Serendipity in science


Neha Rani Kumar

  Dr. Neha Rani Kumar talks about her experience as a PhD student in chemistry at IISER Kolkata, and a fortuitous coincidence involving the compound azulene during the same.

Do you believe in “serendipity” in science? (It means discoveries by accident.)

   If yes, then your belief will be strengthened further, after reading my story; if not, then you will start believing henceforth.

   This is a story of serendipity during my PhD journey at IISER Kolkata (yes, you got it right...the city of joy....the city of rosogullas), which changed my perception and allowed me to see unexpected things.

   It all began on July 24, 2014, which was my first day at IISER Kolkata; I was having mixed feelings. I was both sad and happy because I was away from my family and friends back home, but equally excited to be at a new and lively place among new friends. My guide introduced me to the lab members on the first day and the next few weeks went into staring at the seniors in the lab doing some interesting colourful chemistry by mixing some chemicals and other fascinating things.

   Over the course of a few weeks I got a call from my guide to meet him about my PhD project (and I was on cloud nine, for that is how enthusiastic new PhD students are, reinforced by the fact that I had the opportunity to work with a group which was working in my area of interest). I was there in the cabin well ahead of time with a new thick register and a small Ganesh scribbled on the front page. He asked me to take a seat while he was busy drawing some chemical structures on his desktop. I tried to peep in and I felt as if those structures were making faces at me. “Wait!” I heard them whispering. Are they saying that I am trapped in this net called PhD? I was lost in my thoughts, trying to scare those structures back with eye movements, when Sir said, “You will be working on AZULENES”.

I snapped out of my thoughts and immediately, the word started echoing in my head…..AZULENES……AZULENES…….excited to begin my work, I felt that the best of those scary faces on the desktop was azulene and it will be my new friend in this journey.

   He gave further details about azulene and how it has been conquering the world with its antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. And recently it has established its footprints in organic electronics. Organic electronics is the branch of electronics that uses organic materials to make circuits and other electronic devices, like your smartphone or smart watch. At the end of this meeting, all I could gather was that azulene was the lost brother of naphthalene. (Remember those small white balls that our mothers used to put in the almirah? Yes, that sweet-smelling chemical that keeps our clothes safe is naphthalene). But looking into the literature, I understood that the chemical twin of naphthalene i.e. AZULENE was of opposite characteristics (just like the old Hindi movies where one of the twin brothers is stolen from the hospital and years later, the mother finds back her lost son and gets to know that he is now a goon).

The opposite chemical twinsThe opposite chemical twins

   Well, my work was to train AZULENE to show some interesting properties for application in solar cells which we envisioned was possible by making a head to tail connected AZULENE polymer (Refer to the Figure above to see the head and tail of AZULENE). A polymer is when a large number of small molecules are linked together just like many people holding hands in unity and ready to face any hurdle. To accomplish this, we also needed to elongate the hands of AZULENE (which in chemistry means to introduce solubilizing groups)..

  With careful planning and preparation and under the guidance of senior members and Sir, I began carrying out my experiments and even got a result eventually. However, further analysis revealed that this was something that we had not desired. It was actually a serendipity. It was like the hand was elongated, but at the wrong position (we got 5-substituted AZULENE rather than our target, which was 4-substituted AZULENE. It was like a surgery gone wrong). Doctor Single Crystal X-Ray Diffraction is a world famous tool used to diagnose the diseases of molecules in detail. We referred to him and he detected a serious abnormality in AZULENE. I could not believe what the doctor said......"I am really sorry. AZULENE’s life is in danger." Now it was only Azulene for me and not AZULENE (for I had lost the excitement).

  Meanwhile, having lost all hope in azulene, I had to shift to a new project involving porous systems and this time I was lucky enough to get some exciting results in our new endeavors. But I could not forget azulene as I had devoted three years of my PhD into it and its memories kept haunting me. Even my guide had not left pondering over what went wrong in the azulene project. Then, one sudden morning my guide asked me to visit him with my old record book. Initially, I was reluctant and hesitant to go back to azulene, but following constant persuasion by my guide I finally went to him with the old record book. After looking through the records, he asked me to further look up the literature to find out the anomaly on where we might have gone wrong. His words of encouragement and appreciation motivated me to focus once again on my lost friend azulene.

  For the next few days I gave up everything else and just kept looking into literature and thinking what could have led to this abnormal naughty chemical. We finally came up with an explanation. The abnormality was caused by one of the guests named NUCLEOPHILE who made a visit to our place. Nucleophile is a very rich fellow and is also helpful in nature. Now since he was a guest, though uninvited we had to believe in “Atithi devo bhava”. He was a plump person, and could not occupy the seat offered to him via the main door (in chemistry, the door can be called a base). However, this guest (nucleophile) was reluctant to give up and somehow managed to enter via the back door and occupy a seat at the back, which was spacious. Sometimes unexpected people are the reason for one’s happiness. Instead of elongating the hand of AZULENE at position 4-, we came up with a way to put a prosthetic hand of one’s own choice at position 5- of AZULENE. I think that was the happiest day of my Ph.D. And finally, after a span of a few days more, I was ready with the manuscript that discussed the behavior of the naughty chemical AZULENE. I was all prepared to submit my first manuscript when Sir told me that AZULENE must have some more partners to play with or else it will be dull and gloomy all time. We made ten more partners of AZULENE and submitted the manuscript for publishing. Finally AZULENE was making me proud.

  And yes, like all the fairy tales, this story had its HAPPILY EVER AFTER because over the course of another year, I was able to further extend this work studying the effect of different guests (nucleophiles) entering via different doors (base) to synthesize several new partners of the naughty chemical. My paper containing these works got published in the internationally peer- “Chemistry European Journal” in 2019 and “Journal of Organic Chemistry” in 2020.

  Today, I cherish the quotes of some brilliant minds and wish to give all my efforts in research..

  Long back Sir Alexander Fleming had quoted: "You do not know what you will find, you may set out to find one and end up by discovering something entirely different." And I encountered this truth in my Ph.D.

  Sir Louis Pasteur had also rightly quoted: "In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind." In fact, he was advising us not to miss an opportunity

    Well, I have a question for you now.


Neha Rani Kumar is currently working as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Chemistry, Dhemaji College, Assam. She did her PhD from the group of Prof. Sanjio S. Zade at the Department of Chemical Sciences, IISER Kolkata..

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