This profile originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Mass Transfer, the magazine for alumni and friends of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois. For a listing of all our faculty members, please visit our directory or explore the department’s research pages for overviews of our groundbreaking research programs.
“The university provides me an opportunity to explore new frontiers of science with help from experts in different fields. The problems that my group is trying to address present some of the most important challenges of interest to society because of the rise in human population and global warming.” –Diwakar Shukla
For Diwakar Shukla, coming to the University of Illinois allows him to take advantage of the environment and unique resources to perform exciting research in computational and theoretical biophysics. Shukla, who is a Blue Waters Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, also is an affiliate faculty in the Center for Biophysics and Computational Biology, Computational Science & Engineering Program and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). He joined the department in 2015.
“The presence of NCSA, Blue Waters Supercomputer (one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world), and several renowned theoretical and computational biology research groups on campus make it an ideal place for my research,” he said.
Shukla began his career at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, India, where he received B. Tech. and M. Tech. degrees in chemical engineering. He then joined MIT where he received M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in chemical engineering. Before coming to Illinois, he completed his postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University.
His research group’s main research interest is the combined use of theory, computation, and experiments to develop quantitative models of biological phenomena relevant to health and the environment.
One of the current projects in Shukla’s lab involves the use of molecular simulations to gain new insights into proteins involved in cellular signaling related to chronic pain, asthma, cardiovascular, and neurodegenerative disorders. For example, 70 million Americans suffer from chronic pain – more than from diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined.
“Yet the fundamental causes of pain are still not completely understood, and an effective, safe means for treatment unclear,” Shukla explained. “A detailed mechanistic understanding of these proteins will provide us with key insights that can guide the development of next generation analgesics.”
His research also extends these ideas to investigate stress-related response in plants. Much as adrenaline coursing through our veins drives our body’s reactions to stress, the plant hormones are behind plants’ responses to stressful situations such as water and nutrient shortage, fluctuations in temperature, light, and carbon dioxide concentration. “However, the molecular understanding of these stress and energy signaling enzymes in plants remains elusive,” he said. “I plan to investigate these systems in collaboration with plant biologists on campus, leveraging our strengths in plant and computational biology.”
For Shukla, pursuing these problems gives him an opportunity to “learn something new and pull me out of my comfort zone.”
“The university provides me an opportunity to explore new frontiers of science with help from experts in different fields,” he said. “The problems that my group is trying to address present some of the most important challenges of interest to society because of the rise in human population and global warming.”
In the classroom, Shukla teaches courses on process control and transport phenomena. “Teaching and interacting with students are among my primary reasons for pursuing an academic career, and I can convey my enthusiasm for science and technology to students in my class.”
Shukla has an interest in amateur astronomy that goes back to his days in high school when he participated in the International Astronomy Olympiad at one of the largest optical telescopes in the world in the Caucasus Mountains in southern Russia. “I plan to pursue this hobby with much more enthusiasm as the cities of Urbana and Champaign provide ample opportunities for stargazing with the clear skies and limited light-pollution,” he said.