In early 2020, Suritra Bandyopadhyay was an undergraduate student in India who was “over the moon” with excitement looking forward to a summer internship at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, where he would have worked on Freeze fracture labeling research.
“I could practically taste my dream coming true. But then, as fate would have it, COVID-19 struck, and this dream that was almost going to be a reality shattered,” said Bandyopadhyay, who goes by “Suri.”
During the lockdown, Suri stumbled upon “the fascinating world” of photoacoustic applications of porphyrin, the very molecule that defined most of his undergraduate and master’s thesis at the National Institute of Science Education and Research, in Bhubaneswar, India. He graduated as a Gold Medalist in the Department of Chemistry and all STEM departments with an MSc, or Master of Science degree, in the summer of 2022.
Now, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, he is working on projects as a graduate student researcher designing activatable porphyrins as theranostic tools in the lab of Prof. Jeff Chan.
“That's how I found myself irresistibly drawn to the Chan Lab,” said Suri, who found the process of applying to graduate schools as an international student very stressful, especially after the pandemic had disrupted his plans for internships two consecutive summers.
“Despite my strong academic and research background, I was somewhat apprehensive,” said Suri, who is the first person in his family to pursue a PhD. “Especially in a top program in the US, which is a significant achievement both for me and my family. In India, there's often a strong emphasis on engineering and medical fields and pursuing pure sciences can be seen as unconventional.”
Suri received a total of seven offers from some of the top chemistry graduate schools in the U.S. After speaking with professors and students from all seven programs, Suri said the more supportive and collaborative atmosphere he perceived at UIUC attracted him most.
“UIUC managed to check off all the boxes on my list. It offered a competitive stipend compared to the cost of living, a welcoming environment, a strong and supportive graduate community, diversity, a solid reputation, and promising prospects,” said Suri, who was also attracted to Urbana-Champaign’s micro-urban atmosphere versus a bustling big city. “The proximity to cities like St. Louis, Indianapolis, Memphis, and Chicago, reachable by a quick drive or train ride, allow for exciting weekend getaways, not to mention my first-ever experience with snow and the fascinating Midwest weather.”
In only his second year in the graduate program, Suri’s first project as a first author is currently under review in a reputable chemistry journal and the Chan Lab has applied for patenting the formulation from their research.
“This accomplishment has been incredibly rewarding and represents a major milestone in my academic journey,” said Suri, who currently focuses on developing molecules as early diagnostic tools and for disease treatment with minimal off-target toxicity. “One of the projects I've been involved in centers around the design of activatable prodrugs and photosensitizers for targeted cancer treatment. In this research, I've made substantial progress in synthesizing a range of engineered photosensitizers.”
Suri explained that these photosensitizers have shown exceptional selective tumor-killing capabilities in mouse models as well as minimal off-target toxic effects, minimizing damage to healthy tissues.
Suri has also developed his teaching skills. While he had tutoring experience, he had never taught a class with 50 students.
In the previous 2022-23 academic year, he received the "Teacher Ranked as Excellent" rating from his students, a recognition that “means a lot,” said Suri. Adding that he was “beyond honored” to also receive the Zumdahl Teaching Award.
Getting involved in multiple graduate student organizations in the department – including Younger Chemists Committee, Student Wellness Coalition, East-Central Illinois ACS Chapter, and International Chemists Association – has helped Suri connect in a meaningful way with other graduate students.
“Working with fellow graduate students in these organizations holds great importance for me as it provides a sense of belonging and community within the department,” Suri said. “As an international student, I have always been conscious of how I speak, how I look, how I carry myself around others – constantly seeking acceptance. My involvement in these roles allows me to connect with like-minded students who share my enthusiasm for chemistry, helping me overcome these feelings of self-consciousness and fostering a supportive environment.”
Participating in these groups has also played a significant role in personal growth, Suri said.
“It enables me to develop and refine essential soft skills such as leadership, communication, coordination, and time management… These organizations offer abundant opportunities for networking and professional development. They allow me to connect with industry professionals, attend conferences, lead event planning, while staying updated with the latest advancements in the field of chemistry. I am glad to use them as platforms to give back to the department by promoting a healthy and supportive environment within the student community and making positive contributions to the chemistry department at UIUC,” he said.
One major highlight, Suri said, was planning and organizing YCC’s Industry Tour to AbbVie in Chicago.
“This experience was particularly special to me because organizing such an event in a foreign country was a significant undertaking. It was a remarkable accomplishment that highlighted my growth and adaptability during my PhD journey,” he said.
He finds time to relax and have fun as well, like weekend trips to the big cities or dancing in locally.
“I look forward to my Urbana Dance Company classes during the week. Wish I had found out about it earlier,” said Suri, who also enjoys experimenting with chemicals in the kitchen. “Well, cooking to be precise. And listening to Taylor Swift and Adele while staying at home doing nothing. I keep making imaginary plans of going back to India, ranting about graduate school with friends, and taking naps anytime I am free.”
Suri has a strong desire to return to India after graduate school.
“My goal is to gather as much knowledge and experience as possible here and then contribute to the STEM community in my home country. I'm actively seeking opportunities that will enhance my growth as both a scientist and an individual,” said Suri, whose dreams of future career plans have broadened by taking advantage of the School of Chemical Sciences Career Services. “Initially, I thought I would go into industrial research and development or establish my own lab to pursue research. However, I was not aware of the numerous other opportunities with a PhD degree like consultancy, science communication, patent protection, science policies - the list goes on.”
Suri said he will explore all these career paths, so he can make an informed decision about what path best aligns with his interests and goals. While he is not yet certain about what he will do in the future, he knows where he will be.
“As I miss my family, food, and a few close friends, my commitment to my long-term goal of contributing to STEM in India remains unwavering,” he said.