A Chat With Dr. Chilkoti

Dr. Ashutosh Chilkoti is a professor, the chair of Duke’s Biomedical Engineering department, a PI of his own lab, an entrepreneur, a mentor, and much more. Surprisingly, he says he’s never had goals or a five-year plan. He just takes advantage of the opportunities that come his way.

As an undergraduate, Dr. Chilkoti studied Chemical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. He didn’t initially intend to go into science, and he might have studied history or literature. But after passing the IIT entrance exam, the people around him encouraged him to take advantage of this opportunity, so he did. Then, he earned his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of Washington and stayed there as a postdoc to study bioengineering. When I asked why he pivoted away from chemical engineering to bioengineering, he said it wasn’t much of a pivot. His Ph.D. mentor ran a lab that focused on bioengineering, so he was used to applying his knowledge to bioengineering problems. From Seattle, Dr. Chilkoti came to Duke, where he still is today. 

Research brings the act of invention and discovery, and Dr. Chilkoti finds it really gratifying to do something nobody has ever done before. But his job as a PI goes beyond scientific discovery. To him, the best part of his job is mentoring graduate students and postdocs as they grow and develop as professionals and scientists. His only qualm with science is the difficulty in obtaining funding. He fears that the scarcity of funding discourages young scientists from becoming professors and researchers because they don’t want to spend their careers constantly writing grant proposals and looking for money. 

His advice for a student who is interested in research is to find the “flavor” of science that you are both interested in and good at. The only way to do that is to try new things. Some people are good at the theory; they discover with their paper and pencil without ever stepping foot in a lab. Some people prefer a more tactile path and work in a wet lab, pipetting and culturing cells, or in a dry lab, building machines and devices. As long as you find the kind of science you like to do, the specific research projects will follow.

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