Student Spotlight: Vishaal Varahamurthy

Vishaal Varahamurthy ’16
Electrical and Computer Engineering

“Getting into research is probably the best thing that’s happened to me at UCSB,” said Vishaal Varahamurthy, a third year electrical and computer engineering major.

After learning new material that he never learned in class, forming genuine friendships with his research associates, changing his major to better suit his interests and even traveling to another country to research abroad, Vishaal’s undergraduate research experience has proven to be eye-opening for him, solidifying his aspirations to pursue research as a career.

Vishaal involved himself in research early, participating in the Summer Institute of Mathematics and Science (SIMS) the summer before his freshman year, and then EUREKA, a program dedicated to introducing first year students to a broader science community and providing exposure to academic research.

EUREKA placed Vishaal in the Palmstrøm Lab, where he worked with Professor Christopher Palmstrøm and Graduate Student Ryan Need, researching sustainable ways to utilize the conversion of a temperature difference to an electric voltage.

“Half of the Energy that the United States generates gets wasted as heat, and a lot of it is through electronic devices,” Vishaal explains. “For instance, your phone gets hot or your laptop gets hot after you use it for a long time; what we’re trying to do is recover that energy. If you have a temperature difference across a material, through a process called the thermoelectric effect, it can actually generate a voltage, which means you can turn heat into electrical energy you can use. So when your laptop gets hot, it could use that heat to help power itself if you had a thermoelectric device inside of it.”

Though the results of the study were inconclusive, Vishaal still considers EUREKA to be his most impactful research experience so far as it made him realize he wanted to pursue graduate school once he receives his Bachelor of Science degree.

“I learned what it meant to do research, what it means to be in graduate school, what it’s like working with other researchers,” Vishaal describes. “[EUREKA] opened up doors for me; I wouldn’t have gotten into [the research abroad program] or the lab I’m in now if it weren’t for EUREKA.”

After EUREKA, Vishaal switched his major from chemical engineering to electrical and computer engineering and applied to Cooperative International Science and Engineering Internships (CISEI) in China. There he aided researchers who worked on engineering nanoparticles that would be capable of attaching to specific cells and emitting visible light so that researchers could see what is happening inside the body real time.

After his experiences CSEP and CISEI, Vishaal realized that he wanted spread his enthusiasm for science to other people. When he learned his EUREKA mentor Ryan Need was starting a national organization called Ask a Scientist, Vishaal was eager to get involved.

“Ask a Scientist has chapters at a small number of universities and they push out into their own local communities where they set up tables for the general public to ask questions about science,” Vishaal said. “That’s one of the things I’m most passionate about: getting people interested in science and showing them how important it is as a member of society and as a voter.”

Currently, Vishaal is Co-President of Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), Vice President of Ask a Scientist, and working on optimizing metal contact for gallium nitride lasers in the DenBaars group in the Solid State Lighting and Energy Electronics Center. Vishaal describes undergraduate research as the springboard that got him to where he is now.

“I was one of those people who didn’t really know what they wanted to do after college, and I wouldn’t have known what I wanted to do if I hadn’t gotten into research,” Vishaal explains. “If there’s something you’re interested in, just ask about it! Professors love it, graduate students love it, it’s a win- win for everyone.”