Postdoc Profile: Lakshmi Bhai

Lakshmi Bhai, Provost’s Postdoctoral Scientist in the Department of Chemistry, spoke with us about her research, her decision to come to Columbia, and her experience of moving to New York.

Can you speak about your background and how it influenced your academic focus?

Born and raised in India, I always aspired to become a scientist. My mother, who displayed tremendous determination by completing her Masters in Mathematics while raising my sister and me, served as a significant inspiration for me to pursue a career in research.

Although I was initially drawn to mathematics, I developed a keen interest in interdisciplinary research while pursuing a five-year integrated Masters program at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Mohali. As a result, I enrolled in the Chemical Physics graduate program at The Ohio State University. IISER's curriculum is tailored to encourage students to pursue interdisciplinary research by allowing me to take courses regardless of the major, thereby providing me with a great platform to discover my research interests.


Head shot of Lakshmi Bhai in front of a honeycomb background

My journey into NMR spectroscopy began when I was introduced to it by Professor Ramesh Ramachandran during my time at IISER. Under his guidance, I delved into the analytical theory of polarization transfer in multi-spin systems in NMR spectroscopy. I have since dedicated the past nine years of my professional career to working in NMR spectroscopy. The versatility of solid-state NMR to study various samples, including small organic and inorganic molecules, biomolecules, and biomacromolecules, presented me with a unique opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary research. I completed my graduate dissertation under the supervision of Professor Jaroniec, focusing on Structural Studies of Biomolecules using Dynamic Nuclear Polarization and Paramagnetic Solid-State NMR.

What were your research interests within nuclear magnetic resonance?

Despite the remarkable progress that Magic Angle Spinning (MAS) solid-state Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (SSNMR) spectroscopy has made in determining the structure and dynamics of biomacromolecules, the sensitivity of solid-state NMR has always been a challenge. However, hyperpolarization techniques like Dynamic Nuclear Polarization (DNP) can enhance the sensitivity of NMR. As one of the major hyperpolarization techniques, my research focuses on the use of DNP for the characterization of electrochemical systems and structural studies of biomacromolecules.

DNP involves transferring significant polarization of electron spins to nuclear spins in close proximity through the saturation of EPR transitions by microwave irradiation, and nuclear polarization is then spread through homonuclear spin diffusion. This technique offers a theoretical maximum of 660-fold signal enhancement for NMR and has been successfully used to detect signals from previously undetectable systems.

"My research so far is for structure determination of proteins and biomolecules; my work is more in method development than actually studying a disease."

I know you spoke about the difference between more theoretical work versus applied, but from your perspective, are there larger problems that you hope to address with your work? 

In the beginning of my research career, I focused primarily on theoretical work, but I eventually felt that it was incomplete. I believe that in research, theory and experiments are two essential components that must work together in tandem. Theoretical studies provide understanding of the underlying science, and help to develop new and improved experiments. However, these theoretical studies are only completed when they are used to study various systems of interest through experimentation. Ultimately, theory and experiment are like two pieces of a puzzle that must fit together to create a complete picture.

In my current research, I am utilizing NMR to investigate two crucial systems. The first system involves utilizing DNP solid-state NMR to characterize the solid electrolyte interface (SEI) of lithium-ion batteries. The primary objective is to gain insights into why certain materials fail while others lead to improved performance, not just in lithium-ion batteries but also in batteries beyond lithium. Since the transition to renewable energy and electric vehicles relies heavily on the development and optimization of new electrochemical energy storage and conversion chemistries, understanding the fundamental mechanisms underlying material performance is critical. By doing so, we can devise effective strategies to fine-tune material performance in applications such as grid storage.

The second objective is to determine the structure and characterize the conformational substates of the FtsZ oligomer interface in the bacterial cytoskeleton using solid state NMR. By obtaining the structure, we hope to gain a better understanding of the bacterial cytoskeleton and explore its biophysical properties. Ultimately, this will also contribute to the development of more effective antibiotics that can target this structure, which is critical for combating bacterial infections and improving public health. Unfortunately, oligomeric systems like FtsZ are often overlooked due to technical limitations, despite their significance as potential drug targets. To overcome these challenges, we are developing new NMR techniques that can be applied to non-soluble, non-crystalline structures like filaments. This will allow us to obtain the necessary structural information and help fill the gaps in our knowledge of oligomeric systems like FtsZ.

What made you decide to come to Columbia and what opportunities might being part of this cluster of postdocs offer for you?

In my role as a postdoctoral research scientist as part of the Provost's inclusive faculty pathways initiative, I have been presented with many exciting opportunities at Columbia University. I am fortunate to have joint advisement from two esteemed professors, Professor Ann McDermott from the Department of Chemistry and Professor Lauren Marbella from the Department of Chemical Engineering.

My involvement in NMR spectroscopy has allowed me to engage in a broad range of research activities over the years, including developing theories surrounding NMR, designing methodologies for biomolecule structure determination, programming pulse sequences, conducting numerical simulations of experiments, and working with instrumentation. While most of my work focused on biomolecules, working with Prof. Marbella has given me the opportunity to use DNP solid-state NMR to characterize electrochemical systems, which is a completely new and exciting opportunity for me.

I have been fortunate to work with Prof. McDermott, whose research I had often referenced during my Masters and graduate studies. I was thrilled to receive an invitation from her to give a presentation the following week. Currently, my work with the McDermott Lab involves the application of biochemistry techniques to study the structure of FtsZ fibrils in E.coli.

Additionally, I am excited to be part of the installation of a new DNP instrument in the NMR facility, which comes with significant responsibility. Finally, I am honored to be part of the Provost's inclusive faculty pathways initiative as a postdoctoral research scientist

In addition, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to assist in the installation of a new DNP instrument in the NMR facility, which carries substantial responsibility. Lastly, I feel privileged to be a part of the Provost's inclusive faculty pathways initiative as a postdoctoral research scientist. I am confident that this program will enable me to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to become a competitive candidate for a future faculty position.

"when you want to insert a new DNA into a new cell, you give it a 'heat shock'—you heat it to a hundred degrees and then cool it down. Coming to New York felt like that."

After your initial “heat shock,” are you finding New York to be overwhelming? Are you finding places to find peace and quiet?

Upon moving from Columbus, Ohio to New York, the change was quite significant and overwhelming at first. it felt like the city never rests. However, I gradually adjusted to living in the midst of a bustling city. Despite this, I find the trails and parks located near the campus to be peaceful and quiet. They serve as my go-to places whenever the city becomes too much to handle. Nevertheless, I believe that the crowds and busyness of the city will always be overwhelming for me.

How has your experience been as a member of this new cohort of postdocs?

As a postdoc, I found it challenging to make new friends outside of my lab. Unlike in graduate school, where classmates share similar experiences and interests, the postdoc experience can be isolating. However, I discovered the Writing Accountability Group, which meets every Friday and includes individuals from different disciplines. This group allows me to work on my writing projects while also meeting new people and engaging in conversations about topics outside of my research. Being a part of this group has helped me feel more accountable for my work while also facilitating social connections with others in the academic community.

Also, it has provided me access to resources and programs that can help them develop new skills and enhance my research abilities.

What are some of the things that you do to recharge and unwind?

Working between two labs with completely independent projects can be time-consuming, and while I enjoy the projects, it's important to take breaks and recharge. My cats provide that for me. Coming home to their affection is a great way to de-stress and feel re-energized. Even though I don't have a lot of free time, spending time with my cats is something I always look forward to, and I never feel like I get enough time with them.

In addition to my furry friends, I find joy in drawing, painting, and caring for my indoor plants. Unfortunately, the recent relocation has negatively impacted my plants, and I am currently trying to nurse them back to health.