A crystal view of molecular clustering by drug compounds

Research Lives: Shubhangi Kakkar, successful PhD candidate, SFI Research Centre for Pharmaceuticals, Bernal Institute, University of Limerick

Shubhangi, congratulations, you just defended your PhD, what was it on?

“I looked at how the active ingredients in drugs form crystals in liquids. Crystallisation is important for making and formulating many medicines, and I looked at the first step in the formation of these crystals, where I analysed how these molecules of the drug’s active ingredient cluster together.

What did it involve?

I did lots of experiments, thousands of them. I measured the size of molecular clusters of various active pharmaceutical ingredients, which changed with time due to clustering in different liquids under different conditions. It involved lots of calculations from those experiments too.


It is fundamental science, rather than applied, but the applications depend on knowing the fundamental science, so what I found should be helpful for industry.

How did you come to study that?

I did a primary degree and a master's degree in nanotechnology in India, then I worked in Karlsruhe in Germany. I wanted to do a PhD, and was looking for projects online. I saw this one advertised in Limerick, so I applied, and I went out of my workplace to an internet cafe and did an online interview with Prof Åke Rasmuson in the department of chemical sciences at UL.

What was the toughest challenge of doing a PhD?

I think it was writing up the thesis. In one way, it was good timing because I wrote up a lot of it during the lockdown restrictions for Covid-19, so I didn’t feel I was missing out on a social life and I could get up late in the morning and work right through until after midnight, which suits me. Even still, the writing was challenging, but I think it really helped me to get a deeper understanding of my PhD, I needed to go through that.

Because of Covid-19, you did your PhD defence, or viva, online. How did that work?

Normally a PhD viva takes place in a room, where you have your professor and examiners present. But we couldn't do that now because of Covid, so we did the viva over Skype. I was in Limerick, and my professor was in Sweden and my external examiner was in France and there were other examiners on the call too. I did a presentation and then the examiners asked me questions.

How did you feel before the PhD viva? I did mine 23 years ago, and I can still recall the terrifying pre-exam nerves!

I was really nervous. I couldn’t sleep the night before. I had prepared well for my presentation, but I felt like I was a different person presenting it, and then I had to answer the questions. It is a long exam, it takes hours, and I was very relieved when it was over.

What was the high point of the exam?

I think it was when they told me at the end that my presentation was excellent, that I got my PhD and that I didn’t have to make any corrections to my project. That means I can relax a bit!

Now that you have finished, what will you do for the next few months?

I had planned to go home and visit my family in India as I have not seen them for a year and a half, but I can’t go because of Covid. So I am going to apply for post-doctoral positions and jobs, and see what comes down the road next.”

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation