1) What inspires you to work in STEM? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
I’m not sure I would call it inspiration. Sometimes you just keep following along the one subject you seem to understand a little better than others. For me that happened when we started chemistry in high school. I had a great tutor, a chemistry graduate student in a local university himself, who encouraged my interest in chemistry. Eventually, chemistry led to microbiology. It was the fun of trying to understand complex systems at a molecular level. So I would say that chemistry was the inspiration for my microbiology career in STEM.
2) What excites you about your work at the Energy Department/Berkeley Lab?
The connectedness of Berkeley Lab’s (and that of the DOE) research to the largest, most pressing needs of our times makes for powerful inspiration. To be able to use ones skills, training and passion for research towards solving even a small part of a big puzzle, that will help with issues such as energy and sustainability is very exciting. The opportunities to collaborate with stellar scientists in a wide range of areas have also been one of biggest advantages of being a scientist at Berkeley Lab.
3) How does your work benefit the community?
“Being able to put everything together at one point, walk away, come back, and then get your fuel, is a necessary step in moving forward with a biofuel economy. Ultimately, we at JBEI hope to develop processes that are robust and simple where one can directly convert any renewable plant material to a final fuel in a single pot” said Aindrila Mukhopadhyay, vice president of the Fuels Synthesis Division at the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), a DOE Bioenergy Research Center at Berkeley Lab. “The E. coli we’ve developed gets us closer to that goal. It is like a chassis that we build other things onto, like the chassis of a car. It can be used to integrate multiple recent technologies to convert a renewable carbon source like switchgrass to an advanced jet fuel.”
4) What did you study?
I did my MSc (Chemistry) from Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay and PhD (Organic Chemistry) from University of Chicago.
5) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
My early education was in India. However, perhaps many of the underlying issues may be the same. Support and encouragement in early years are important. Dispelling myths about what a young girl can or cannot be good at are also key. Later on in our career it is important to know that there is parity in compensation, career advancement and recognition – not just between men and women but also between STEM and other career tracks. Wholehearted support for scientists who are also parents (both men and women) in young families can play an incredibly important role in retaining women in STEM careers.
6) Do you have tips you would recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
Start early. There are many opportunities at local, state and private colleges and universities (and national labs) in the form of training internships, competitions and participation programs. It’s a good place to figure out which aspect of a Science project resonates best with your aptitude. It is easier to position yourself better, later on.
7) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
I occasionally sketch. Mostly outdoor in my neighborhood (the Mission in San Francisco) and sometimes go as far as to add some color (water color) to the sketch if I’ve had the sense to draw on good heavy paper. It is very meditative.