Bio-Materials and Polymer Composites are incredibly versatile, with diverse applications not only in environmental remediation but also in healthcare and the EV industry (LI-Ion Batteries).
Samapti Kundu, our next pathbreaker, Senior Postdoctoral Scientist in an academia-industry partnership project between the University of California San Diego & Scripps Institute of Oceanography in collaboration with the University of Hawaii, builds Artificial Coral Reefs (3D Printing) that play a crucial role in protecting coastal areas in Hawaii against flooding, erosion, and storm damage.
Samapti talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about giving up a secure industry job for an exciting opportunity to develop something groundbreaking which could be a game changer for the engineering of artificial coral reefs and saving the marine ecosystem.
For students, stretch yourself out of your comfort zone to try out new things, because those are the traits that will automatically lead you to your career path!
Samapti, can you tell us about your growing up years?
I am from a small village, Jhantipahari in Bankura district of West Bengal. I completed class V-X from Jhantipahari PK Girls High School. I topped in my school. For my XI-XII studies, I took admission to Jhantipahari High School. I was among the top 50 students under West Bengal Board which was the proudest moment for me and my family. My mother is a primary school teacher, and my father runs a small village business. They are the first teachers of my life, and their parenting made me what I am today.
From a young age, I knew I wanted to become a scientist and contribute to our society by tackling some real problems that we are currently facing. I completed my BSc, MSc, and PhD degree from The University of Burdwan. During my PhD, I developed various nanomaterials and polymer composites and applied them in treating water pollution and in lithium-ion batteries.
After my PhD, I moved to Israel and started my postdoctoral research on wastewater treatment. After completing my postdoctoral project, I moved to the United States and joined as a Senior Analytical Scientist at Rinati Skin LLC, a cutting-edge research, design, and manufacturing company in the field of biotechnology and biomedical applications of plant stem cells. Currently, I am a Senior Postdoctoral Scientist serving jointly at the University of California, San Diego & Scripps Institute of Oceanography, San Diego, USA in an Industry-Academia collaborative project on building Artificial Coral Reefs with the larger goal of saving the marine environment.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
After my schooling in Jhantipahari, I moved to Bankura and got admitted to Bankura Christian College where I completed my graduation with Physics Hons. I topped my college and secured 4th rank at Burdwan University. After that, I moved to Burdwan for my Masters degree in Physics, and in my 4th Semester, I took Materials Science as a special paper.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
I am from a small village in West Bengal where higher education is not a common pursuit, especially for women. In my village, everyone knows each other, and most families have worked and lived off the land for generations. However, times have changed, especially in the rural farming communities where I grew up. As the youngest girl in my family, I was expected to follow in the footsteps of my family members before me — but my parents understood my desire to become part of a fast-paced, global, and modernized world.
I got admission to a government engineering college for a BTech degree, but when my parents understood my desire to become a scientist, they supported me in my pursuit of a science career.
I was inspired by my physics teacher and got the passion from him to pursue physics.
I have always been self-motivated and focused on my goal. Becoming a scientist means more to me than just a career and a degree.
I was inspired by my mom, who always had a keen interest in education and taught me that hard work was necessary to achieve my higher education and science goals. My mother’s inspiration has in turn compelled me to show other students from similar humble backgrounds that such a career is possible.
My two sisters and my elder brother studied bachelor’s in arts, and they always wanted me to choose a science career to make a difference. My younger brother is a masters in biotechnology and is motivated to contribute to modern science. They always stood by me like a pillar not only in my success but also in my failures.
After my master’s degree, I was selected as a high school teacher and got a fellowship from DST to pursue my PhD at the same time. At that time, I was in a dilemma of choosing between a stable secure job and my passion. I am happy that I chose my passion and decided to pursue my PhD degree which later changed my life.
I got married after finishing my PhD. Since my husband is also a PhD and we follow the same path, we supported each other in our careers. I always intended to pursue an international career. He was the one who always motivated me to follow my passion and stay focused and calm through challenging situations.
Tell us about your career path
From a young age, I knew I wanted to become a scientist. I quickly read through all the science books at the local school library, many of which had been donated by my teachers. I was first in my class in both secondary and higher secondary school, and I was determined to attend college. To make my way, I tutored other students to support my education. I also helped underprivileged students by teaching them science but did not ask for anything in return. I was always aware that I needed to maintain a very good academic record to be eligible for a scholarship for my higher studies. I was the top student in the physics major at my college and ranked 4th in the whole university at my time of graduation in 2010, which helped me to earn a few scholarships to support my undergraduate education, including State-Merit Cum Means and Central DST-INSPIRE.
