to Azfar Adib. Here’s an edited excerpt. 

Tell us about your work in nanoelectronics.

I began my research in 2016 with a focus on nanomaterials. The type of materials we work with are really ‘nano’ or very small. In more concrete terms they are 10 thousand times smaller than the circumference of a human hair. It is quite hard to develop these materials.

I started my work under a leading professor in Australia. I was lucky to do my PhD under him. It was quite diversified and I dealt with a number of different issues. For example, the smartphone we use today have touchscreens, which are made up of many layers. These layers are made with a material called metal oxide. These layers are relatively thick, which is why they break when you drop a phone. One of the application of my work is to make these much thinner.

We are working toward making the LCD or touchscreen phones more flexible. The thinner they are the more flexible they become. We have been able to make these thinner. But it’s hard to say at this point when they can be market ready. It could be decade before they are ready.   

Talk about your experience of research in this complex subject.

Personally, it was quite tough for me in the beginning. The subject was very new to me. Nanotech itself is still a developing filed. The instruments you need to work with nanotech are very expensive. You need millions of dollars.

When I came here all the instruments were new to me. I had Bangladeshi teammates actually, who were very helpful. I began to learn slowly. It was difficult to cope with all the new aspects of my work. But my husband was very supportive, and that helped me a great deal.

I ended up learning how to work effectively and published papers in journals. My supervisor was happy with some of the work I did.

WE ARE WORKING TOWARD MAKING THE LCD OR TOUCHSCREEN PHONES MORE FLEXIBLE. THE THINNER THEY ARE THE MORE FLEXIBLE THEY BECOME. WE HAVE BEEN ABLE TO MAKE THESE THINNER. BUT IT’S HARD TO SAY AT THIS POINT WHEN THEY CAN BE MARKET READY. IT COULD BE DECADE BEFORE THEY ARE READY.

You had your university education in Bangladesh. And then studied and worked abroad. Talk a little bit about women’s participation in tech on the international level.  

There was a strong prejudice that women can’t have meaningful careers in tech related fields. Parents were afraid to let their daughters go to a foreign country to study. But this has changed a lot.

Engineering is a male dominated sector and there is concerns of safety. They also fear how they can cope up with this. But I think women there’s a lot now that can motivate women, internet for example is one of these tools that can empower women. You also have many international universities, including in Australia having special provisions for women. There is this 50 percent reference system in Australian universities which means if you have 10 places then 5 must go to women.

During my PhD program I saw a lot of women, comparable to male candidates. You don’t have a gender disparity here. Maybe it exists in Bangladesh. During my time in BUET we had a lot more male students than female. But it is different now in Bangladesh. So, I am hopeful that the prejudice is less prevalent now.

Dr Nitu Syed
Dr Nitu Syed

You had a lot of experience in academia. What do you think are the differences between education system in Bangladesh and in Australia?  

We used to focus a lot on rote memorization. I tend to think that as a positive thing. I see many Bangladeshi youth are joining in good organizations here. They are working in companies like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. This inspires me. And I want to give the credit for this to Bangladeshi education system. The fact that our pressure of study was so great, or that we resorted to group study when we didn’t understand the lectures — helped us in the long run. Bangladeshi education system taught me to face challenges. It even helped me during my PhD. If I didn’t have that background I wouldn’t have come this far. Students from Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries are doing well in big organizations because the education systems in these countries are strict.

In Australia, you don’t have this pressure. They are doing hard work in higher studies, but they are very few in number. Higher studies are dominated by South Asian students. One negative thing though about our education system is that our teachers don’t give students the time like they do here. They are very generous about this. Teachers help students solve any problem they have in their study. If this could be done in Bangladesh that would have been great. I would have done a lot better in learning programming if I had this kind of help from teachers.

You also teach now. What is your thought about our education system from the perspective of an educator.   

I worked in the Independent University for 5 years. It had a great environment and the university made a lot of effort to really teach student. Now some private universities are dong very well because teachers and students overcame many of the shortcomings, be it on the technological side or elsewhere. New generation of teachers are more helpful. I tried to help my students. I used to prepare my lesson plans based off of what I had problem with as a student. And it’s not just me, my colleagues were also very sincere about teaching and helped students.

This is why you see students from North South, East West, or Independent are getting scholarships to study abroad, alongside students from BUET and CUET. Good teachers contributed to this. And we are having increasingly more students coming applying for study in foreign universities.

What’s the industry and academia relations like in Australia. How does it compare to Bangladesh?

Funding is a big issue here. You have big funding here for any project. The big industries invest heavily in the education sector. If industries in Bangladesh can do something similar then our universities will be able to keep pace with foreign universities. Collaborations between universities can be a great thing, like this can include 3 years of study in Bangladesh and one year study or research abroad. The government alone can’t do all of these. Others have to come forward.    

How can we create something like the Silicon Valley in Bangladesh?

If people like us, that are involved in innovation or research in different countries, start to come back to Bangladesh then we can start to share our knowledge and try to work toward a plan. We have to contribute more so that students in this country can get new ideas from us and learn about new technology.

I want to come back to Bangladesh at some point and share my expertise on nanotechnology.

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