Susmita Sarkar becomes Purdue's first ever Schmidt Science Fellow
Growing up in a small village in northeast India, Susmita knew she wanted to do something to help humankind – and found that science was the best way to accomplish that goal. After completing her undergraduate degree in India, she came to the US for a master’s degree at Missouri S&T, focused on energy storage. “I saw this as a field where I could contribute to society,” she said. “When I chose to pursue a Ph.D., I needed a place that had all the facilities and resources in this area. Purdue was my top choice!”
She joined Prof. Partha Mukherjee, whose Energy and Transport Sciences Laboratory focuses on lithium-ion batteries and other energy storage solutions. Sarkar chose to research a different kind of energy storage: sodium-ion batteries. “Lithium is not an abundant resource, and it’s not cheap,” she said. “With the ongoing electrification of vehicles, homes, and devices, we need to explore alternatives beyond lithium. I hadn’t heard of sodium-ion before, but I knew I could contribute to this growing field.”
When COVID hit in 2020, Susmita feared her career might hit a wall. “I’m an experimentalist, so it’s difficult to not be in the lab,” she explained. “But I had accumulated a lot of data, which I could then analyze while our facilities were closed.”
She also took a step outside her comfort zone, starting a Purdue student chapter of the Electrochemical Society (ECS). “We had plans to invite all sorts of speakers to campus, but then COVID changed everything,” said Sarkar. “We discussed it, and decided that we can still do a seminar series, but just make it virtual. That actually opened the opportunities far beyond speakers who might visit in-person, to anyone in the world!”
And it wasn’t just any webinar series: they focused on “Women in Electrochemical Sciences and Engineering,” inviting 14 prominent female researchers to share their expertise in the field. This culminated in an invited article in ACS Energy Letters about the importance of including women in energy research, and being named ECS Outstanding Student Chapter of the year. “Looking back, I knew I could do the research,” she said, “but I never thought that this outreach would be such an important part of my Purdue career!”
Hearing about the Schmidt Science Fellows, Susmita saw another opportunity for growth. This postdoctoral program from Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative of Eric and Wendy Schmidt, encourages scientists to break down barriers between fields, and collaborate in an interdisciplinary approach to tackle the world’s biggest challenges. It also funds them with $100,000 per year to study anything they want, anywhere in the world.
“I applied for this almost a year ago,” she said. “Eventually, they told me that I was Purdue’s chosen finalist, and after a few write-ups, review by senior researchers, and after an interview by an online panel with senior figures from academia and society, they told me I got it. That was one of the happiest days of my life!”
It’s going to be a busy summer for Susmita: after defending her Ph.D. at Purdue, she will also be participating in the CAS Future Leaders program in Columbus, Ohio and San Francisco, California.
“When I first started at Purdue, I didn’t know whether I would be successful or not,” said Sarkar. “But the people here have been so supportive. Lisa Nielsen at the Graduate School and Prof. Kurt Ristroph helped me with my application, and answered all my questions about the process. Prof. Mukherjee has been an amazing mentor. When I told him I wanted to research in a different area, he was very supportive; he said, ‘You should go for it! Try something new!’ That collaboration is the main thing I’ll take away from my time at Purdue. Whether it’s research or outreach – when you collaborate a lot, you can accomplish a lot.”
Writer: Jared Pike, firstname.lastname@example.org, 765-496-0374