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. I did my MSc (Chemistry) from IIT Bombay. Eventually, chemistry led to microbiology and a PhD (Organic Chemistry) from University of Chicago. 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.

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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) Tell us about your work

The basic steps of biofuel production start with deconstructing, or taking apart, the cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin that are bound together in the complex plant structure. Enzymes are then added to release the sugars from that gooey mixture of cellulose and hemicellulose, a step called saccharification. Bacteria can then take that sugar and churn out the desired biofuel. The multiple steps are all done in separate pots.

Researchers at JBEI pioneered the use of ionic liquids, salts that are liquid at room temperature, to tackle the deconstruction of plant material because of the efficiency with which the solvent works. But what makes ionic liquids great for deconstruction also makes it harmful for the downstream enzymes and bacteria used in biofuel production.

The Escherichia coli (E. coli) is able to tolerate the liquid salt used to break apart plant biomass into sugary polymers. Because the salt solvent, known as ionic liquids, interferes with later stages in biofuels production, it needs to be removed before proceeding, a process that takes time and money. Developing ionic-liquid-tolerant bacteria eliminates the need to wash away the residual ionic liquid.

The achievement, described in a study published Tuesday, May 10, in the journal Green Chemistry, is critical to making biofuels a viable competitor to fossil fuels because it helps streamline the production process.

4) How does your work benefit the community?

The price of gasoline and other petroleum fuels may be dropping for the moment, but atmospheric carbon concentrations are continuing to rise. A highly touted carbon-neutral alternative to petroleum fuels is the microbial production of advanced biofuels from the cellulosic biomass of perennial grasses and other non-food plants, as well as from agricultural waste.  However, the toxicity to microbes of many of the best candidate compounds for advanced biofuels presents a “production versus survival” conundrum.

“Also, 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.”

5) What did you study?

I did my MSc (Chemistry) from Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay and PhD (Organic Chemistry) from University of Chicago.

6) 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.

7) 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.

8)  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.