Reactions – Kalai Saravanamuttu

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Kalai Saravanamuttu is in the Department of Chemistry at McMaster University, and works on the fundamental properties and applications of nonlinear light propagation in photochemical media.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Chemistry first appealed to me in a great deal due to my high school teachers in Port Moresby. They threw open the doors to a molecular underworld that ruled the properties and transformations of matter. The decision to pursue chemistry as a career probably took form during my final undergraduate year at McGill University. For my senior thesis, I worked on optical chemical benches – biosensor waveguides with enhanced sensitivities based on surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy. First within the narrow scope of this project and then in a much broader context, I saw chemistry as a link between different disciplines – an interpreter between the natural sciences – that opened exciting, creative approaches to research.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

I would work for an organisation that actively promoted the rights, health care and education of children. The roles and responsibilities of scientists in human rights have been demonstrated by initiatives such as the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program. My hope in working full time in this field would be to make a meaningful and sustained even if minute contribution to these critical issues. I feel that such work would also provide incredible opportunities to learn from the lives of a rich diversity of people.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

My research group looks at the way coherent and incoherent light behaves when it propagates through media that undergo photochemical reactions. We find that these systems elicit a range of nonlinear forms of light propagation such as self-trapped beams, optical lattices and spontaneous pattern formation. Such phenomena hold promise in the development of active photonics devices that provide precise control over the propagation of light signals.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

I would like to dine with Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman. It would be wonderful to hear a personal account of the sequence of events that elucidated the subtle yet powerful Raman effect and to also get his perspective on the interesting times in the early twentieth century during which his experiments were carried out.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

About three weeks ago just before the birth of my daughter and when everything seemed to be full of promise. I worked with my undergraduate student to see how multiple self-trapped laser beams behaved as they travelled through a polymerisable gel. We found that the beams merged together and separated periodically as they propagated through the photopolymer. We are now trying to find the mechanism underlying this behaviour.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

Assuming that I was not to be rescued any time soon, I would probably take On the Genealogy of Morals by Nietzsche – because I am continually trying to read and understand this text. In terms of a music album (and assuming that i-pods were forbidden), it would be a coin toss between a Verdi collection and a mix of Tamil popular songs spanning the past six decades by composers Viswanathan, Ilaiyaraaja and Rahman.

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?

I’d like to see Prof. David L. Andrews from the University of East Anglia. His group uses a powerful approach based on quantum electrodynamics to understand the interactions of molecules between themselves and with light.