Chemistry is the lens through which she sees the world. Devika Pokhriyal ’19 explains, “I like how chemistry provides models for such microscopic things in the physical world that we normally take for granted, like the fact that the theory of electronic structure can explain why humans exist in a structurally stable form and don’t spontaneously combust in the presence of atmospheric oxygen,” says Pokhriyal.
Pokhriyal came to Cornell knowing she wanted to major in chemistry, but she switched her focus from chemical biology to inorganic chemistry for which she credits Peter T. Wolczanski, Chemistry and Chemical Biology. Before joining the Wolczanski lab, Pokhriyal conducted cancer metastasis research in a biomedical engineering lab. She soon realized that this more applied line of work did not fully satisfy her intellectual curiosity. Taking an inorganic chemistry course during the next year led her to Wolczanski and fundamental research.
Following the Unexpected
Pokhriyal’s main project is a collaboration with Brett P. Fors’ group, Chemistry and Chemical Biology. She designs and synthesizes organometallic catalysts for use in polymerization reactions. Specifically, Pokhriyal works with iron-centered complexes. These compounds have unique iminopyridine groups that modify the electronic properties and catalytic capabilities of the metal. She sends the compounds that she synthesizes to the Fors group, where they test their catalytic efficacy for atom transfer radical polymerization (ATRP) experiments on styrene and other materials commonly found in products today.
“I have found that synthetic chemistry is not as linear as cell biology research, where you have a clear goal dictated by real-world medical issues and are almost pretty much single-mindedly working toward that one goal. My work is more exploratory. If I end up with an interesting side-product that wasn’t the goal of the original experiment, I have the freedom to change direction slightly and set up a new series of experiments to study that unexpected product. It’s the kind of work that might end up in a textbook rather than becoming widely applicable,” says Pokhriyal.
On a typical day in the lab, you can find Pokhriyal working with both organic and inorganic synthesis. First, she sets up a reaction to make an organic ligand, which will be metallated, using air-free techniques. She then characterizes her product through nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, and even x-ray diffraction, if she is lucky enough to have grown decent crystals. “Essentially, I plan out my experiments and try to synthesize things that are found in literature or that Prof. Wolczanski thinks would lead to some interesting chemistry. Sometimes, you have to get a bit creative,” she says.
Chemistry, Philosophy, and Research
Pokhriyal is set to enter Caltech’s PhD program in chemistry in the Fall of 2020. Although chemistry is her main passion, she is also a double major. Philosophy is the other interest. “Chemistry has allowed me to explore how the world works on an atomic level, but I also have a desire to view the world from other angles. Philosophy gives me the platform to do just that. For me, there is the micro-level chemistry perspective and then the more macro-level philosophy perspective to make sense of my experiences,” she says.
“But I’m practical. While I do enjoy studying philosophy, chemistry is something that I both have a passion for as a field and also can see myself doing for the rest of my life,” Pokhriyal continues. She says that she likes how research is no-nonsense. The results speak for you. “If you do good science, then you’ll move forward,” says Pokhriyal.
“When I first started in the lab, I was worried that it would be stressful like lab courses. Thankfully…research is a lot less about doing a ton of experiments in a limited amount of time and more about…planning experiments…and direction.”
For Pokhriyal, research provides a sense of autonomy while also allowing her to channel her creativity. “When I first started in the lab, I was worried that it would be stressful like lab courses. Thankfully, real research is a lot less about doing a ton of experiments in a limited amount of time and more about efficiently planning experiments and deciding which direction you want to go in if something is not working. It requires a high degree of creativity and critical thinking, which is why I think research is a viable career option for me,” she says.
Gamelan and Softball
When not synthesizing compounds in lab, Pokhriyal is playing in one of her many softball leagues in nearby towns. Or she is practicing her percussive instrument skills with the Cornell Gamelan Ensemble to stay in touch with her Indonesian roots. “I’m not that musically talented, but it’s an ensemble and everybody does something simple that, when put together, sounds really cool. This makes it doable for me. I hope that I can find a way to continue this hobby when I go on to graduate school,” says Pokhriyal.
After graduating in May 2019, Pokhriyal is looking forward to taking a year off from school and continuing her lab work at Cornell without the stress of classes. Then, she will pursue a PhD in inorganic chemistry. Pokhriyal says fundamental research presents more interesting challenges.