Nanotechnology at Northwestern

Meet Devleena Samanta, a postdoctoral fellow in the Mirkin Research Group

By Mark Heiden

November 13, 2020

Devleena Samanta is a postdoctoral fellow in the Mirkin Research Group, which focuses on developing methods for controlling the architecture of molecules and materials on the 1 – 100 nm length scale, understanding their fundamental properties, and utilizing those structures to develop novel tools that can be applied in the areas of chemical and biological sensing, gene regulation, immunomodulation, lithography, catalysis, optics, and energy generation, storage, and conversion.

Where are you originally from?

I was born and raised in Kolkata, which is known as the “city of joy” and the cultural capital of India.

Where did you complete your undergraduate degree?

I completed my bachelor’s degree in Chemistry (with honors) at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata.

When did you first become interested in chemistry, and how have your research interests developed over time?

As a kid, I used to watch Dexter’s Laboratory, a cartoon show in which boy-genius Dexter had a secret laboratory in his home, where he would constantly run experiments and create something new. This show made a strong impression on me, and I too wanted to create and innovate. After coming home from school, while my parents were still at work, I would covertly take common household products and mix them together in the hopes that something magical would turn up. Nothing ever happened until one day, I mixed turmeric, one of the most common spices used in Indian cooking, and soap water. To my surprise, the yellow turmeric turned bright red! I was ecstatic about my discovery and almost equally annoyed that I could not explain why this had happened. It is my quest for the unknown in the very basic things that eventually led me to a degree in chemistry.

As a chemistry major, I was excited to gain a molecular view of the world. My initial interests were in the fundamental study of how atoms interact with one another to form bonds and how we can push these interactions to make structures that are not found in nature. But gradually, I realized that one of the biggest impacts chemistry can have is in human health. After all, the human body is a chemical factory and all diseases result from the imbalance of one or more of these chemicals. Therefore, from graduate school onward, my research interests have been to use chemistry to solve outstanding biomedical challenges. Specifically, I am interested in developing chemical structures that allow us to monitor and manipulate the body’s chemicals precisely so that we can find new ways of detecting and treating diseases.

And by the way, in case you are wondering about the turmeric, curcumin in turmeric is an indicator that turns red in a basic solution (soap water) and yellow in an acidic solution. So, next time you are eating Indian food and get a turmeric stain, wash it with vinegar!

How do you explain what you study to non-scientists?

I use chemistry to develop tools that can help to detect diseases such as cancer early.

You recently received a Hanna Gray Finalist Award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. What did this mean for your work? What are you most excited about in your current research?

I am very grateful for this award as it comes with a significant research stipend that I can use toward my career development. The most exciting aspect of my current work is that I am developing new tools that can allow us to “see” molecules inside living cells and make measurements that weren’t possible before. Further development of these tools will not only increase our understanding of how diseases progress, but also potentially lead to the development of early diagnostic platforms.

What has been a highlight of your time at Northwestern?

The people. We have an incredible environment in the lab where the people are energetic, hardworking, helpful, and collaborative. They create a highly stimulating environment where I feel both supported and challenged. Along the way, I’ve had some amazing collaborators and made great friends!

What has been the most challenging aspect of your work or your time at Northwestern?

My graduate work at Stanford was significantly different from my postdoctoral research, so I experienced a huge learning curve. But I love to take on new challenges and learn new things. It’s exciting to think that now I am an expert in an area I had no knowledge about just a couple of years ago.

Can you tell me about your experiences either being mentored or mentoring others?

I think mentorship is one of the most important support systems that can nurture the career development of young scientists. I have been very fortunate to have had outstanding mentors – Prof. Puru Jena, who taught me to question the boundaries of science, Prof. Richard Zare, who taught me inspiration is more important than information, Prof. Chad Mirkin, who taught me to lead by example, and finally my mother, who originally inspired me to pursue a science career and taught me just about everything else. Without them, I would not have been able to navigate life in a foreign country over the past 10 years. My mentors have played a defining role in my life, being both my biggest critics and my biggest cheerleaders, pushing me to be the best version of myself.

In turn, to pay it forward, I have been heavily involved in mentoring high school students, undergraduates, and graduate students throughout my graduate and postdoctoral training. I am a proud mentor of 13 extraordinary individuals, many of whom have gone on to win state and national-level science fairs, prestigious fellowships, and numerous research awards. Notably, at Northwestern, four of my mentees have won the IIN Outstanding Researcher Award. I have also advised many other students through my role as a subgroup leader in the Mirkin Group. I have been recently recognized for my mentorship by the IIN Outstanding Research Mentor Award which I dedicate to all my mentors for showing me the way.

What are your hobbies outside of the lab?

I love dancing, playing badminton, and traveling the world. I have also trained in the Indian classical dance form Odissi and vocal Hindustani classical music for over 15 years and hold advanced diplomas in both.