Chemistry’s Got Her Hooked: An Unconventional Scientific Journey

Aditi Chandrasekar looks back at her path to teaching, as she welcomes the University’s first batch of BSc Chemistry students.


It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Aditi Chandrasekar’s whole life has been building up to this moment. Even in high school, there was nothing she loved more than to be in the science laboratory, preparing solutions from scratch. I don’t know what it means for someone barely 18 to say they are so sure about something, but I felt that. I knew this was something I wanted to spend my life doing,” she reflects.

Today, she recognises that her childhood fascination for chemistry is an uncommon sentiment. Chemistry is not so popular because it is poorly understood compared to physics or biology. There is this whole bridge of abstraction that has to be crossed to connect it to something that is tangible,” she says. 

Chemistry is not so popular because it is poorly understood. There is this whole bridge of abstraction that has to be crossed to connect it to something that is tangible,” says Aditi. Fortunately for her, her chemistry teacher succeeded in crossing this bridge.

Fortunately for Aditi, her chemistry teacher succeeded in crossing this bridge. In my school, we had our chemistry classes inside the laboratory. The teacher would be talking about something, and suddenly she would take a test tube, do an experiment and we would see some colour change. And she would explain why it was happening.”

Whether it was the shocking blood red of the iron thiocyanate complex forming in a test tube, or the fruity smell signalling the creation of an ester in a beaker, Aditi found herself more and more besotted by the power of molecules. It felt like magic to see such changes happening in a small little tube. These things got me hooked, and I am still hooked! I have not got over the wonders of chemistry,” she says.

The teaching methodologies and philosophy that she witnessed in her school left in Aditi a deep impression, and a determination to become a teacher herself. In 2007, she joined the brand new Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Kolkata, convinced that it would enable her to get a stronger chemistry education than an engineering degree would. It worked out very well; in fact, Aditi worked at an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras laboratory in her final year and she finished her BS-MS degree with a research publication under her belt!

  • Aditi in the lab at IIT Madras

    Aditi in the laboratory of nanoscientist Prof T Pradeep at IIT Madras 

    Credit: Aditi Chandrasekar

Though her earliest brush with research was successful, Aditi was unconvinced that a PhD was the direction she wanted to head towards. She pondered this over the next two years while she taught at a coaching centre where she helped IIT aspirants solve tough chemistry problems, and then at Azim Premji University which was at the time still developing its undergraduate curriculum.

Working with her senior colleagues at the University prompted her to reconsider a PhD. I started understanding that a PhD may help me become a better teacher. I wanted to become a more informed person, someone who could solve problems, and have the confidence that if I am just given something new, I could build something with it. These are skills you learn in a PhD,” says Aditi.

When Aditi came across an advertisement about PhD positions at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) in Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu (part of the government’s Department of Atomic Energy), she went ahead and applied. She fondly recalls the day of the interview — things did not exactly go as planned! Once they saw my nine-point-something GPA and my two gold medals at IISER, they looked at me disbelievingly. One gentleman on the panel asked me Are you serious?’”

Looking back, Aditi understands the scientist’s scepticism. I guess most people who perform as well as I did end up going abroad or to an IIT or IISc. According to him, if I was serious about a PhD I too would have done the same. Instead, here I was at the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE)!” But at the time, the young chemist was flummoxed and she boldly countered her interviewer with Why? Don’t you do anything serious here?” Aditi laughs in recollection.

Only then did the interview really begin, and Aditi recollects that it was one of the most memorable conversations of her scientific life. They asked me questions which were more fundamental and analytical in nature, not memory-based… The four of them and I got so carried away that the interview ended up lasting almost an hour and a half! It was really nice.” Needless to say, she was offered the position.

Doing a PhD at a DAE laboratory is very different from doing it in an academic setup. For example, most PhD students get to decide their own research question. Aditi, on the other hand, would have to work within the mandate of solving problems for one of DAE’s milestones. 

In Aditi’s case, this was India’s nuclear programme. When I realised that I would actually be working in a core area, it gave me a sense of satisfaction that in my own little way, I would be contributing to India’s nuclear power programme.” 

  • IGCAR Complex, Kalpakkam

    Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) complex in Kalpakkam, where Aditi conducted her research on nuclear fuel reprocessing

    Credit: IGCAR website

Over the next five years, Aditi did experimental and computational research on various aspects of nuclear power such as fuel processing. During this time, she was repeatedly encouraged to consider a cushy government officer job at DAE. There were even provisions for employees to pursue PhDs, her well-wishers argued. But Aditi remained stubborn in her resolve to become a teacher.

Armed with the PhD that she was so convinced would help her be a better teacher, and a postdoctoral stint at IISc, Aditi rejoined the team at Azim Premji University as a chemistry faculty member. She taught courses to undergraduates majoring in other subjects, but all the while she and her chemist colleague Aahana Ganguly were also preparing for the first batch of BSc Chemistry students. 

The Chemistry faculty at Azim Premji University consciously decided to break away from the traditional way of trifurcating chemistry into physical, inorganic and organic as they believe that there are many cross-connections between these categories and studying them in separate baskets doesn’t make sense. Curricula of institutions around the world were studied in-depth, before formulating a new one suited to the environment and learning philosophies of the University. 

Aditi’s first two years were filled with lengthy brainstorming sessions. She and her colleagues consciously decided to break away from the traditional way of trifurcating chemistry into physical, inorganic and organic. There are so many cross-connections between these categories that studying them in separate baskets doesn’t make sense,” she explains. Curricula of institutions around the world were studied in-depth, before formulating a new one suited to the environment and learning philosophies of Azim Premji University. 

Then there were the more practical details such as procurement and infrastructure to take care of. Right from deciding the kind of glassware we need in our labs, the grade of material to use for our safety hoods, which centrifuge to order… we worked with different teams to get it all together,” Aditi said, describing the last mile chaos.

Aditi believes that the new chemistry programme is truly unique. With a strong focus on lab work and exposure to sophisticated instrumentation, she is confident that students will be able to get a holistic understanding of the subject. We are rooting the abstraction of chemistry in practice and evidence. When you start seeing this evidence, the interplay of molecules — it is like understanding miracles that unfold,” states the chemist. The abstraction is bridged!”

As the summer of 2023 comes to a close, the time has come to welcome the first cohort of chemistry majors to the University. Aditi and Aahana cannot wait. Doing something this big has been great fun for me,” Aditi laughs, adding, tiring sometimes, but it has been an exciting journey!”

Know more about the BSc Chemistry programme at Azim Premji University here.

About Aditi

Aditi Chandrasekar is a faculty member at Azim Premji University.

About the author

Nandita Jayaraj is a science writer and communications consultant at Azim Premji University. She may be contacted at nandita.​jayaraj@​apu.​edu.​in

Published on 22 August 2023