Physics Spotlight

February 2016
Photo of Professor Narayanan Menon

Narayanan Menon

Ph.D., University of Chicago (1995)

We have chosen Professor Menon to participate in this month’s Professor Spotlight. This is due to his interesting research and his dedication to the summer school he started entitled Soft Solids and Complex Fluids. Professor Menon specializes in Experimental Condensed Matter Physics.

What did you major in and where?  Where did you go to graduate school and for what?

I majored in Physics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, India.  It was largely an engineering school so I had several engineering classes.  I went to graduate school at the University of Chicago and became a condensed matter experimentalist.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school?  How did you decide which grad school to go to?

Why?  Somewhat thoughtlessly.  I enjoyed my undergrad classes and I knew enough to know that there was much more to learn.  I went on to grad school without much career-planning or soul-searching (that came in grad school!).  I had not been to the US, so location, atmosphere, living arrangements etc., were not factors.  I looked in a book (pre-internet decision) for departments with a number of active faculty in the areas that I then thought I was interested in.  From older students, I had some sense of the reputation of various universities.

Briefly, explain your research:

Symmetric. Image credit: S. Gangaprasath We do experiments to understand the collective properties of materials made up of macroscopic pieces of matter such as grains, fibers, and sheets.

What class in the undergraduate curriculum is closest to your research?

Intermediate Lab is closest to the style of our day-to-day work.  Of the undergrad courses, junior mechanics and stat-mech are also close, but I have never taught those courses.

What is your favorite science paper?

One favorite in decades of reading papers?  This is difficult…that’s like asking the single best meal I have eaten.  But here is an example, an old classic that I was impressed by is “The Structure of Liquids” by JD Bernal, Proc. Roy Soc. A, 1964 (DOI: 10.1098/rspa.1964.0147).

Do you take undergraduates in your lab?  What type of work do they do? Have you published any papers with undergraduates?

Yes.  They do experiments, typically on their own.  I often use them as the explorers in the lab, to make a preliminary foray into areas I don’t know much about.  Yes, they have authored papers, but that shouldn’t be at the forefront of their thinking.  There’s plenty of time to carry that burden later in life.

What is your favorite class to teach at UMass at the undergraduate level? What is your favorite class to teach at the graduate level?

I’ve liked all the undergrad majors courses I’ve taught.  I especially enjoyed I-Lab.  At the grad level, I have only ever taught Classical Mechanics, which I also liked a lot.

How do you train graduate students in your research?  How do they start research?

I don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach for this.  Grad students get treated on their own terms.  I have a first project in mind, and the possible contours of a thesis.  Invariably, surprising results or unforeseen hurdles change the path.

You started and run a summer school every year.  How did you decide to start this?  What does it teach?  What is the most exciting part of this extra educational experience?

The school is called “Soft Solids and Complex Fluids”.  I knew there was a deficit of good grad training in my research area of soft-condensed matter physics.  I got together with a like-minded colleague (Professor Davidovitch) who had similar ideas on this.  Several colleagues (Professors Dinsmore, Candela, Ross, and Santangelo) have since been organizers of the school.  It’s exciting for me to hear lectures by world experts that build up to the research frontier from the basics.  It’s also rewarding to see young scientists make a group of friends who will presumably be a source of scientific and human support for each other as they navigate the profession.