Eesha Khare has always seen a world of matter. As the daughter of a hardware engineer and a biologist, she has an insatiable interest in what substances – both synthetic and biological – have in common. Unsurprisingly, this perspective led her to study the materials.
“I realized early on that everything around me is a material,” she says. “How our phones react to touch, how trees in nature provide us with structural wood and foldable paper, or how we can build tall skyscrapers out of steel and glass, everything revolves around the basics: This is materials science and technology. . “
As an aspiring fourth-year PhD student at the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), Khare is now studying the metal coordination bonds that enable mussels to attach to rocks along turbulent coastlines. But Khare’s scientific enthusiasm has also led to wide-ranging interests ranging from science policy to climate protection and entrepreneurship.
A material world
A native of Silicon Valley, Khare vividly remembers how excited she was about science as a young girl, both in school and at countless science fairs and high school lab internships. One such internship at the University of California at Santa Cruz introduced her to the study of nanomaterials, or materials smaller than a single human cell. The project piqued her interest in how research could lead to energy storage applications, and she began to think about the relationships between materials, science policy, and the environment.
Khare earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering and chemistry from Harvard University while working at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics. There she became fascinated by environmental policy in the political arena and worked for the then professor Gina McCarthy, who is currently the first female climate advisor to the White House in the Biden administration.
After her academic explorations in college, Khare wanted to see science in a new light before getting her PhD in materials science and engineering. She postponed acceptance of the program at MIT to study at Cambridge University in the UK, where she earned a Masters in History and Philosophy of Science. “In a PhD program in particular, it often feels like you’re immersed in science when you’re pushing new frontiers in research, but I wanted to take a step back and be inspired by what scientists made in the past,” says they.
Her experience at Cambridge was both challenging and insightful, but Khare quickly found that her mechanistic curiosity persisted – a realization that came in the form of a biological material.
“My first master’s research was on pollution indicators in the UK and I looked specifically at lichens to understand the social and political reasons why they were adopted by the public as pollution indicators,” explains Khare. “But I was more wondering how lichens can serve as pollution indicators. And I found it pretty similar in most of my research projects: I was more interested in how the technology or discovery actually works. “
Enthusiasm for innovation
Appropriately, for her, these bioindicators confirmed that studying materials at MIT was the right course of study. Now Khare is working on a completely different organism and is researching the chemical interactions of the metal coordination of a biopolymer secreted by mussels.
“Mussels secrete this thread and can stick to the walls of the sea. So when ocean waves come, mussels don’t come loose as easily, ”says Khare. “That’s partly because of how metal ions in this material bind to various amino acids in the protein. There is no input from the shell itself to control anything there; all the magic is in this biological material, which is not only very sticky but also doesn’t break that quickly, and if you cut it it can heal that interface again! If we could better understand and replicate this biological material in our own world, we could let materials heal on their own and never break and so remove so much waste. “
To study this natural material, Khare combines computer and experimental techniques, synthesizes her own biopolymers experimentally and investigates their properties with in silico molecular dynamics. Her co-consultants – Markus Buehler, Jerry McAfee Professor of Engineering in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Niels Holten-Andersen, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering – have this dual approach to their project as well as their great enthusiasm for innovation.
Khare enjoys taking one trial course each semester, and a recent offering at MIT Sloan School of Management inspired her to pursue entrepreneurship. Nowadays, she spends much of her free time with a startup called Taxie, which she started with fellow MIT students after class 15.390 (New Enterprises). Taxie is trying to electrify the ridesharing by providing electric rental cars to riders. Khare hopes this project will take some small first steps to make car ridesharing greener – and to democratize access to electric vehicles for riders, who often come from lower incomes or a migrant background.
“There are many goals to reduce emissions or to help our environment. But we’re slowly bringing physical things to the streets, physical things to real people, and I think we’re helping to speed up the electrical transition, ”says Khare. “These small steps are helpful to at least learn how we can make the transition to the electronics industry or a cleaner industry.”
In addition to her startup work, Khare has pursued a number of other extracurricular activities at MIT, including co-organizing her department’s Student Application Assistance Program and serving on the DMSE’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council. Her diverse interests have also led to a diverse circle of friends that suits her well, because she is a self-proclaimed “humanity”.
In a year when connecting was more difficult than usual, Khare has focused on the positives, spending her spring semester with family in California, practicing Bharatanatyam, a form of Indian classical dance, through Zoom. Looking to the future, Khare hopes to bring together even more of her interests such as materials science and climate.
“I want to understand the energy and environmental sectors as a whole in order to identify the most pressing technology gaps and how I can contribute to them with my knowledge. My goal is to find out where I can personally make a difference and where it can have a greater impact on our climate, ”she says. “I like to be outside of my comfort zone.”