In 2012, I enrolled in a Masters degree program. As part of a special paper in Materials Science, I completed a research project on “carbide materials.” From then on, I had a strong desire to become active in scientific research. Based on my academic performance, I was awarded a spot in a National PhD fellowship program (DST-INSPIRE) in 2013. I completed my PhD in “Synthesis and characterization of nanocrystalline metal oxide semiconductors and composites with different morphologies” from the University of Burdwan in 2018.
I understand that my role in science is not to just be successful in research but also to interact with my community, and other students, and to lead and transform society for the better. My volunteer activities reflect this, particularly my role as a peer tutor to encourage female students to excel in science and math. I have always sought to encourage female students to apply to graduate school. I mentored two female graduate students during my doctoral research project. I trained them in building and characterizing new materials and their applications. My goal for my mentees was to help them in earning research jobs besides publishing their work.
After completing my PhD, I started to teach Physics at Calcutta University Technology Campus as a visiting lecturer where I tried to inspire some engineering students to pursue their careers in advanced science & technology.
In 2019, I obtained a position at Technion-IIT, Israel as a postdoctoral researcher. This was a large step toward my dream of becoming an international researcher. In 2020, I received the Lady Davis postdoctoral fellowship to continue my postdoctoral research. At Technion, I worked with people from different countries and origins with whom I work with great harmony. Me and my advisor at Technion developed an innovative technology to remove dangerous pollutants from drinking water. This novel, simple & cost-effective technology efficiently removes and destroys synthetic organochlorine chemical compounds (PFAS). PFAS is a family of problematic pollutants, also known as “forever chemicals” because of their chemical stability and environmental persistence. Our work got noticed and Israeli news media and several international news media covered our article which motivates me as well as other researchers to work on this path. During my postdoc, I developed several analytical skills which helped me later to switch to an industry career.
In 2021, I moved to the United States and joined the Industry as a Senior Analytical Scientist at Rinati Skin LLC (California, USA), a cutting-edge research, design, and manufacturing company in the field of biotechnology and biomedical applications of plant stem cells, with a broader prospect for applying my knowledge to product development for the benefit of our society. At Rinati Skin, I worked on the research & development of plant-based pharmaceutical, medicine, and food products including their quality control and manufacturing.
Later, I joined as a Postdoctoral Scientist at the University of California, San Diego & Scripps Institute of Oceanography (joint program) in an Industry-Academia collaborative project in September 2022. The current project is focused on building Artificial Coral Reef with the larger goal of saving the marine environment, which is a “dream come true” moment for me. I got selected for this position based on my industrial experience and my theoretical and experimental knowledge in polymer sciences and nanomaterials throughout my whole career.
How did you get your first break?
After my PhD, I approached several international professors, sent my CV, highlighted my research interests, and wrote several research project proposals for grants. Finally, I got selected in the Civil & Environmental Engineering department at Technion-IIT, Israel as a Postdoctoral Researcher.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
The biggest challenge that I faced while applying for a PhD was funding. After my Masters, I decided to join the Materials Science group at The University of Burdwan but didn’t have enough funding to sponsor my research. I applied for several fellowships and gave exams (NET, GATE, etc.) to qualify for a fellowship. In 2013, I succeeded in the GATE exam and ranked 152 in physics all over India. Then, I applied to DST for an INSPIRE Fellowship with a research project and got selected to pursue my PhD with funding.
The next challenge was when I wanted to start my international research career after my PhD. I approached several professors and it took me almost 8 months to get my first postdoctoral position.
The next challenge was when I decided to switch from a secure industry job to an academia-based industry project. Switching from academia to industry was much easier for me but when I decided to come back to academia on a very global challenging project, it was the biggest decision of my life. And I feel fortunate that I got an opportunity to be a part of this project.
Apart from these career transitions, there are always challenges when you want to pursue a research career. To address these challenges, I always take a pause, clearly think about the situation very calmly and finally take short steps.
Where do you work now?
I work as a Senior PostDoctoral Scientist in an academia-industry partnership project, jointly at the University of California San Diego & Scripps Institute of Oceanography in collaboration with the University of Hawai’i to build Artificial Coral Reefs to protect coastal areas in Hawaii against flooding, erosion, and storm damage.
