The Benchmark: 7 Questions for Prof. Prashant Kamat

Author: Rebecca Hicks



Prashant V. Kamat is the Rev. John A. Zahm, C.S.C. Professor of Science in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Radiation Laboratory and Concurrent Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering. A native of Binaga, India, he earned his masters (1974) and doctoral degrees (1979) in physical chemistry from the Bombay University, and he completed postdoctoral fellowships at Boston University (1979-1981) and University of Texas at Austin (1981-1983) before joining Notre Dame in 1983. For nearly three decades, he has worked to build bridges between physical chemistry and materials science by developing advanced nanomaterials for cleaner and more efficient light energy conversion. He is the deputy editor of the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, a member of the advisory boards of the journals Langmuir, Research on Chemical Intermediates, Applied Electrochemistry, and Interface. He was awarded the Honda-Fujishima Lectureship in 2006, the Chemical Research Society of India medal in 2011, and the ACS Langmuir Lectureship in 2014 and is among the most cited chemists as identified by Thomson Reuters. Prof. Kamat is a Fellow of the Electrochemical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Chemical Society.

1)When did you realize you wanted to be a scientist, and what led you to choose physical chemistry?

I didn’t decide to become a scientist until I finished my undergraduate education. I was exposed to research at that time which made me like chemistry much more. As to physical chemistry, I have always been fascinated with colors, particularly those in nature, like how flowers synthesize the same colored compounds over and over. Since natural dyes absorb light for energy, I wanted to explore how synthetic dyes could lead to energy conversion.

2) What are the biggest challenges you face in your research?

The biggest challenge is a constantly changing horizon. What used to work say 10-15 years ago for training students is not the same as what is effective today. Today’s students have grown up with screens (TV, iPad, etc.), and so I have to retune my methods to get the message across. Keeping motivation high is also a challenge. People almost exclusively attended graduate school in the past because they really wanted to be researchers. Now students may have a variety of reasons for going to grad school, and so not all students are motivated the same way.

3) What do you see as the biggest challenges for scientist in the coming decade?

One significant challenge is keeping funding to support your research. Research is not anymore an individual effort, but at the same time, competition is greater. There are many more players vying for nearly the same amount of government funding and significantly less private corporation funding. To be successful, you really must be enthusiastic and passionate about your research while having good techniques. You also have to be willing to try lots of things to make your research work - there is always more than one way to find an answer to a problem.

4) What is your proudest accomplishment?

I am proudest of seeing my students succeed after graduation, particularly those who go into academia, as this keeps research going. I am also proud of our work on solar paint, taking something simple and turning it into something transformative for making solar cells that people can do themselves.

5) You are always in high demand as an advisor and mentor. What is your secret to teaching and inspiring students?

If you do good and interesting work, it attracts good students. It’s also important that when you talk to prospective students, you speak in a way that is understandable. You have to get your point across for people to be interested. I encourage my group members to help each other without expectation beyond the expectation that others will help them as they need it. Even so, I tell my students that this is their degree, and the work they put in will be for their benefit and their reward.

6) If you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would they be?

First, it would be my 1st grade teacher. I never appreciated at the time how many things he was teaching me, and this was the foundation of my education. Second, I would choose my PhD advisor. He really put me on the track of research, and he taught me to be brave enough to try new and transformative approaches. Much of my previous education was focused on having the right answer, but learning to try things that might fail was really important. Third, I would choose Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla. More than just creative, he has a determination to make ideas work and doesn’t take no for an answer.

7) What do you like to do to relax?

I go jogging without music or phone and just listen to the sounds of nature.