Chemistry is in Shefali Saxena’s blood. Even before she was born, Shefali was in the lab - her mum was busy completing her chemistry PhD while pregnant. With her mother as inspiration, Shefali is now pursuing her own PhD at King’s College London and has made the most of her Royal Society of Chemistry membership along the way.
Having grown up around chemistry, it’s not surprising that Shefali is passionate about her work in the field of molecular spectroscopy and how it is contributing to the wider world of research.
“We’ve been looking into biologically relevant molecules that are really applicable in different fields, for example the area my research is looking at, the molecules are very relevant in space and atmosphere,” explains Shefali. “Using a combined approach of high-resolution broadband microwave spectroscopy and molecular modelling, we determine the structural preferences of these relevant molecules and how these preferences are affected by interactions with water molecules. This experimentally proven information is an incredibly useful starting point for astrophysicists, who can use the characterisation data we have discovered for identification of new species in the interstellar medium.
“The highlight of the technique is that the studies are conducted in the gas phase, which provides a controlled environment where molecules can be studied in virtual isolation or interacting with other molecules one at a time. So whether you’re a biologist, chemist, or an astrophysicist, the accurate structural information is extremely useful to more confidently characterise molecular structures and interactions and perform experiments.”
Shefali’s interest in science and unwavering commitment to her research was founded during her childhood in India, where chemistry was very much a part of life.
“During high school I had a natural aptitude and strong interest in chemistry. I look to the subject as an instrumental tool in shaping up the world. Coming from a developing country myself, I felt the need to do my bit to bring about positive change and nothing would bring me greater satisfaction than to improve the existing technologies to better analyse compounds and their properties and practically applying these concepts in various research fields. I have always been motivated by the fact that there is a very bright scope in the field of chemistry, as every other day new research is coming out and there are always researchers required to make new discoveries.
“Moreover, my interest in chemistry was strengthened by my observation of my mother - a chemistry professor at University of Delhi. I regularly witnessed her dedicated involvement in the projects she undertook that left me immensely intrigued with the subject. It was really inspiring to know that she never let anything stop her and she is so happy and content in her work. Although it could have easily gone the other way - my brother absolutely hates chemistry and went into computer science. This upbringing affects people differently I suppose!”
As soon as she was old enough, Shefali applied to study chemistry at university, which is when she first became a member of the RSC.
“I started my journey with the RSC during my undergraduate degree,” says Shefali. “They came to do a special careers event at the University of Delhi, where different industry experts and academics spoke about their experiences and they gave us the opportunity to join up. I was already aware of the organisation as my mum is a Fellow, but this careers event was the first time I really started to understand the benefits of being a part of the RSC."
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“While doing my masters I was itching for something different and began planning a trip abroad to do my PhD. There is a lot of good research going on in India but the area that I’m into right now is quite niche and a relatively new field there. Something was leading me, pushing me to go one step further and get out of my comfort zone.”
Shefali knew instantly that the UK had to be her destination. She applied to 12 universities and got accepted by a good number of them, making her dream a reality.
“To reach for greater heights, I aspired to be admitted to King’s College London due to its outstanding reputation for cutting-edge research. But as an international student it was really important to secure a scholarship because doing a PhD without it is very difficult, expensive and stressful. Getting the King’s International PhD scholarship was a big breakthrough for me in terms of my career.”
Since moving to the UK, Shefali has taken full advantage of the special interest groups and events on offer from the RSC. She is a member of both the Molecular Spectroscopy Group and the Faraday Division, which provide a forum for the wider chemical science community to promote the latest advances and research in these fields, with topical discussions and meetings held throughout the year.
“Being a part of the RSC gives you a fantastic opportunity to expand your network and your horizons, accumulate knowledge and share ideas. I have attended conferences organised by the special interest groups I’m a part of and I also got financial support from the RSC for attending these, which provided further motivation. The conferences are an amazing experience, bringing together a diverse community and giving me the opportunity to interact with other researchers in my field.
“I was also involved in a flagship event hosted by the RSC, the Indian Roadshow and Symposium Series. The Q&A sessions that they held at the end for young researchers and students were amazing and very intriguing. It gives you a whole new perspective.”
As well as using the RSC website to access journals and resources pertinent to her research, Shefali is a big fan of the RSC’s magazine, Chemistry World.
“When writing papers, it’s great to have all the journals at your fingertips. And how could I forget the magazines! Chemistry World is posted to me and it’s so good. It holds huge amounts of information and knowledge about different fields. Recently I read two articles directly related to my research topic, so I was really impressed. It’s a great way to stay informed about what’s going on in the wider chemistry community.”
As Shefali continues to hone her expertise and confidence, she is now planning the next steps in her career.
“I am interested in continuing in academia and research - I am a GTA at King’s so I want to go into a postdoc or early career position. One thing I do know is that I’ll be continuing my membership with the RSC as I progress. It has always been a very rewarding relationship and so nice to have the status and respect that comes from being a member, it’s great to have that recognition for your career.
“I will be looking for one-to-one career advice from the RSC during the end stages of my PhD as I know that’s something they offer. I’m excited to see what the future holds.”