Meet Shiny Joseph Srinivasan

Shiny holds a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry from the University of Oxford. Working under the supervision of Dr. Kylie Vincent, her PhD thesis examined the development of cleaner, effective flavin cofactor regeneration methods that facilitate sustainable chemical synthesis

Discovering the researcher within
Of course, there are many good reasons why someone actually pursues a PhD: willingness to improve their credibility and career prospects, to manifest their passion for research, and to drive their intellectual curiosity to discover and learn new things. What has influenced your career choice? Are there any inspirations you can point to? Are there any inspirations you can point to?

I developed an interest in chemistry during high school, thanks to my Chemistry teacher who made the subject so interesting and enjoyable. While pursuing my masters in Chemistry, I had multiple opportunities to attend conferences and seminars delivered by researchers from different fields of chemistry. These experiences exposed me to the significance and the ability of science in tackling many of the urgent and challenging problems around us.

My final year masters project gave me a taste of what research could be like. I quite enjoyed working in a laboratory setup, solving scientific challenges that came my way, and more importantly, it was very gratifying. Inorganic chemistry lectures were always my favourite and I also chose to work on an inorganic masters project with Prof. R. Karvembu (NITT), developing organometallic catalysts for efficient chemical reactions. For my PhD, I wanted to use this expertise but also focus on developing reactions that can not only be efficient but rather be more sustainable. While exploring options for a suitable research project, I uncovered several inspiring research groups, but what blew my mind was Prof. Kylie Vincent’s TedX talk on YouTube. I visited her group website to learn more about her projects, and I found them to be really exciting. I was aware that there was going to be a bit of Biology and that came as a bonus because I liked biology too. I made sure I was able to clearly describe my interests before my meeting with Prof Kylie. It all started there and I am very happy to have joined her lab for my PhD.

The Big Picture
What challenges are driving your research within that larger question? Why does this study matter?

The world is experiencing an ever-increasing drive to reduce emission levels and control pollution. It upsets me to see that we are struggling to bring that perfect balance. In this respect, I am incredibly proud to be able to work on a project that addresses this problem. My work focuses on developing cleaner and cost-effective ways to manufacture chemicals. I look to enzymes to achieve this. In my project, I discovered a non-native flavin reduction activity of the hydrogenase enzyme, by using just H2 gas as a clean fuel source. This has opened new chapters for the application of this system and shows new promise for expanding the biocatalytic toolbox for synthetic chemistry.


Science in lockdown
Across the globe, COVID-19 has curtailed academic research to great extent with research laboratories shuttered and fieldwork largely suspended. What is it really like to do research amid COVID-19? What are the lessons learned during this period?

Just about when labs were shutting down, I was very close to the final stages of my exciting experimental results. It was difficult to accept this as reality. However, working from home helped me compile my results thus far, which proved to be super useful in prioritising and planning my next set of experiments during restricted work hours in the following period.

All-important student-advisor relationship
Like in any other profession, when people have to work together, disagreements are likely to happen occasionally. The fact is that disagreement is not always bad, rather it is an indicator of one’s sheer commitment to the organizational goals. How is your experience working with your PhD advisor?

The bond we have with our supervisor is very important to keep us motivated and feel supported at our lows. They help us become a better version of ourselves. My supervisor has a very approachable personality and from day one, she has made me feel welcomed in the group, which greatly helped me to kick start my work with confidence. She points me to opportunities that would expand my knowledge and has greatly helped me move out of my comfort zone in communicating my findings during conferences and competitions. We meet regularly to discuss progress and she always made time to catch up with me when I needed help. Sometimes, we used to have early morning or late-night meetings, because of her busy schedule during the day. I look up to her for the incredible energy and passion she shows for work. All this kept me motivated during challenging times.

Not all supervisors are the same. Sometimes, they would need to know more about us to help us appropriately. So there is nothing wrong in letting them know if you do not understand something, or simply if you need something that can make things better. There is nobody better than them who can help us. Be transparent, do not be afraid to make mistakes, and learn from them.

Life outside of work
Having a healthy work-life balance is imperative that takes care of the overall wellness of the individual and boosts one’s productivity. Is there such a thing as work-life balance for a research scholar? How do you motivate yourself to keep going?

My daily life mostly involves laboratory experiments, desk work, and meetings. I plan my week and keep a list of ‘to do’ things to help me stay focused and structured. Having a friendly and supportive group certainly helped me remain sane throughout my PhD. I try to make time for myself because it has helped me relieve my stress and start things afresh. I go to yoga in my college on some evenings, cook Indian food during my spare time and enjoy talking with friends and family during the weekend.

Thriving, and not just surviving
Embarking on a PhD is life’s big decision. It may not always be smooth sailing. Sometimes rewarding and sometimes test your patience. How was your experience so far?

My project involved an exciting finding – my supervisor and I anticipated its valuable impact on chemical synthesis. The days I spent trying to demonstrate its applicability were quite pressurizing because a failure in this would mean that I might have to change projects nearly halfway through my PhD. I did spend slightly longer hours in the lab during this time gathering results. The most rewarding moment was when I had enough data to keep me engaged during the lockdown which led me to publish my first paper. So, certainly, my PhD has been more exciting than I expected it to be and I am indeed pleased about it.

You could encounter numerous ups and downs during your PhD. A PhD requires you to invest and sacrifice a lot of time and energy. From my experience what kept me committed was my interest and passion for my project. It was a rewarding experience to see my experiments become successful and to learn the positive impact they can bring about.

So, it is important to make sure your project keeps you inspired and motivated throughout. Enrich your PhD experience, by learning new skills, volunteering in science-related activities, and communicating your research and networking at conferences.

Compiled by
Piyushi Nautiyal,
Science Communication and Outreach Manager, India UK ISCC