Ashish Bhattarai jabs at his computer screen. He’s eager to explain advances in his research and, in an almost equally animated fashion, point out the differences with another research entity’s peer-reviewed publication about the same subject.
Asked if he’s a competitive sort, Bhattarai laughs.
“I’m very nice,” he says, ”but I’m very competitive.”
As evidence, he describes his approach on a soccer pitch. More on that in a moment.
Bhattarai credits his competitiveness and an inexhaustible curiosity with fueling his productivity at PNNL. Since joining the Physical and Computational Sciences Directorate in 2017, he has contributed to eight peer-reviewed articles, of which he is the lead author on six.
His career path led him to PNNL from Pullman, Washington, where in 2016 he earned his doctorate in chemistry at Washington State University (WSU). He’s thoroughly enjoying his postdoctoral life at PNNL but demurs at making predictions for the future.
“We’re a pretty good team,” Bhattarai says of his mentor and co-author, PNNL chemist Patrick Z. El-Khoury.
El-Khoury concurs, praising his colleague’s research capabilities.
“Some of the measurements he performed truly comprise a test in patience,” El-Khoury says. “He had the right mindset and self-drive to see them through. This is particularly the case for chemical reaction imaging at solid-liquid interfaces.”
That study – exploring the development of a liquid-based tip-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (TERS) system supporting multiple user groups at PNNL – is where Bhattarai has particularly excelled while at PNNL. In late August, he presented a talk about the subject at the American Chemical Society’s Fall 2019 National Meeting & Exposition in San Diego. Bhattarai excitedly explains the challenges presented using the technique in a liquid state, emphasizing the importance of the directions of the tip and a laser pointed at a solution cell. He also displays confidence that the techniques he and team members have developed are setting their findings apart from the small number of other researchers conducting similar experiments.
“Liquids present a lot of challenges,” he says. “That’s probably why there are so few research papers exploring the topic.”
A Long Journey from Nepal
Bhattarai grew up in Nepal, where his prowess in math and science garnered early attention. He attended Vikas Vidyaniketan, a boarding school located on the Bay of Bengal, in India, roughly 960 miles, or 1,550 kilometers, south of the Nepalese capital city of Kathmandu.
“I have no idea why I traveled that far from Nepal,” Bhattarai says with a laugh.
The school’s website boasts about its graduates’ postsecondary education success rate. Bhattarai credited a math instructor at the school, who had studied in the United States and returned to his native India to teach, with accelerating his interest in the subject.
Bhattarai started as a math major at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. But he gravitated to chemistry, earning degrees in both subjects in 2011. He moved on to WSU, where he studied kinetics and thermodynamics of surface processes. He started as a PNNL postdoc researcher in January 2017.
Away from the lab, Bhattarai might be found playing soccer, the game of his youth and young adulthood. He plays on one of the four PNNL league teams, may even spend a free weekend to travel to Pullman to play on one of the university’s finely groomed fields, and rates himself a die-hard Arsenal fan of England’s Premier League.
And is he competitive on the soccer pitch?
Bhattarai reaffirms that he’s a nice guy.
“But you should just look at me playing soccer,” he says. “I don’t smile.”
Published: October 3, 2019