What problems do you solve?
I work as a Materials Scientist on this interdisciplinary project. My research focuses on the development of bioactive materials including the bio-fabrication of hydrogels with chemical cues for artificial reef engineering. This project is very challenging since we need to build those artificial reefs not only at a laboratory scale but also install them out in the ocean. The main challenge is their stability since the artificial reefs will be in the ocean for years.
What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills?
This job demands a strong background in materials science, environmental engineering, polymer chemistry, chemical synthesis, drug delivery, material characterization, and analytical skills since the project is highly interdisciplinary.
I gained a good understanding of materials science both theoretically and experimentally during my PhD. I worked on the detailed structure of nanomaterials and solved several complex structures through detailed characterization of nanomaterials and their polymer composites. After my PhD, I wanted to apply my knowledge in solving environmental concerns, especially soil and water. I got that opportunity in Israel during my first postdoc where I was able to develop organoclay-polymer composites to destruct several recalcitrant organic pollutants from the ground and drinking water. During my postdoc tenure in Israel, I strengthened my Materials science, polymer chemistry, and environmental engineering knowledge and gained analytical skills, especially in chromatography and mass spectroscopy. After finishing that project, when I joined as an Analytical Scientist in Industry in the US, I applied previous analytical skills and upgraded them to an industrial scale. I acquired a strong industrial background in biotechnology and chemical engineering and upscaling materials which was an important factor for this position.
What’s a typical day like?
I like to start my day early. I start my work at 7.30 AM and try to wrap everything up by 4.30 PM, sometimes earlier or later depending on my work. I always have a plan for the whole week beforehand since it’s a collaborative project and I need to attend several meetings all over the USA and internationally. I have organized designated time slots for different aspects of the project such as material synthesis, characterization, stability & degradation testing, and release tests in the ocean as well as 3D printing biopolymers and their optimization for better binding & stability of the material. Apart from those defined activities, I try to work on a completely new idea and explore new materials once every two weeks which is like a fun day for me.
What is it you love about this job?
The first thing I love about my job is that I’m working independently on an academia-industry collaborative project that aims to solve the greater problem of saving the marine environment. Although the project is challenging, I enjoy every little outcome of the project, and everyday I’m learning something new. It gives me immense pleasure to work in a field of cutting-edge research plus a great work-life balance.
How does your work benefits society?
Marine ecosystems, consisting of plants and animal life, are essential for our planet’s survival and for combating climate change. Coral reefs are an integral part of this marine ecosystem. The artificial coral reefs will be designed to work with local ecology to create a living, growing, and self-healing system. The reefs will provide a natural defense that can keep pace with sea-level rise over time and slow down waves, dissipating their energy before they reach land. A big benefit of artificial reefs is that they can be rapidly deployed to provide immediate protection while promoting the growth of reef-supporting organisms. Natural reefs take decades to mature, but the artificial versions can reach full functionality in a matter of months to years.
Our team is working on 3D printing biomaterials that will be coated onto the artificial reefs. The biomaterials will be designed with special microstructures to enhance coral recruitment, the process through which tiny drifting coral larvae attach and establish themselves on a reef. The microstructures also aim to inhibit algal and bacterial fouling on the artificial reefs. This is an exciting opportunity to develop something groundbreaking which can later be a game changer for the engineering of artificial coral reefs and saving the marine ecosystem.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
During my first postdoc in Israel, I worked on a simple cost-effective organoclay-based polymer composite system to remove the so-called forever chemicals (Perfluoroalkyl substances PFAS) from drinking water for the first time in Israel. The system works and that natural clay-based polymer system adsorbs and destructs PFAS within an hour, which was a great success for me and my lab. That work got published in a chemical engineering journal and Israeli news media covered our work. That was the proudest moment for me.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
My first message for our students would be – never give up, stretch yourself out of your comfort zone to try out new things. Be patient in life, there will be a cycle of success and failure and you will always gain experience in between. Try to make short-term goals and this will automatically lead you to your path. Take accountability for your own decisions, and believe in yourself, especially in the worst situations.
I want to continue doing science. Materials and their applications in different fields, especially their effect on the environment and medical field fascinate me. My immediate plan is to learn about the functional properties of nanomaterials and biopolymer and their fabrication techniques on an industrial scale to apply them in water treatment, coral reef engineering, drug delivery & tissue engineering. My ultimate goal is to set up my own material manufacturing start-up in India after a few years.