College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Indian-Born Scientist Awarded Physics Doctorate

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Research which explored using laser-derived molybdenite, a mineral similar to graphite, for application in several nanoelectric, biomedical and energy storage uses, earned Dr Sarojini Jeeva Panchu a PhD in Physics from UKZN.

Adopting a multi-disciplinary approach, Panchu synthesised the mineral using laser-induced vaporisation in a high temperature furnace, producing novel nanostructures of molybdenum disulfide and molybdenum trisulfide. These nanomaterials, which Panchu characterised using electron and optical spectroscopy, have properties that Panchu says could be used in cancer-fighting treatments, and in energy storage devices such as super-capacitors.

‘My research dealt with the new concept of “quantum level objects controlled by laser light”, which relies on complex-shaped nanomaterials that have been synthesised using novel laser technology,’ she said.

Supervised by Dr Mathew Moodley of the School of Chemistry and Physics, Panchu used dual pulsed laser-assisted chemical vapour deposition to synthesise molybdenum disulphide nanomaterials, and through the process obtained nanoparticles resembling mesh-like carbon allotrope molecules known as fullerenes, nanorods, nanocrystals, and nanodots.

Panchu, who was awarded a National Research Foundation Freestanding Doctoral Scholarship, achieved her PhD in just four years and has published her research results in several high quality journals including Springer’s Journal of Electronic Materials, Elsevier’s Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology B: Biology and Materials Today Chemistry, the American Chemical Society’s ACS Omega Journal and Wiley’s ChemistrySelect.

‘A full time doctorate was not a just degree, it was an opportunity to develop the skills needed to deliver impact to my own life,’ said Panchu.

Dedicated to the advancement of science and technology, Panchu completed her BSc degree at Lady Doak College in her home state of Tamil Nadu in India, having grown up in Karendal, a village in Tamil Nadu’s Ramanathapuram district. She completed her MSc degree at Madurai Kamaraj University in India, majoring in Physics, and went on to work at the Central Electro Chemical Research Institute as a research assistant, where she passed the country’s Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering and did her research project on the topic of developing nanostructured semiconductors for solar cells.

Panchu then joined her husband Dr Anand Krishnan, a researcher in Medical Biochemistry at UKZN at the time, and started studying for her doctorate.

The first in her family to enrol for and achieve a PhD, Panchu said it was through persistence, hard work and a positive mind-set that she was able to produce noteworthy results.

She thanked Moodley for providing her with motivation, focus and guidance and was also grateful for the support of Professor Anil Chuturgoon and Dr Kumar Raju.

Panchu is now working as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of the Free State, where she is focusing on the vital application phase of her research – exploring the use of her nanostructured aqueous semiconductors in driving the solar degradation of bio-waste to aid in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied