Profile: Dr Sujata Kundu

Materials World magazine
,
2 Jan 2014

What does your current job involve?
I spend four afternoons a week in the lab with materials science and engineering undergraduates in their first and second years. The rest of my time is spent researching clean fuel and artificial photosynthesis, and writing outreach activities and science entertainment shows for schools and science festivals. I am also thrilled to be doing my show, Material Girl, at the Royal Institution later this year and am currently one of the experts on the Discovery Channel’s You Have Been Warned show. I have a genuine fascination with science so often my jobs don’t really feel like work.

What is the most interesting part of your job?
In the lab, I really enjoy discovering new materials, testing their limits and researching applications for them. During my PhD, UCL Business decided to patent an area of my work and I am named as an inventor – one of my greatest achievements to date. I also love sharing science and increasing public engagement with science, whether through teaching or communication projects. With a live audience you get instant feedback that you don’t get elsewhere, although social media allows us to share the subject with a wider audience.

What are the biggest challenges facing your industry at the moment?
Obviously, funding is low and as a recent PhD graduate, post-doctoral research posts are very difficult to find. Secondly, there is, of course, the leaky pipe analogy – the higher up you go in a science profession, the fewer women there are. Institutions are working hard to make changes but I think there is still a long road ahead. I am part of the Science Grrl network that is trying to make the world of science a more gender-balanced one. We created a calendar showcasing the work of real scientists and have been working with policy makers. Finally, I think we need to address society’s fear of chemicals and the misuse of terms such as organic and chemical-free. In reality everything is made up of chemicals. I think this misconception has led to a fear of new technology, particularly in areas such as nanotechnology.

What advice would you give new entrants to the field?
These days, having a degree isn’t enough to make yourself stand out. Even PhDs are an increasingly common thing to have. It is therefore important for everyone, no matter what level you are working at, to build and develop new skills that you can apply to a new role. Not only that, but collaborating with other groups is the key to science and technology development. Materials science is a cross-disciplinary area so we must make sure that we meet and work with designers, architects and even artists.

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