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Meet Dr. Shobhana Narasimhan: Professor of Theoretical Sciences

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.

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 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.

Dr. Narasimhan and her current research group at JNCASR.

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?

Being Dean of Academic Affairs was rewarding and enlightening. At JNCASR, we only have graduate students. We are a small research institute: 56 faculty members and 350 graduate students. My time as Dean made me appreciate, even more, to what extent one's time as a PhD student is full of highs and lows – all the excitement and frustration characteristic of a life in research. One must prepare students for how to deal with these ups and downs. We teach them the science of course, but there is so much else we must teach them, that we sometimes neglect. I introduced an Orientation program for new students, some of it was fun (in a meaningful way), for example we had a drama therapist come and work with our freshman class about the tensions they were facing as they adapted to life in graduate school.

Dr. Narasimhan with the co-organizers of the Career Development Workshops for Women in Physics at ICTP, Trieste: Elizabeth Simmons and Erika Coppola.

Tell us a bit about your work for promoting women in STEM. What organizations are you involved with, what's their mission, why it’s important to you, and what you do for them? Any stories you want to share about role and importance of mentorship in supporting women in STEM.

I have always been very aware of how much of a minority we are, as women in science...right from the time of my Junior College class at St. Xavier's college, which consisted of 71 men and 4 women! I think women in science have a tough time everywhere, and women in science in developing countries have even more constraints that they have to operate within. I used to be a member of the Working Group for Women in Physics of IUPAP. Since 2013, I have been co-organizing Career Development Workshops for Women in Physics at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy. These workshops provide women in physics (primarily from the developing world) a space in which to share their experiences, and also to acquire skills that will help them rise in their careers (that men often pick up through the informal old-boys'-networks that they are part of). We have also conducted this workshop at the brand-new ICTP that was set up last year in Kigali, Rwanda. Women who have attended these workshops have said that they have been transformative experiences.

There are so many moving and inspiring stories from these workshops that I don't know which ones to share! Let me tell you one: at the first such workshop, Zipporah, a student from Kenya, met Arti, a professor from India. Zipporah said that she wanted to do a PhD but had no problems to work on. Arti said she had many ideas for problems, but not enough people to work on them. So, they decided to work together … and Zipporah visited Arti in India, and the work they did together, formed part of Zipporah's PhD thesis, she is now Dr. Zipporah Muthui! The women I have met at these workshops have sometimes overcome such enormous odds to succeed in physics...wars, huge family obstacles, is sheer determination and love of physics that has kept them going. I feel honored and privileged that I can do my little bit to help them.

Dr. Narasimhan and other participants at the International Women’s Day 2019 event organized by Brookhaven Women in Science.

Tell us about your experience of teaching physics in developing countries in Asia and Africa? What similarities/differences did you notice? Any students/stories that stand out?

I have been involved with the Quantum ESPRESSO group as well as ASESMA (the African School for Electronic Structure Methods and Applications) in teaching solid state physics and Density Functional Theory in one-or-two-week-long workshops in Asia and Africa. It's immensely rewarding; even the little bit that I can teach over such a short period is met with such interest and enthusiasm. There is a great urge and thirst for learning in developing countries, but a lack of resources and a dearth of trained people who can teach.

Many of the students who attended the first few workshops are now themselves lecturers at colleges and mentoring the next generation of students. I am so proud of them. To mention just two of my former 'mentees' who are now themselves lecturers: Anne Justine Etindele from Cameroon, and Winfred Mueni from Kenya.

Tell us about your role in the Standing Committee on Women in Science of the Government of India.

The Government of India set up two committees...the National Task Force on Women in Science, and the Standing Committee on Women in Science, to advise the government on how it can promote the cause of women scientists. I was a member of both these committees. The committees have had a broad mandate, to make recommendations on how policy should be changed. It remains to be seen whether this makes a difference in reality, one should always be optimistic, I guess!

Dr. Narasimhan with two of her African mentees, Anne Justine Etindele from Cameroon, and Winfred Mueni from Kenya. Both are now lecturers at universities, and researchers.

What do you do for fun outside of your work?

I think I am quite a geek. I read a lot...mostly fiction, especially detective fiction, though recently I have also started reading some fantasy. I like to cook and bake, though I'm trying to do less of that lately, since I'm trying to switch to a low-carb diet! I belong to a quiz group, we meet every once in a while, to take part in madly competitive trivia quizzes. I'm interested in art, especially modern art, and I like to go to museums.

If you could go back in time, what advise will you give to your younger self?

“Chill out!”. I think I was too stressed out much of the time. I always worried about not being a good enough student first, and then a good-enough scientist later. I wasted a lot of time and energy in being worried and depressed. It was only when I grew older that I recaptured the pure joy of doing science, which first attracted me to physics.

What advice/suggestions would you give to early career scientists in the nanoscience field?

Try to sit back and look at your work from a distance, and look at the big picture (does that sound ironic? 'Big' picture for 'nano'science?!) Ask the big questions. Asking the little questions may raise your h-index but won't necessarily enable you to make the big breakthroughs. That is true for all science, not just nanoscience.

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