Young scientist Ishita Ghosh speaks on her feat in developing the world’s hardest self-healing material

Women have made strides in STEM. Soho Deck spoke to a young scientist, Ishita Ghosh, who has paved her way to have a career in the sciences.

Ishita, a researcher from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata, and her team have developed the world’s hardest known self-healing material in a laboratory feat that they say could lead to mobile phone screens repairing their cracks in less than a second.

Briefing about her research and how it will be useful, Ishita said, “We are not unfamiliar with the healing of wounds in our bodies. One of the reasons for that is the stress-induced accumulation of electrical charges, which trigger the process of repair. Using that concept, we designed self-repairing crystals. These crystals when fractured develop opposite electrical charges on the fractured surfaces, which attract each other leading to instant recombination within a thousandth fraction of a second!”

“These crystals can become next-generation materials for use in spacecraft, robotics, mobile screens, and various other technological applications. Such a mechanism of self-healing has never been proposed before and it will be useful to understand the molecular level mechanism of self-healing in bones, muscles, and collagen.”

Ishita was involved with the synthesis and analysis of the positive controls demonstrated in the work.

As self-healing materials have been under study for three decades, Ishita explains how the feat stands out: “Although self-healing has been pursued for a long time, it was, until now, mostly established in polymers, gels, and other soft materials. However, for practical applications, we require hard and stiff materials. This makes our self-healing material one of the hardest known self-healing materials. Also, existing research had mainly focused on the property rather than the fundamentals, like what exactly is the cause of repair and what is the nano-level structure of the material after it has healed. We could provide those insights in our work.”

Ishita is the only girl in her team of six, and she is proud of it. She said, “Honestly it feels nothing different being an only girl in this work. Our contributions have led us here and we as a team are proud of it.”

Asked about the idea of choosing this particular topic for research, the scientist said: “Our lab is focused on finding and studying unique properties of crystals. Our guide Prof. C. Malla Reddy, during his Ph.D. in 2006 discovered for the first time that crystals could undergo permanent irreversible deformation like plasticine. In 2012, our group discovered that crystals could be bent reversibly like a rubber band. This time we found crystals can self-repair without any external stimuli.”

Talking about her personal life, Ishita said: “I have had a simple life. The same school for 15 years then graduated in Chemistry from Jadavpur University and joined IISER Kolkata in 2018 as an Integrated Ph.D. student. Although I have a long way to go, whatever I am doing today is really because of my parents.”

“I wanted to pursue the general line (instead of medical or engineering) from school life itself. The idea of a Ph.D. was very fascinating to my younger self.”

Ishita with her team

Asked about her opinion of the contribution and involvement of women in STEM, Ishita said: “I am happy to see that the STEM gap is decreasing day by day. For instance, this year the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna. They are the first two women to share the prize in scientific history.”

According to the Directory of Extramural Research & Development (R&D) Project 2018-19 report released by the government recently, women leading research projects has increased by 4% over two years.

Speaking her mind on men dominating the field of STEM, the Kolkata-born scientist said: “Perhaps for a long time, boys were preferred over girls for getting an education at the basic primary or secondary school level. When we overcame that, the same thing happened for getting higher education. The female to male ratio in higher education institutions is pathetic for both faculties and students.”

Ishita said, “The most important thing is to stay positive always. There will always be difficulties on the way but we should not let that get ahead of us. When things don’t go our way and we get upset for a day or two, we should ensure that on the third day we get up and go back to our work, because that is our main focus.”