Please tell us about yourself. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?
Parag Banerjee (Ph.D., 2011) knew at a young age that he would one day be a problem-solver – science runs in the family. “My father was a physicist who developed electron microscopes,” he said. “I watched him spend long hours working, at home and in his lab. From our dad, my brother – who is also a physicist – I learned a strong work ethic, in addition to a love of science.”
What did you study?
Banerjee received his doctorate in material science and engineering from the University of Maryland, his master’s in materials science from Washington State University and his bachelor’s degree in metallurgical and materials engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology
Tell us about your career path
Banerjee arrived at Washington State University from Chandigarh, India, in 1998. After completing his master’s in materials science and engineering, he took a job at Micron Technology Corporation in Boise, Idaho. An excellent opportunity to put theory into practice, Parag learned a lot at Micron, but kept his sites on earning a doctoral degree.
While looking into the top programs in the U.S., Parag connected with MSE Professor Gary Rubloff.
“Gary and I had a long conversation and I was immediately struck over our commonalities, especially his growing interest in atomic layer deposition at the time,” said Parag. An offer was made not long after, and during the summer of 2006, Banerjee began his Ph.D. research at UMD. At the time, Banerjee was interested in research that had social relevance and would make an immediate impact on society.
How was the experience at UMD?
“The Clark School is highly interdisciplinary, and there are so many cross-collaborations going on between departments – it’s a very vibrant atmosphere,” he said. “The best part of my experience at UMD was the research facilities. Going in, I knew how to formulate a research plan, but not so much on how to implement it – UMD made it easy to execute my plans. Plus, I made some great friends in Professor Rubloff’s research group – we all remain close to this day.”
In addition to his on-campus studies, Banerjee branched out and spent four months in 2009 at the University of Pennsylvania, under the tutelage of Professor Dawn Bonnell, currently the Vice Provost for Research at Penn.
“Working under Dr. Bonnell was a fantastic experience in that I was tasked with solving completely different problems,” said Parag. “I made some good connections there and even published a paper, so I highly recommend collaboration – internships specifically – to current engineering students. It’s an excellent way to expand your knowledge.”
What are you doing currently?
Currently, Banerjee serves as an associate professor in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Central Florida (UCF). His research interests include atomic layer deposition and etching; surface engineering for catalysis and solar energy harvesting. He is part of the energy conversion and propulsion faculty cluster. Banerjee recently made headlines after he and his research partner, Srikanth Singamaneni – a professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis – landed an NSF grant to develop an early warning device for would-be heart attack patients.
“Detection that happens at the molecular level using plasmonics is all optical based,” he said.
“My Co-PI does everything through spectroscopic techniques, so our idea is to convert optical signals into an electric current, which can be integrated on a chip or an iPhone, for example. Moving from optics to electric-based systems is where the challenge and innovation is, so we’re hoping to make a significant impact.”
How does your research benefit the society?
When a heart attack strikes, every second counts, which makes early detection that one is occurring critical for saving lives.
Speeding up this detection process is what the University of Central Florida researcher is working on with the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a rapid heart attack detection device.
“Our goal here is to basically remove that guess work and give first responders, EMTs and hospitals the ability to go in, take a small blood sample and confirm that such an event has indeed taken place,” says Parag Banerjee.
While tests for heart attacks currently exist, they are slow and require specially trained personnel. Since heart attacks prevent blood from bringing oxygen to the heart, the faster a heart attack can be diagnosed, the quicker the blood flow can be restored, preventing further damage to the heart and potentially saving a person’s life. Delayed treatment of heart attacks could occur if they are misdiagnosed as a less serious medical problem, such as heart burn or a panic attack.
Banerjee and co-principal investigator Srikanth Singamaneni, a professor and pioneer in biosensors at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis, are working together on the project.
The device is being designed to detect cardiac troponin I, a protein that is released into the blood when there is damage to heart muscle cells, thus serving as a biological indicator that a heart attack has occurred.
Banerjee described the device as a “lab-on-a-chip.” A sample of blood dropped onto a chip would start the test.
The chip will consist of gold nanoparticles whose surfaces will carry tiny cavities like mold casts, specifically in the shape of cardiac troponin I. Much like a key that only fits a certain lock, only cardiac troponin I will fit in that shape. Once the protein rests in this cavity, changes in the gold’s electrical conductivity from binding with the protein will result in a readout, such as an illuminated LED light, thus indicating the presence of cardiac troponin I in the blood.
“Each protein has a very specific structure, and it is this structure that imparts them an ability to do specific tasks in our body,” Banerjee says. “We plan to exploit this very structure of the cardiac troponin I molecule to detect it.”
The new test being developed is novel in its gold nanoparticle cavity design as well as the potential speed and ease of use it could offer.
At this stage of the development, the researchers will be combining their knowledge of the electrical properties of gold nanoparticles and of creating molecule-specific cavities to make the device and begin testing its output when cardiac troponin I binds with the gold nanoparticles.
Banerjee said the concept of making molecular cavities on gold nanoparticles could also be potentially used to detect other molecules in a variety of situations, including testing for molecules that are a signature for cancer or for detecting explosives such as TNT.
Any advice to students?
He said: “Learn to manage your time well – this is the single most important aspect of graduate student life. Aim for a life experience, not just academics – it’s important to make good friends along the way. Also, topics studied in engineering are complex – learning them doesn’t come easy to everyone – so don’t be ashamed to ask for help. Finally, ask yourself what drove you to this profession, to science, in the first place and, after you graduate how do you want to impact society?”
When asked if he hopes to pass on his love of science to his two daughters, Parag said, “I hope I can pass my love for creative pursuits to them! Whatever they choose, I just want them to be happy, confident adults. As a parent, that’s about the best we can hope for.”