Prof. Leela Srinivas Panchakarla, affectionately known as Leela to friends and well-wishers was a trail-blazing chemist who left us much too soon. His towering personality, warm smile, friendly demeanor and infectious enthusiasm has left an indelible impression on all those who have come in contact with him.
His expertise in solid-state materials and strong foundation in chemical principles has been instrumental in opening new vistas in nanomaterials and materials science. His doctoral training under one of the world’s leading solid-state chemist Prof. C.N. R. Rao provided him with the opportunity to explore several interesting aspects and applications of nanocarbons and related materials. He had extensively worked on doped nanocarbons, tuning of their band-structure and related applications for his doctoral research, followed by a brief post-doctoral stint at Virginia Commonwealth University. Subsequently, he went to develop an entirely new class of mis-fit layered inorganic compounds at Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel with Prof. Reshef Tenne. The class of mis-fit layered compounds that he developed has captured the imagination and attention of scientists worldwide for the new fundamental insights on atomic-interactions in solids and energy-harvesting applications.
Leela had fantastic scientific intuition that he combined with chemical design principles to come up with the new domain of mis-fit layered inorganic compounds and nanotubes. His expertise, fascination and excitement with electron microscopy is well-known to friends and his students. The joy you could see in Leela’s face when you showed him an electron diffraction pattern or TEM image is something unparalleled and would be fondly remembered by everybody who he interacted with.
He joined the Chemistry department of IIT Bombay in 2016 as an Assistant Professor and rapidly established an active and vibrant research group to explore the synthesis and properties of advanced functional materials. His multi-directional personality was much appreciated by his colleagues in department and institute. He was instrumental in not only setting up new research facilities and maintaining them, but also initiated sports activities for the students and colleagues of the department. His teaching bore a distinct stamp of a student-friendly approach and interactive lectures, often with interesting demonstrations to drive home the concepts. He was a true friend and had a strong sense of calm and reassurance around him. It is difficult to imagine that Leela is no longer amidst us.
Leela was passionate about science and loved to have long and deep discussions/debates with both students and colleagues during his frequent walks around the campus. Colleagues fondly recollect such campus-walks where wide-ranging topics such as origin of chirality to nucleation and growth mechanisms were discussed and debated. His short but decorated life is a standing testimony of his rise from humble origins and was well on his way to become a leading young researcher representing Indian science. He idolized these lines from poet Longfellow -
“The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.”
Leela had certainly attained great heights in science and life and was meant to reach out for the stars, before fate took an unimaginably cruel turn. He collapsed in the department of Chemistry and left his mortal body on 24th Dec, 2021. He leaves behind his wife and son, along with multitude of people who can only fondly reminiscence their moments with him. While we pray for strength for his wife and young son to tide over this crisis, we also assure them of all possible support.