A Molecular Expedition: Prof Debayan Sarkar Bagging The SERB TETRA

A Molecular Expedition: Prof Debayan Sarkar Bagging The SERB TETRA

As long as new molecules will be required, organic chemistry shall be there.

Replied Prof. Debayan Sarkar, Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry, when enquired regarding the future of organic chemistry. This being a highly creative science in which chemists create new molecules and explore the properties of existing compounds, it finds itself in diverse applications, right from the manufacture of everyday items to advanced fields like biotechnology. Prof. Debayan Sarkar recently bagged the prestigious DST (Department of Science and Technology) SERB (Science and Engineering Research Board) Technology Translation Award (SERB-TETRA) for his outstanding contribution to the field of research.

Team Monday Morning reached out to him for an interview and enquired regarding the award, his expectations from organic chemistry and a few of his researches, amongst other things. Read on to find out more regarding his insights and vision.

Delving in!

MM: You have been a part of the NIT Rourkela for over a decade now. How has your overall experience here been?       

DS: On a personal note, campus life has been very good. Rourkela is a good family town. The peaceful lush green campus adds a very calm vibe to the institute. Speaking professionally, lots of things have changed in the last 10 years.  Lecture halls have been growing; departments have increased, research has progressed, the number of students has increased,  new faculty members have joined from the country and abroad, and so many other things. We have witnessed the infrastructure rise right in front of our eyes. Growth has been happening and is happening in every direction.

MM: Looking at the courses you've taught and contributions you've made to the field, we'd like to know what attracted you towards the diverse world of organic chemistry in the first place? What do you think about its future?

DS: From the perspective of a class 12 student, organic chemistry is nothing but a lot of reactions to be memorized.  My start was quite the same. Slowly and gradually, as I went to the details, I realized that it was quite conceptual and can even be called parent chemistry. Drugs, natural extracts, toxins and the products we develop from them were the points I had a huge interest in. For instance, it was quite interesting to know that Tetrodotoxin, a molecule that comes from the skin of pufferfish, is 100 times more toxic than KCN. These facts used to constantly arouse questions in my mind. During graduation, when I started reading further, I started seeing the conceptual aspect even more clearly. This was the place it all started. After I went for PhD, I came across new developments in Organic Chemistry like catalytic reaction, metallic catalysis, organocatalysis, visible light catalysis, etc. If we look at the last 20 years, developments in Organic Chemistry in India have been huge. The field is rising exponentially. In all pharmaceutical industries, the backbone is none other than organic chemistry. Organic chemistry is a molecule of engineering. Hence, as long new molecules will be required, organic chemistry shall be there.                                                     

MM: You have been conferred with the prestigious DST Serb Tetra award. Can you tell us something regarding the award and the basis and eligibility criteria? 

DS: When the advertisement came up from SERB, the most prestigious board in DST, there was a huge competition while applying through projects. There were several branches, like Life Science, Chemical Science, etc. When they came up with the application, they mentioned that one should have carried out a research project from SERB for being eligible. You also need to be a permanent faculty member of any research institution or university in India. Gradations were done after submitting the project report. There were several areas. Let’s suppose one has applied for co-research grants(research grants based purely on your research area). A patent was a prerequisite. Based on our research evaluation to date and the patent, we had to submit the whole list of publications arising out of our research career (after establishing an independent research career). Also, we needed an endorsement from the institution that we had to carry out the project. As the name suggests (Technology Translation Award), they wanted to know how fruitful your research has been/ how it can be taken to industry. Finally, submissions were to be scanned by multiple reviewers before giving results.

MM: Can you throw some light on the major research and projects that helped you in this journey?

DS: There are 3 major domains of focus. The first domain is dearomatization reactions. Aromatic molecules possess aromatic energy. And through a strategy, if we can break the aromaticity of the molecule against the thermodynamics, we generate important complex molecules. This can be illustrated with the example of Tar, a byproduct of the petroleum industry. It is rich in arenes like Naphthalene and Anthracene. If we dearomatize these arenas, eventually we develop industrially essential fine chemicals which are usually quite expensive in the market. So the idea of dearomatization reactions is to use these arenes which are readily available and cost-efficiently generate complex industry essential compounds.

The next focussed domain is visible light catalysis. Its objective is to employ visible light and dioxygen to achieve the dearomatization reactions mentioned above. The motive behind it is to tap on the potential of visible light and oxygen around us. The third domain is metal chemistry. However, we are presently more focused on the former two domains. Apart from these, one of the things that I have been working on and which we have collaborated with a startup in FTBI is developing a concept of Photodynamic Inactivation. Photodynamic inactivation refers to the killing of microorganisms using visible light and photosensitizers. A photosensitizer can be an amine or a vitamin. It is very crucial, especially in this pandemic, when we require techniques to sanitise our food packets, books or any other substance on which one can’t apply liquid sanitisers directly. Since we don’t use ultraviolet light, which is cancerous, this process is not at all harmful.

MM: Looking at the current scenario, what are the challenges that you faced during the research, and how did you overcome them?

DS: A tad less from a personal point of view. I was in Germany from January to June with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) fellowship while my family stayed back here in India. Restrictions were in place, but I could carry out my work. However, as my students were not present here, I did the research work at the University of Regensburg. My research group and I were in contact through online modes, but we got stuck on some of the planned advancements due to lockdown.

MM: How helpful were your PhD students during the research?               

DS: They are everything! We discuss different things on the board, but they are the ones who do hands-on research work. I have guided a total of 4 PhD students; currently, 8 are working in my lab, and I have 14 master students. I feel very proud to say that every one of them works in the lab from morning till night. To say that I am thankful to them will be an understatement to the hard work that they have been doing over the years. Even as the hot summer has pitched in, I find them completing their lunch and coming back to labs and working on their problems. We regularly discuss, and once every week, we have group meetings. I am guiding them, but it is my PhD students and Masters’ students who have done it. Without them, nothing is possible. It is their award.

MM: What do you have to say regarding the research facilities on the campus?             

DS: The research facilities in the Department of Chemistry are really good. We have all the necessary equipment in our department, and whenever there is a new research project, the college has always supported us.

MM: You have taught at Tohoku University, Japan, for a year and were conferred with the Visiting Professor Award. How enriching was the teaching experience at the place?

DS: It was a great experience for me to teach at Tohoku University, Japan. I was allotted a course on Spectroscopic determination of organic compounds, and I was also in charge of an organic practical course along with a senior professor and I was pleased by the enthusiasm and seriousness of the students. A very interesting teaching technique that I figured out is that the senior professor will have a demo practical for each practical experiment. I was impressed by the teaching technique.

MM: You are a member of several societies of chemistry in India and abroad. How has the experience been as a member, and what do you think is the role of such societies? 

DS: I have been a member of the royal society for a very long time, and they are playing a major role in the development in various fields. They have several scholarships for students to go abroad and do research. They give funding for organising conferences and various workshops, and they also have many projects for the welfare of society. These societies are really important, and the experience with the royal society has been really good.

MM: A message you would like to deliver to the readers?  

DS: I believe that we are here to perform our duty, and we should keep working hard because I feel that we get maximum pleasure when we work hard and are honest with our work. So the only message I want to give to the readers is to find happiness in whatever they do, and they will ultimately succeed.                              

The wholesome conversation was filled with gems of advice regarding life in general and the field in particular. A dynamic persona, Prof. Debayan Sarkar, the way he carried on with his works despite the challenges posed, speaks tons of his perseverance and passion. 

Team Monday Morning congratulates Prof. Debayan Sarkar for his achievements and wishes him the very best for his future.

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