Chemistry alum Amrit Venkatesh awarded with Zaffarano Prize
May 25, 2021 - by Sarah Igram
Dr. Amrit Venkatesh, a graduate of Iowa State’s doctoral program in chemistry, has won the Zaffarano Prize for Graduate Student Research.
Established by Dr. Daniel Zaffarano, who served as the vice president for research at Iowa State from 1973-1988, this award recognizes superior performance in publishable research by graduate students. Zaffarano believed that a research project is not complete until the results are made widely available to fellow workers.
Venkatesh, who earned his Ph.D. in 2020 and now works as a postdoctoral fellow at the Laboratory of Magnetic Resonance in Switzerland, published 22 research articles as a graduate student, with five additional manuscripts currently in preparation for publication.
“I’m really honored to receive this prize. It has been classically awarded to students who have excelled in published research,” he said. “The complete cycle of research means coming up with a problem, doing experiments, analyzing data, studying, writing it up, and communicating the research. You have to be able to complete this whole cycle, because only when you complete something can you talk about it in public and at conferences.”
Venkatesh came to Iowa State in 2016 because he wanted to study with assistant professor of chemistry Dr. Aaron Rossini, whose research interests aligned with his, and because of Iowa State’s history of excellent research in the field of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).
“When chemists make new materials, they don’t exactly know how atoms are arranged at an atomic level, because drawing the structure on a piece of paper and doing the chemical reaction does not necessarily mean that you know exactly what you’re making,” Venkatesh said. “That’s why it’s important to characterize the material. NMR is a very fundamental characterization tool.”
Much of Venkatesh’s research involves devising new methods to improve the technology of NMR, which other chemists will then be able to apply to their own work.
“Any chemistry lab or any chemical manufacturing facility or any organization that deals with making chemicals need to know what the structure is,” he said. “When people make solid materials, they really struggle to study it with NMR, because there are some interesting challenges when you study solids. My research focuses on improving NMR of solids so that people can use it more easily.”
While working on his doctorate, Venkatesh enjoyed the collaborative environment at Iowa State. He could easily brainstorm with other researchers in his home department, as well as in fields like materials science engineering and chemical engineering.
“I also really enjoyed how welcoming everybody was. As an international student, when I came to Ames, it was my first time in the U.S., and I felt very welcome,” he said. “It was quite easy to go talk to people, and that is something I always enjoyed. I really felt like I was part of the department. I felt like I actually belonged there.”
Aaron Rossini, Venkatesh’s major professor at Iowa State, was also supportive, especially when Venkatesh was starting his Ph.D. The two worked in adjoining offices, and Venkatesh always felt that he could approach Rossini with questions.
Venkatesh with major professor Aaron Rossini
“During the course of Amrit’s Ph.D., I was extremely impressed with his enthusiasm, curiosity and work ethic,” Rossini wrote in his nomination letter for the Zaffarano Prize.
Rossini completed his postdoctoral work with Prof. Lyndon Emsley, who is now Venkatesh’s postdoctoral advisor as well. In May of 2020, Venkatesh received an email from Emsley, asking whether he was interested in joining his lab at the Laboratory of Magnetic Resonance. After they spoke, Venkatesh knew that he wanted to work with Emsley.
Now that Venkatesh has completed his doctoral studies at Iowa State, he advises students working on their doctorates focus more on enjoying their research.
“I really think you can make significant progress only when you’re honestly curious about a problem. That’s when you feel motivated to really look at things that you otherwise probably wouldn’t look at,” he said. “We can keep moving forward only by being there in that moment and enjoying what we’re doing. Only then does it not feel like work, it feels like something that we really care about.”
Beyond academic studies, Venkatesh recommends that graduate students dedicate time to professional development. To stay up to date with what others in his field are working on, he sets up time each week to browse their research and websites.
“When you go to a conference, it helps when you know about people’s work ahead of time. Those are conversation starters,” he said. “I think it’s important for students to put time into knowing their communities and spending time on professional development, and not just six months before graduation. It’s a gradual process.”