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Physics professor utilizes prestigious grant in research

Published: November 9, 2012
Section: Features

Professor Aparna Baskaran (PHYS), gained her Ph.D. from the University of Florida in 2006, and is entering her third year of teaching here at Brandeis. Her research is primarily focused on the physics of biological systems. Over the summer, she was awarded the prestigious NSF Career Grant in order to pursue her research on dynamics in active materials. The grant is given to early career tenure-track faculty members, and is awarded by the National Science Foundation.

It is awarded to junior faculty who “exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations,” as stated by the National Science Foundation. This is a prestigious honor, which is also highly competitive.

Baskaran is not a practical physicist, instead she is a theorist. Baskaran’s research questions are therefore associated with the theoretical tools needed to study complex dynamic systems. Baskaran explains that “most normal materials are in equilibrium. If you leave a chair in a room, when you come back to it, it will still be there in the same place you left it and it will still be a chair.” Instead of focusing on these systems that physicists understand, Baskaran focuses on those systems that are not in equilibrium, except in death. Her research is motivated by the desire to find the tools to address and understand these more complex dynamics.

Biological systems, such as the cytoskeleton of a cell or colonies of bacteria, are examples of systems not in equilibrium. The cytoskeleton of a cell is “a polymer material, it dynamically changes,” as Baskaran describes. A cell is driven from the inside. The only time it is in equilibrium is in death, which is an irrelevant state.

Baskaran’s research, continued by the money awarded in her grant, desires to understand the material properties of cells. These properties relate to how the cell crawls and moves. For example, the bacterial biofilms that form on teeth are antibiotic-resistant forms. These colonies form in interesting manners, in relation to how they move and organize themselves on a population scale. Many objects humans come in contact with on Earth are driven by these complex, external forces that physicists are still struggling to understand.

This phenomenon Baskaran is tackling can also be shown in the populations of larger organisms. Here it is harder to measure, given that the organism possesses brains that process more functions and thoughts. When a school of fish swarms to avoid a predator, the swarm always begins with a single fish. This sole fish, upon seeing its enemy, will swim toward the center of the group. This change in its path and momentum alerts the fish next to it, as the water pressure against the sensors on its gills change. That fish then averts its path in order to stay in equilibrium, and in turn affects other fish in the school. Baskaran attempts to theorize how these reactions occur, and continues to strive to generalize the statistical mechanics of systems that are not in equilibrium or those that work to keep in equilibrium. Baskaran’s work, which currently concerns itself mostly with the cytoplasms and cytoskeletons of cells, theorizes how to generalize these mechanics that govern our world.

Here at Brandeis, Baskaran teaches statistical physics and thermodynamics. She claims that she loves her environment and the experiences that she has had here. “My students really wake me up, and my colleagues provide a very collaborative environment.”