Student Spotlight: Richard Swartwout, Electrical Engineer

Traveling to India sparks a personal and professional revelation for first-year Tata Fellow.

Richard Swartwout - West Bengal

When he became a Tata Fellow at MIT in the fall of 2015, Richard Swartwout was already an accomplished engineering student, but not much of a world traveler. He grew up in Connecticut, studied Material Engineering as an undergraduate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and other than a family trip to Aruba, had never left the US. That changed in dramatic fashion with his first trip to India in January 2016, a journey from which his advisor, Professor Vladimir Bulovic, said that he “came back transformed.” A first year PhD student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Richard is working with Bulovic to increase the deployability of solar cells in remote communities.

You visited India for the first time this January. What was your experience like?

Yes, that is true. It was an eye-opening experience and a very fun one indeed! I learned and observed a lot during my time there. I visited Bangalore and some rural parts of Karnataka; Kolkata and the Sundarbans in West Bengal; and villages in Jharkhand. Finally, I went to Mumbai where I had a chance to meet Mr. Tata and [MIT president] Rafael Reif, and attended the Tata Center-Tata Trusts Workshop on Health and Water.

It was amazing to see that while lifestyles are different, so many human traits are just the same. In India, the basic human aspirations are the same, but we take so many things for granted here in the United States. For example, we know we can count on the electricity grid here, but in India that’s not always the case. Even so, people don’t want partial energy solutions and they’re not happy with low performance, even if it’s somewhat better than what they have. They want complete solutions.

I was also asked numerous times about Donald Trump!

How did your travels shape the vision of your project?

Well, the leading solar cell technology today is silicon PV. Those are the typical solar panels you see everywhere. Although they have gotten much cheaper over the years, they still have relatively high manufacturing and installation costs. My project aims to produce a low-cost manufacturing tool that can address the need for low-cost solar energy in India. On the trip I saw how it’s important to build a prototype and test it in the field. It’s easy for us to make single cells and test in the lab, but in the field you really see what’s necessary and what’s not.

What are your aspirations for this project?

Since I am both a Tata Fellow and a PhD candidate, I like to think I have two different goals. During my term as a Tata Fellow, I want to build this technology and be able to successfully test it in the field. As a PhD candidate I want to eventually start a company where the technology is fully developed and can be scaled up and commercialized.

Project aside, what do you personally hope to achieve as a Tata Fellow by the end of your term?

Something I find very valuable about the Tata Center is that it gives you a very broad view that being in the lab is unable to provide. As a Tata Fellow, I hope to be able to make decisions in the field that have a real impact and bring about change.

Richard Swartwout - karnataka
Top photo: Selfie in a village in West Bengal.
Bottom photo: Visiting a classroom in Karnataka with the Mahesh Foundation (Both courtesy Richard Swartwout)