Where are you from originally?
India. I did my masters at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT Kanpur), and then I moved to South Korea to do my PhD with Professor Kimoon Kim at POSTECH (Pohang University of Science and Technology).
How did you become interested in nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology is very multidisciplinary—biologists, chemists, physicists, and materials scientists use it all the time—and everyone contributes to the field in their own way. During my PhD, some of my projects were very relevant to nanotechnology, and I had hands-on experience in the field. I was making interesting nanostructured materials, such as hollow polymer spheres or ultra-thin two-dimensional materials. And I was able to make those precise nanostructures by tuning the conditions. If I remember correctly, I think I made a hollow polymer nanocapsule with a diameter of 150 nanometers and a cell thickness of one nanometer. And it was a very robust, precise structure that could kill antibiotic resistant bacteria efficiently, so that was very exciting. The 2D material I made was used to fabricate a resistive random access memory device to store electrical information.
What I’m studying now is entirely different, but it helps that I had that previous exposure to the field. Now, my main goal is to build wholly synthetic molecular machines. It’s extremely challenging: first, you need to understand every component of the machines to make it work. At this point, I’m trying to understand and categorize the components of these molecular machines—their individual behavior in solution or the solid state, their photophysical properties, their redox properties—and then ultimately the goal is to put all of these components together and build the final structure. And one more thing I like to point out: I don’t want to build just a prototype switch, which is relatively easy. People have been doing that for the last couple of decades. That’s not my goal. I want to build something that will do some work, so it’s challenging.
How do you explain what you study to people who don’t know anything about chemistry or nanotechnology?
That’s difficult, but you can break it down into small components and give real-life examples, which really helps. For example, my plan is to make these molecular machines, right? And if I want to do some cellular-level delivery of drugs using these tiny machines, I can explain how medicine works. Everyone has had the experience of taking medicine to cure some sickness or disease they’re suffering. So this is a way to achieve that goal; I can skip the details of how exactly things are working, but it’s not difficult to imagine you’re taking medicine and the result is that it cures the disease.
Can you tell me a little more about the potential applications of your work?
Molecular machines, I think, will be very important in the future, even if that’s difficult to imagine right now. This is due to their tiny size, which is smaller than the size of bacteria or cells. You can achieve medical benefits with molecular-level precision, which is something new and exciting because you can encode so much information in the structure while you’re designing these tiny machines. If you think about any other application from a materials point of view, then you need to have knowledge of the cooperativity—how individual machines will work together towards a common goal. But if you think about the medical aspects, then you need to think about how they behave individually on a molecular level, and their interactions.
And where do you hope to be in the next five or ten years with your career?
I want to be in academia; that’s an easy answer. I’d like to have my independent research group and work on projects that have real applications that are useful for society. So my plan is to have a start-up based on my research, with maybe 30% of the group research devoted to that. I don’t know exactly how things will go, but that’s the plan.
Can you tell me about a mentoring experience you’ve had at Northwestern?
We have mostly postdocs in our group, and only one or two grad students, so I’m not mentoring anyone right now. But I’m taking a course right now at Northwestern, MDT—Mentored Discussions of Teaching. It’s a very interesting course offered through the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL). I thought it could be useful to help me become a successful mentor and to know the different techniques that teachers at Northwestern use. Grad students and postdocs get paired with faculty members, and we have discussions about what to focus on to improve teaching and keep students motivated, which can sometimes be difficult. It’s sometimes a very dry, grade-based system, where you need to have a good grade to get into a university, but that’s not everything. Some talented students aren’t interested in just studying, memorizing things, and taking exams. We’ve had a lot of interesting discussions so far, and I’ve been paired with Stephanie Knezz, teaching faculty at Northwestern, and I’ll be learning from her.
What’s the best part about being in the Stoddart group?
It’s a big group, which can sometimes be complicated. People have different ethnicities and different backgrounds, and that can also be a benefit. You get to learn new things; not only science, but also life. So that’s very interesting.
And of course, Fraser is very generous and very supportive, I must say that. We can do anything; he always supports us, so long as it’s reasonable and related to meaningful research, of course. He’s not just a great scientist, he’s a great human being, and that helps. He’s very inspiring.
Does he mentor you in social media?
He’s the one, actually, who asked most of us to open Twitter accounts. And he was my first Twitter friend!
What do you like to do outside of the lab?
I love painting. When I was in school, I thought maybe I could be a painter. But that’s a huge risk, right? I wasn’t that brave, so I did chemistry instead. But chemistry is, of course, a creative subject; you get the feeling of a creator because you make molecules and material that never existed. So you’re the creator. I like that feeling.
The International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University is an umbrella organization that represents and unites more than $1 billion in nanotechnology research, education and supporting infrastructure.