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‘We being a teeny-tiny part of the Universe, there is a lot to be explored’

                                                    ( Dr. Gopalan Rajaraman - Fourth from right )

This month in the Faculty Interview series, we got the opportunity to talk to Dr. Gopalan Rajaraman, professor in Chemistry department at IIT Bombay. He is one of the Swarnajayanti fellowship recipients in 2019 and is a leading scientist in the field of Molecular Magnetism, Biomic Catalysis and Spintronics materials.

1. First of all, we would like to know your journey from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu- to IIT Bombay and to becoming a leading scientist in chemistry with so many prestigious awards to your credit. 

The journey has been great. Born in a poor family, education was difficult. My two elder sisters have supported me a lot in early education. My wife, whom I had met during my Ph.D. in Manchester, was very supportive of my research. So I am really grateful to my sisters and my wife for their support and encouragement, due to which I have come all the way here.

2.  What were the challenges that you faced during your education and research and how did you overcome them?

I started my schooling in my mother tongue Tamil, and all of a sudden, I had to switch to English when I started my UG degree; this was a challenge. Secondly, my college had many strikes and boycotts, and I missed many lab sessions; perhaps this has set my tone for interest in theoretical chemistry. For my masters, I went to Trichy Bharathidasan University. Over here, I got introduced to research, and I developed an interest in quantum chemistry. Going to Trichy for my masters is a defining moment in my research career. Many teachers advised me to pursue research; one of them is Prof. P. Venuvanaligam, a great mentor and he recommended me to go abroad for a Ph.D.

If we talk about challenges in research, research any day is challenging. In fact, I enjoy the challenge, and I keep going until I solve the problem. My main strength is perseverance and hard work, and I never give up despite the difficulties.

3. You specialize in Molecular Magnetism, Biomimic Catalysis and Spintronics materials. What got you interested in these fields? Could you please throw some light on these research areas?

Just like any chemist, I love molecules. I used to joke- Never trust molecules, they make up everything. Molecules are generally classified as organic and inorganic, but for me, the definition is different- molecules that have all their electrons paired and molecules that have unpaired or free electrons. I am particularly interested in the latter class, which makes up 1-2% of all the molecules known to chemists. One of the classic examples of a molecule with unpaired electrons is oxygen that we breathe every day. Molecules with unpaired electrons exhibit magnetism. When I was introduced to this topic in my Ph.D., I was fascinated with the idea of creating permanent magnets using molecules. 

Slowly I diversified into the second area, Biomimic catalysis. Many of the biomolecules, like metabolic enzymes, haemoglobin, myoglobin, have magnetic properties. These enzymes and models that mimic the enzymes perform various chemical transformations which are extremely useful to mankind – from pharmaceutical drugs to all the way to efficient fuels, nature has a solution to all the problems. This has fascinated me to work on this challenging interdisciplinary area. 

These two areas fall under fundamental research. If we take molecules with unpaired electrons and place them at the electrodes’ interface, we can then manipulate the transport of these unpaired electrons. This is spintronics - one of the fast-growing areas with various end-user applications. One day we hope that this will be successful, and all the electronic devices will be replaced by much superior spintronics devices. My DST-SERB Swarna Jayanti project is on this topic, where we are looking for a way to develop smart spintronic materials/devices for various applications.

4. What is the most exciting discovery you made during your research? What was the biggest challenge in your discovery?

Every project I do excites me! I would name a few exciting projects in the last few years. Our group is primarily a computational chemistry group working in the area mentioned earlier. One of the biggest challenges in realising molecule-based magnets is that they work only below -270°C, but we need to have them work at room temperature for a potential application. We have made many predictions in this respect, and notably, two of them are already verified. One of the molecules was made in IIT Bombay by Prof. R. Murugavel’s group with a record blocking temperature of -240 °C and another by a group in Germany with the magnetic properties found to be exactly the way they were predicted. Using the same technique by mere coincidence, we have entered into the area where we study magnetic orientations of some of the molecules and discovered new physical phenomena called ferrotorodicity– a property hitherto unknown and adds a dimension to the molecular magnetic properties. 

