Today at Berkeley Lab

Aindrila’s Mission: JBEI Scientist Sketches Her SF Neighborhood

By Sabin Russell

In her laboratory at the Joint BioEnergy Institute, Berkeley Lab microbiologist Aindrila Mukhopadhyay juggles her day amid anaerobic glove boxes, gene-copying PCR machines, centrifuges, and Erlenmeyer flasks. At home in San Francisco’s Mission District, the instruments are a bit simpler: a hand pencil sharpener, a sketchbook, and a pair of No. 2B soft graphite sketching pencils.

Self-taught and self-effacing, Aindrila (pronounced Oin-Drill-la) has built a following for her black-and-white drawings of her colorful neighborhood. Her originals have sold in local galleries and cafes, and seven of them were published in “The Comic Book Guide to the Mission,” a collection celebrating local culture and the work of Mission District artists.

Aindrila says she was flattered to see her work side-by-side with that of professional artists. “My father is a surgeon, and a really good painter,’’ she says. “I grew up with art stuff around the house. But when I’ve tried to have some formal art training, it made me worse.”

Aindrila’s subjects are the faded, renovated, dilapidated, and lovingly maintained facades of buildings in the heart of the Mission. Across from her favorite sidewalk café is the Roxie Theater, built in 1909, which has evolved with the neighborhood from popular movie house to porno theater, to independent film house. It’s the oldest continuously operating movie theater in San Francisco, and looks the part. She has sketched its ruby red marquee dozens of times, never tiring of the changing light and the theater’s enduring character.

A native of Bengal, in India, Aindrila loves the bustling, multi-cultural life of the Mission, where she lives with her husband and young son. “I like to capture the energy of the place,’’ she says of her drawings, which she calls, “my little doodles.” Motherhood has, in fact, taken a bite out of her doodling time, but the passion for an artistic time-out is as strong as ever.

Many of her sketches can be seen on her website. With her photography too, she shows an eye for cultural diversity and architectural charm. Aindrila says that her surgeon father would have become an architect if he had followed his heart’s desire. “He grew up in a world where, if you got into medical school, you do NOT not go to medical school.”

While laboratory science and sketchbook art may not seem a natural fit, Aindrila finds they have much in common. “Both areas require creativity and imagination,’’ she says. “And like any other skill, the more you draw or create experiments, the better you get at it, and the more you enjoy it.’’

There is no question that she also enjoys her day job. She heads the Mukhopadhyay Group, which divides its work in three areas. For the Department of Energy’s ENIGMA project, it studies Desulfovibrio vulgaris, an anaerobic bacterium capable of taking water-soluble metals out of solution — a trait that could be harnessed to keep pollutants out of water supplies. At JBEI, she directs two groups. Her Biofuels Toxicity & Tolerance Group is tackling the problem of how to protect fuel-producing microbes from poisoning themselves with their desired byproducts. Her second JBEI group is engaged in biochemical analysis of biofuels production using functional genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics — and hence is named with a bit of scientific/artistic tongue-in-cheek: “The Omics Group.”