Professor Prashant Jain’s Path to Chemistry at Illinois

Date

07/09/20

Originally from Mumbai, India, Professor Prashant Jain’s path to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign began to take shape when he was a young boy with a natural curiosity for the world around him and a passion for reading that eventually led him to discover books and magazines about science, particularly physics and chemistry.

A professor of chemistry, who is also affiliated with the Department of Physics and an associate professor at the Beckman Institute and Materials Research Lab, Jain still follows his natural curiosity in his research, revolutionizing the ability to control and harvest energy from light.

Despite his family’s humble background, or maybe because of it, Jain said, there was never any pressure to make it big or be too ambitious, and college was not a certainty even though he was a good student who was always at the top of his class. His parents managed to send him to a great school run by a Catholic convent despite his family’s limited means, he said, and his parents encouraged his interest in science in every way they could, buying him school-level science magazines.

“It was difficult to afford any fancy gadgets or kits,” he said. “I got exposed to chemistry through one of these magazines. However, I was more interested in physics.”

He recalls several things that further developed his interest in science, a television show, “Peter and His Toy Box,” which explained how stuff works; the dinosaurs-come-to-life movie Jurassic Park, which sparked his interest in the molecular world; and a book, a copy of a Handbook of Physics, which he bought from a paper recycling vendor with money he made selling old Times of India newspapers. 

“I don’t know why I was drawn to the book. It was too difficult for me to grasp; however, I was fascinated by how much we knew about the laws of nature. This is probably when I discovered physics books in the library. I recall reading a short book on special relativity and trying to explain to my mother what it all meant by using the thought experiment of a cricket ball that travels faster than light leading to the breakdown of causality,” said Jain, who spent many afternoons playing cricket or reading books from the school library. “I mostly chose books that were quick reads, like the Agatha Christie series, because I could not put a book down once I picked it up; I had to finish it. Mark Twain was another favorite. I did not enjoy being at school all that much; but I cherished the afternoons when I was free to pursue my hobbies.”

By middle school, Jain knew he wanted to learn science and teach it. He participated in a city-wide science talent competition that won him the Homi Bhabha Young Scientist Gold Medal named after a famous Indian nuclear physicist.

“I wanted to understand things at the molecular and atomic levels. But when it came time for university – in India, a student must pick a specialization before being admitted – I opted for a well-known engineering institution, the Institute of Chemical Technology. I was advised that the top-performing students chose the engineering stream and that it would result in better career prospects than a three-year bachelor-of-science degree,” he explained. 

Fortunately, he met a great group of friends in college, who kept alive his passion for science and broadened his interests even further.

“One of my colleagues sparked my interest in computational science when he introduced me to Donald Knuth’s treatise on algorithms. I also developed an interest in teaching, mainly through informal mathematics lessons to some fellow students,” he said.

In his junior and senior years (2002-03), he was exposed to the latest publications on polymer colloids, hydrogels and conducting polymers.

“All of this fascinating work was being conducted in the U.S., so I decided to pursue PhD research in the U.S. It is quite amusing now, but I remember sending emails to Steve Granick, here in the MatSE department at UIUC, expressing my interest in working on colloids and surfaces. He sent me thoughtful responses encouraging my interest,” said Jain, who was admitted to Georgia Tech and through some quirks of fate, he ended up in the chemistry program and a quantum mechanics course taught by Mostafa El-Sayed, who became his PhD advisor. “So, without any prior planning, I was on path to become a physical chemist and spectroscopist.” 

The Mumbai-London-Atlanta flight Jain took to from India to the United States was his first airplane trip.

“I had never been away from my family, except maybe during my two-month internship, so leaving them was difficult and emotional. I was more anxious than excited, but everyone around me was nice,” he said. “Compared to the hustle-bustle of Mumbai, Atlanta felt deserted.”

It took him months, if not a whole year, he said, to stop feeling homesick.

“In fact, I even took extra courses in case I decided to opt for a master’s degree and return to my family sooner,” he said. “I started PhD research a couple of months later than my classmates, but once I got engrossed in it, I never looked back and finished in four years. My PhD advisor allowed me a three-to-four-week break every year to visit my family.”

Along with adjusting to a new lifestyle, Jain said there were times when he felt out of place but having a great group of friends both inside and outside of his research group made him feel at home.

“I also took up leadership roles in our graduate student organizations like the Georgia Tech student senate – something I shied away from when I was a student in India – which helped me develop a sense of belonging,” he said. “While I excelled at the physical chemistry coursework, which was all very new, the real challenge was my TA job for a synthesis laboratory course, which I had myself formally never taken. The whole idea of a primarily-TA-run lab was foreign to me. I was not very assertive. I had trouble connecting with my students due to my different educational and cultural background. I don’t think I was very effective.”

Jain considers it fortunate that he received the same assignment next semester.

“I was better prepared this time around, and I managed to build a rapport with my students. I also learned that being attentive to my students and having empathy for their academic challenges is as important as knowing your instruction materials, lessons that serve me well even today,” said Jain, who has been a recipient of the School of Chemical Sciences Faculty Teaching Award. “I also felt I did not have much of a life outside of my academic circle. Every break I traveled back to see my family, so I did not have an opportunity to travel in the United States or to experience life outside of campus. Only after I moved to Berkeley for a Miller Fellowship did I learn to engage in the larger community and culture around me.”  

As a college student in Mumbai, he was already familiar with science work at UIUC, as it’s known in the engineering community in India, he said, but he became very well-versed with the university’s excellence in materials science, semiconductor research, and condensed matter physics during his graduate work.

“So, when I picked a few places to apply for faculty positions, UIUC was a top choice. Cathy Murphy, Ken Suslick, and Ralph Nuzzo were all known to me as leaders in my broader field,” he said. “I was excited when I was offered a position. I remember Charles Harris telling me in the hallway of Hildebrand Hall that it is an excellent place for a physical chemist. It has certainly turned out that way for me.”

Having traveled his path to Illinois, from Mumbai to Urbana, Jain shared some words of encouragement and advice for current international students in the Department of Chemistry. 

“In addition to the pressures of graduate school, our international students face the additional challenge of having to adapt to a new environment, culture, and educational system, while being far away from family and friends,” he said. “What can often help – what helped me – is to create a strong support group of friends and classmates. Share your challenges and successes with them. You will find many commonalities in your experiences. That can make it easier to feel a sense of belonging and to ride out the tough times.

A large, diverse campus with students from all over the world, UIUC offers many opportunities to keep in touch, he said, perhaps through cultural events, with a part of what you may have left behind at home. 

“I was lucky to have a very supportive PhD advisor. Mostafa is like family to me. He made my graduate school years easier and momentous,” Jain said. “So, my advice is to find mentors who are supportive to you both personally and professionally. Yes, it is important to pursue success, but not at the expense of your happiness or mental health. Be open with your family back home about the struggles you face, just like you share with them your accomplishments.”

Jain said he is sympathetic of the discrimination and hardships experienced by our international students in the society-at-large.

“So, I urge you to speak up about injustices both for your own sake and so that our institutions learn to adopt welcoming and inclusive practices; it is my belief that our department and university will have your back,” he said. “Finally, please know you enrich our institution and our local society. You belong here. It must be said that our international students and graduates have made indispensable contributions to the scientific and cultural advancement of the United States. You are needed here.”

 

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