Associate professor Lakshmy supports student passion for chemistry with her magazine Vaze Chemica.
Indian born Lakshmy grew up in Kuwait but returned to India to study for a Master’s degree in chemistry, at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. As an undergraduate student, she discovered a love of both organic chemistry and experimenting, which led her to a PhD in synthesis.
“Organic chemistry was one of my favourite subjects. All biological processes taking place are organic. For example, simple reactions like the aldol reaction, which one carries out in the lab, nature carries out in the human system. I found this beautiful.”
Lakshmy’s passion for teaching came from her PhD supervisor and mentor, Professor G.K. Trivedi. His excellent teaching style, and ability to understand the problems his students faced, helped her to overcome the struggles of postgraduate research. To this day, she still consults him regularly to share her teaching experiences and discuss the challenges faced by the profession.
Lakshmy is now an associate professor at Vinayak Ganesh Vaze College of Arts, Science and Commerce, affiliated to Mumbai University, where she has taught for 27 years. Here, she teaches her two favourite parts of chemistry - organic and practical - to undergraduate and postgraduate students.
Chemistry is a second choice for many students in India
Lakshmy feels that there is a hierarchy in careers in India: medicine and engineering are given the highest preference, while students are not made aware of the opportunities that a degree in chemistry can bring. For many of her students, chemistry was not their first choice of subject to study. This is something she desperately wants to address.
“If you consider any field like cosmetology, forensic science, food technology, environmental science, material science, biotechnology…the role of chemistry cannot be underestimated!”
Over her long career, Lakshmy has implemented several superb initiatives at her college – all with the aim of opening student eyes to the opportunities that a degree in chemistry can bring. She organises regular visits to both industrial and academic research labs, which helps her students to link what they learn in the lecture theatre to real-life situations. Additionally, she holds workshops for her students with eminent academics and industrial chemists, giving them an opportunity to interact with established scientists. A number of these workshops have been organised in association with the Royal Society of Chemistry’s West India Section.
Six years ago, Lakshmy also started an in-house magazine, Vaze Chemica, where students, both past and present, have an opportunity to write articles about the areas of chemistry that interest them. The articles are then published alongside interviews with prominent alumni and influential chemists. She also delivers career talks to her students and those of neighbouring colleges. Lakshmy is particularly proud of her organic chemistry ‘study circle', which she runs for first, second and third year undergraduates. Her students credit these problem-solving workshops with helping them to overcome their fear of the subject, and helping them to pass exams for entry to further academic courses.
Many of her students now continue at university, in India and abroad, to get a PhD, because she has made them aware of the doors that will be open to them. The most rewarding part of her job is when past students, who still remember her years later, share their success stories with her. Knowing she has helped them get to where they are today gives her a satisfaction that she says money cannot buy.
“The joy of seeing average or below average students, who have been written off by society, doing extremely well in research and contributing to the global research scene, is a pleasure which can only be experienced and cannot be expressed in words.”
Inspiring the future generation of chemists
Lakshmy strongly believes that a greater awareness of science, and chemistry in particular, needs to be addressed at school level in India. Outreach programmes which highlight the importance of science would be beneficial, especially for underprivileged students. Here, she thinks the Royal Society of Chemistry has a role to play: organising career exhibitions in schools and colleges in India to showcase the wide array of careers available in chemistry might be the key to inspiring students to study the subject at university.
“The career options in chemistry are vast and I always believe that every student has an inherent potential to do well - this just needs to be tapped. Any job done with sincerity and dedication will always reap rewards!”
Words by Isobel Marr
Images courtesy of Lakshmy Ravishankar
Published April 2015