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Undergraduate Major and University: Chemical Engineering, Birla Institute of Technology & Science, Pilani (India)

What do you do? As a graduate student at the University of Washington, Seattle, Dept. of Chemical Engineering, my academic research focuses on molecular dynamic simulation of biomolecules in various solvents and interfaces, which tries to give collaborators theoretically exciting and practically useful atomistic insights into their systems. I use classical molecular dynamics and density functional theory to understand surfaces (like mica and silica) and the interaction of proteins and ions with these surfaces.

How did you become interested in an offbeat and unconventional career such as Chemical Engineering? I grew up in a small industrial town in India (Jamshedpur) around a steel company. So growing up all the adults that I interacted with, including my parents, were engineers that had all kinds of roles in the company – from working in the mines to top management. Inspired by them and my love for chemistry, I became interested in Chemical Engineering.

Why did you decide to do your PhD here at UW? I had come to UW for a master’s degree in Chemical Engineering but I decided to stay for a PhD. The two factors that made me stay were my advisors and research. Jim Pfaendtner and Chris Mundy (at the Pacific Northwest National Lab) are great advisors who are invested in the success of their students and doing great science. Further, I love using molecular simulation techniques to answer research questions. I can be flexible with the problems that I address with the toolkit at hand. I can provide atomic resolution to experimentalists and predict molecular behaviour that may not always be possible with experiments.

Describe an interesting opportunity you’ve had through UW ChemE. I obtained information about a research internship opportunity at PNNL through an email forwarded to the graduate mailing list. I spent the summer of 2014 at PNNL working with a brilliant team of theoretical chemists to understand the self-assembly of peptoids on surfaces. This experience helped me understand the research climate in the US and was pivotal in my deciding to stay in UW for a PhD. Today, I’m gratefully co-advised by Chris Mundy from PNNL. In July 2016, I had the opportunity to go to Girona, Spain for the Gordon Research Conference on Computational Chemistry (my first international trip as a graduate student). Leaders in the field speak at this conference and students present their research as posters. The conference is designed for maximal interaction of participants so that there is a cross-pollination of ideas. I met researchers from around the world and got valuable feedback for my research.

One other thing I’m passionate about is Time to Invent (TTI) Outreach. I got to know of this opportunity through a lab member in 2015, and I have been associated with the cause ever since. Every month we (female students in STEM) visit a local elementary school to work with 3-5th grade girls. We help them perform some science activities and understand scientific principles. We hope to encourage these girls to take STEM-based careers in the future through positive experiences and role models.

What advice do you have for students considering graduate study in ChemE? I would encourage students to take up undergraduate research in different labs to understand their working style and field of interest. I would also encourage them to work in the industry (as an intern or a full-time employee) to be comfortable with the decision of graduate school.