In biomimetic catalysis, when we were trying to understand how an enzyme called methane monooxygenase convert methane into methanol very efficiently, we unravel an important mechanistic insight on how nature diligently chooses two iron metal centres to perform such difficult transformations and proposed what it takes to perform such reactions in laboratory conditions.

5. What are the new upcoming research areas in the field of Molecular magnetism? 

Molecular magnetism has been there for the last 20 to 25 years. While 20 years ago, big moleculer clusters were looked up for potential molecular magnets, in the last 10 years or so, scientists started to look at monometallic systems, which are smaller, more efficient and easy to customise for various applications. The applications have diverged from compact information storage devises to Q-bits in quantum computing. While there are many challenges, there also benefits in constructing quantum computers using molecular magnets – an area developing exponentially in the last few years. 

In information storage devices, blocking temperature is now raised to -190 °C and opens up a possibility to store more than 105Gbit/in2- lingering hope for molecular magnets based hard discs. 

Another rapidly developing area is to use molecular magnets for cryogenic refrigeration as an alternative to 3He used in space technology. Molecular magnets have shown the potential compared to alloys which are the industry standard, increasing the hope. Spintronics materials using molecular magnets is a game-changer. It has a lot of advantages. We can control the magnetic properties of the molecules, and hence we can control the electronics device transports. New areas of spintronics using molecular magnets hence has a lot of scope in the years to come.

6. Is there any dream project that you would like to explore?

We are doing theory based on computation. We want to predict and see the prediction materialises. For us, it has already happened. We are very lucky in that way.  Now we ask ourselves, is it possible to predict devices from scratch? I would like to take a molecule with great magnetic properties and use it to predict that molecule’s suitability for a spintronics device such as spin-transistor or spin-valves?  We are actively exploring this area with the hope to achieve this dream project in the years to come.

7. You have done your Ph.D. from the University of Manchester, UK. Why did you choose this college? What is the difference in academic and research environment in UK and in India?

University of Manchester was recommended to me by my professor during my M. Sc. It is also one of the top-rated Universities in the UK. Back then, I was interested in working in a contemporary area that has several applications, and the group I joined perfectly fit this plan. 

In my opinion, abroad, the research is more student-centric, and advisors let you do things independently. Your supervisor supports your ideas, and you are free to work across different groups and departments and universities some times. We used to visit different places, countries which give you different perspectives for your research.

In my opinion, in India, the research is PI centric. In most cases, the PI designs the problem and student who would like to work in an area outside the core interest of the group is hard and challenging. Suppose it is in interdisciplinary research, working across different group/universities may be required, and this poses some additional challenges that not many students are not willing to take.

8. What do you like the most about your job as a Professor?

Being a Prof in IIT, you can work with great young minds. I am here for the past 10 years, and every year a new batch of students comes who are all young and bright. Every student has taught me something new.  I love to teach both UG and PG students. Particularly, I love undergraduate teaching as these students push me to my limits and ask questions which I sometimes stumble, but this always open up a new perspective. I really enjoy such an experience.  I would not have this opportunity in any other profession.

9. What career advice would you like to give to an undergraduate student?

I see many undergraduate students who are very bright and talented do not choose research as their career. Research and Innovation are key components of a growing economy. For that, we need talented minds. While Govt has taken many initiatives like PMRF (Prime Minister’s Research Fellows) scheme to encourage such students to take a research career, it is still a long way to go. Also, I would like to add that students should choose a career that they love and if they do, they will enjoy their work every day.

10. What are the other academic subjects that interest you and why?

Academically I like Magnetism and Physics. I also have a keen interest in Astrophysics. The idea of the universe and we being a teeny-tiny part makes me very curious, and hence I read a lot of related papers/articles in my leisure.