Michigan Chemistry recently caught up with alumna Sumita Mitra, who was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2018 based on her work on technologies and products for the dental and orthodontic market, including resin-modified glass ionomers, nanocomposites, and adhesives.
A 1977 PhD graduate of U-M, working with organic chemist Richard Lawton, Mitra was inducted into the Hall of Fame based on her research and development leading to three patents in particular. On May 14th, 2002, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued U.S. Patent No. 6,387,981, titled Radiopaque Dental Materials with Nano-sized Particles. Two other patents were issued to 3M: Aesthetic Dental Materials (2003,) and Clustered Dental Fillers (2004).
Mitra outlined her journey as a chemistry graduate and a scientist, which we hope will help students to prepare for their dream careers in science.
MC: Tell us a little bit about your background before entering the Michigan PhD program
Dr Mitra: I was born in India and attended school and college there. I attended Presidency College in Kolkata and majored in chemistry. Thereafter, I attended University of Kolkata and obtained my Masters degree in chemistry with major in organic chemistry in 1972. I joined the PhD program at the Chemistry Department of University of Michigan in January of 1973.
MC: How was your experience during your PhD? How did the department influence your research attitude?
Dr Mitra: I value greatly my experience as a PhD student at the University of Michigan. It opened my eyes to the vast possibilities of using chemistry for creating materials and processes for the betterment of human lives. The faculty, staff and other graduate students were very supportive of me. My research advisor, Dr. Richard Lawton, provided me with the overall objectives of my PhD thesis project but gave me ample room for being creative and doing things my own way. I also had the support from him to seek out help from professors in other departments (e.g. Biochemistry) and laboratories (VA Lab). This taught me the importance of seeking collaborative help when needed and working at the interface of different disciplines to create new knowledge.
MC: What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in chemistry?
Dr Mitra: Once a person has identified a problem one has stick to it and not give up easily. Some parts of the solutions to the problem may come from people knowledgeable in other disciplines – so it is extremely important to be able to seek help outside one’s immediate sphere and effectively collaborate with them. There will undoubtedly be roadblocks during the research process but one should not be afraid of taking detours – in fact this will lead to new ideas and inventions.
MC: How did the different awards especially being inducted into the hall of fame change things for you?
Dr Mitra: I am humbled and honored by the different awards and especially to have been inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF). The publicity around these awards has given me the opportunity to reach out to students at school and college levels and provide encouragement to pursue STEM education and careers. Many aspiring innovators have connected with me and I hope I have helped them in their journey. Through the NIHF’s Camp Invention STEM program for school students I have participated and connected with many curious students and talked to them about becoming innovative thinkers.
More about Sumitra Mitra
Sumita Mitra has been awarded 100 US patents, and has published 90 articles on of polymer science and dental materials, including 12 chapters in 9 books.
She is an internationally recognized lecturer on these topics and has given more than 100 presentations and courses in various universities and colleges in 45 countries. She has received numerous honors and awards among which are: Inducted into 3M’s prestigious Carlton Society in 1998 – a life time achievement award; American Chemical Society Regional Industrial Innovation Award 2004; American Chemical Society “Heroes of Chemistry Award” 2009; and Peyton-Skinner Award for Innovation in Dental Materials, 2012.
National Inventors Hall of Fame
Since 1973 the National Inventors Hall of Fame has recognized the enduring legacies of exceptional U.S. patent holders, not only for their inventions, but also for their contributions towards improving society. Members of the Hall of Fame have been influencing the future and motivating the next great innovator to transform our world.