Updated: Nov 25, 2019
Nanotech NYC sits down with students, faculty and researchers to give those interested a glimpse into the world of nanotechnology. Today we sit down with Dr. Shobhana Narasimhan, Professor of Theoretical Sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore, India.
Tell us a little bit about where you are from.
I grew up in Bombay (now called Mumbai), where I lived until I was 22, then I moved to Boston for a PhD, then Brookhaven and Berlin for postdocs, and now I have been living in Bangalore for 22 years. So what is unique about them...well, apparently, I only live in towns that start with the letter 'B'! More seriously, though, I loved growing up in Bombay because it was lively and cosmopolitan. I had friends whose families hailed from all over India, and who belonged to several different religions...but it never seemed to matter, we never thought about language or religion or caste...or gender. Especially today, when I see divisiveness seemingly growing, not just in India but all over the world, I realize how valuable it was to have that kind of childhood and youth.
Tell us about your professional journey so far.
I did my 'Junior College' (grades XI and XII) and Bachelor's degree at St. Xavier's College in Mumbai, then a Master's at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay...all in physics. I then went to the US, to do a PhD in physics at Harvard University, where David Vanderbilt was my advisor. I did postdocs at Brookhaven National Lab in Long Island and then at the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin. Since 1996 I have been on the faculty of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) in Bangalore, India. This is a relatively new and small research institute in India's 'science city' of Bangalore; by many metrics one can easily argue that it is one of the best places to do science in India. I am a member of the Theoretical Sciences Unit and the School of Advanced Materials at JNCASR. We have 28 materials scientists here, which is one of the highest concentrations in the country.
I went to the US thinking I'd do either particle physics or astrophysics. However, at Harvard I found all the condensed matter physicists much more approachable and I began to think I'd switch fields. That may not perhaps be the best reason to switch fields (though it's not necessarily a bad one), but in retrospect I'm glad I did so! I like the more 'hands on' aspect of condensed matter, and even though a lot of the work I do is quite theoretical, I like the fact that it may have real life applications.
I first started out doing surface physics. There were two reasons for this: this was the mid-1980s, and the scanning tunneling microscope had just been invented, and I found the STM images that were coming out so fascinating and so beautiful...I wanted to understand them and explain them. Also, I found it much easier to think in two dimensions than in three dimensions (and certainly easier than in the much higher-dimensional spaces of, say, string theory). I am someone who likes to think visually, in pictures...in fact, when we had aptitude tests in high school, based upon 'inventoried interests' they suggested I might want to become an artist! Then, as the years passed, making the transition from surface science to nanoscience seemed very natural and easy, as many people did the same thing.
What group are you leading now and what is the group’s overall focus? Can you tell us about some potential applications for your work?
I head the Computational Nanoscience group at JNCASR. Our group works on the rational design of nanomaterials. Throughout history, humans have designed new materials (right from the time of the Bronze Age), but we have done so either by accident – trial and error – or through brute force approaches. We now are in a position where we can really try to understand why materials have the properties they do, and then use this understanding to design bespoke materials tailored for specific applications. We use ab initio density functional theory calculations for this. We work on a number of different applications: nanocatalysts for clean energy applications, magnetic materials for memory storage, etc.
We have done some cool stuff, for example we showed that if gold nanoparticles are deposited on an oxide substrate that has been doped with an electron donor, the morphology of the nanoparticles can be switched from a three-dimensional clumped-up one to a two-dimensional wetting one.
What Is the next big project you are planning to undertake?
I am interested in developing descriptors for various properties of materials. Descriptors are various combinations of microscopic characteristics of a system that correlate with a macroscopic property of interest. To be useful, they should be much faster to compute than performing a density functional theory calculation or carrying out an experiment. We have already identified descriptors for the structure of self-assembled-monolayers of organic molecules on surfaces, for charge transfer when a 2D material is deposited on a metal substrate, etc. We would like to extend this work in the coming years, possibly using machine learning techniques.
Tell us about your previous role as the Dean of Academic Affairs. What was some rewarding/difficult experiences?