Rare chemistry

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An Indian professor in the US sparks student interest in ‘the ultra small world of nanoscience’.

Krisanu Bandyopadhyay
Krisanu Bandyopadhyay

’Nano- technology and nano- biotech are this century’s most promising fields of science, projected to become the biggest market by 2015’.

Harsh Kabra

When 20-something Krisanu Bandyopadhyay, armed with an MS degree from the University of Calcutta, first came to Pune in the mid-1990s to pursue his PhD at the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), he was full of excitement and apprehensions. “For a Calcutta boy who had never stayed out of West Bengal, going to Pune to study was a major step,” he recalls. His subsequent stint in Pune changed his life completely.

At the physics and materials chemistry division of NCL, Bandyopadhyay worked under the supervision of Prof. K. Vijayamohanan, whom he remembers as “an excellent person, teacher, mentor and visionary”. He says, “Prof. Vijayamohanan introduced me to the field of nanotechnology at a time when not many people were interested in it.”

Today, Bandyopadhyay, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan-Dearborn (UM-D), US, is a well-known specialist in nanotechnology. He recently introduced an undergraduate course in nanobiotechnology at UM-D. In lay terms, nanotechnology refers to the science and technology of building devices, such as electronic circuits, from single atoms and molecules. A multi-disciplinary field, it involves the control of matter on the molecular level in scales smaller than 1 micrometre — normally 1 to 100 nanometres — and the fabrication of devices within that size range. Nanobiotechnology applies the tools and processes of nano-fabrication to build devices for studying bio-systems.

Bandyopadhyay’s idea is to encourage the study of existing elements of nature as a template for fabricating new devices with biological and bio-chemical applications. The course focuses on nanotechnology applications in areas such as biosensor development, cancer research and drug delivery; vital tools such as microscopic techniques; nano-fabrication processes, and, most interestingly, ways of borrowing self-assembly ideas from nature to design structures at a nanometre scale.

“Whatever I have achieved today is mostly because of the exposure I received at NCL,” says Bandyopadhyay. “NCL is an excellent academic institution of global standards, one of the best PhD institutes in India. I was fortunate to be there when Dr.R.A. Mashelkar was the Director. He too helped me at different stages of my PhD career.”

Following his doctorate in 1998, Bandyopadhyay joined the University of Miami, US, as a post-doctoral fellow. In 2000, he moved as a Material Scientist to the Global Research and Development Centre of the General Electric Company in Bangalore, where he worked on automotive and data storage applications of polymer composite materials. Two-and-a-half years later, he relocated to Claremont in the US as a research fellow at the at the Bio-engineering Department of the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences, and also taught and researched at the Department of Chemistry, Harvey Mudd College, before joining UM-D in 2005.

A teacher of general and physical chemistry at UM-D, Bandyopadhyay is currently developing an e-learning course in nanotechnology. “The objective of this project is to extend the knowledge of nanotechnology beyond this university at the undergraduate level,” he says. Also in the works is a laboratory course that would allow students to generate simple nanomaterials (like metal and semiconductor nano-particles) and bench-top methods of making patterns in the nanometre scale.

Since 2005, he has been researching the use of carbon nanomaterials — materials possessing grain sizes on the order of a billionth of a metre — to detect very low concentrations of pathogen DNA in water, food or blood. This is aimed at enabling doctors or security staff at airports to detect these traces by using a relatively simple handheld device. “The idea is to come up with something that’s like a pregnancy device, which provides positive or negative readings on the spot,” he reveals. Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, his department has already purchased an atomic force microscope that can image structures at the nanometre scale. This is in addition to other grants from the American Chemical Society and University of Michigan for his research.

Promising field

“Engineered nanomaterials are being used in stain-resistant clothing, sporting goods, tyres, cosmetics, sunscreens, electronics, and for diagnosis, imaging and drug-delivery,” he says. “Nanotechnology and nanobiotechnology are this century’s most promising fields of science, projected to become the biggest market in the history of industrial revolution by 2015.”

One of the most popular teachers at UM-D, as evident from the student blogs, Bandyopadhyay feels it is his obligation to stimulate students to explore the world around them, especially “the ultra small world of nanoscience." That explains why students are integral to his work, be it his research projects or the conferences and symposia he attends. “My effort is equally divided between teaching and research,” he says. “It is the students who do all the great work; my job is to inspire them,” he adds.

Interdisciplinary research

With undergraduate students, Bandyopadhyay is keenly interested in pursuing interdisciplinary research connecting biology and materials chemistry. “The best part about research today,” he states, “is its inter-disciplinary collaboration between biologists, chemists and engineers, unlike in the past when each discipline was secluded and worked independently of the others.” It is therefore important, he maintains, “to introduce students to all areas of natural sciences at the undergraduate level because of the myriad of possibilities that exist today in research”.

Bandyopadhyay reveals that many universities in the US are realising the importance of nanotechnology because of its significance in the future of world science and technology.

He has a high opinion of science and technology education in India. “Our basic knowledge is extremely sound compared to that in most developed countries,” he avers. “This is why students from India do so well in their higher education and careers in the US and elsewhere around the world.” He highlights the need to make education in India more contemporary. “This can be done by introducing the frontier fields of science and technology in undergraduate education,” he advises.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated September 28, 2007)
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