Physics Spotlight

September 2020
Physics Spotlight

Carlos Duque

Ph.D., University of Massachusetts Amherst

Carlos Duque was nominated by the Physics Department due to his many talents and contributions to not only the UMass Amherst campus, but also within the Soft Matter Physics field. His research has centered around projects that focus on problems of differential swelling that seek to design swelling patterns that change the shape of a flat domain into a 3D surface using the Gaussian curvature, as well as, the development of theoretical design rules for programmable assemblies. Recently, Carlos defended his thesis over the Summer and plans to continue pursuing his research interests as a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics (MPI-CBG). The department is very excited to see another physicist graduate embark on their next adventure and wishes Carlos luck as he continues his future endeavors and research discoveries. Congratulations!

What brought you to the University of Massachusetts to continue your studies?

I had been interested in going to UMass Amherst for a long time and some of my undergraduate teachers completed their Ph.D here as well. They shared such positive words about their time at UMass and the general area of Amherst where the campus is located. Although my original plan was to become a condensed matter theorist, it was not always clear to me what would be my research focus. Eventually I was introduced to the field of Soft Matter Physics by Professors Christian Santangelo and Gregory Grason. The richness of the field together with how welcoming and diverse the soft matter community is, made UMass Amherst the perfect place to complete my graduate studies.

Where did you do your undergrad? What is your degree in?

I did my undergraduate studies in Physics at the Universidad de Antioquia located in Medellin, Colombia.

Who is your faculty advisor and why did you pick them?

My advisor is Professor Christian Santangelo and there are multiple reasons that drew me into his research group. I found the nature of his research extremely interdisciplinary. I was impressed and excited by his research on mechanical metamaterials where geometry and topology play a crucial role. He showed me that it is possible to work on research projects that can be theoretical, computational, or a combination of both. This allows students with multiple backgrounds and skills to easily work on projects that also take full advantage of their potential.

What has been your favorite Graduate level course?

Without a doubt my favorite class was the course on Advanced Statistical Physics taught by Professor Romain Vasseur. His illuminating introduction of Landau Theory and the renormalization group was extremely clear and engaging during the whole course. Moreover, students with different backgrounds (soft/hard condensed matter, high energy, etc.) could always find key elements in the discussion that easily connected to their own research interests.

What are some of your own research interests?

As a soft matter theorist, I have worked on projects at the intersection of geometry, elasticity, and self-assembly. Much of my work has been on problems of differential swelling that seek to design swelling patterns that change the shape of a flat domain into a 3D surface with prescribed Gaussian curvature. My primary focus has been on surfaces that swell isotropically (i.e., approximately conformally). This allows the use of powerful conformal transformation machinery to construct maps from 3D surfaces to the Euclidean plane.

Currently, I seek to implement an analogue of the Caspar-Klug (CK) principles to surfaces with negative Gaussian curvature. The CK approach approximates certain self-assembled spherical viruses as highly symmetric sphere triangulations. It is believed that CK triangulations can optimally tile a sphere with a minimal number of distinct triangular building blocks. I have mainly focused on a family of surfaces with negative Gaussian curvature called triply-periodic minimal surfaces (TPMS). I am working on developing theoretical design rules for programmable assemblies that will inform experimental design and testing via ongoing collaborations with experimental researchers. Some TPMSes, such as gyroid surfaces, occur naturally in biological and physical systems. For example, gyroid surfaces have been observed on butterfly wing scales, where they exhibit photonic crystal behavior.

Has any of your research resulted in a published article?

Our work on isotropic swelling was published in Soft Matter, 2019,15, 4890-4897. More recently, I collaborated on a theory-experiment project to encode Gaussian and mean curvature in corrugated or bumpy surfaces. I performed finite-thickness simulations to better understand why certain corrugated configurations are more likely to succeed or fail upon swelling. Details of this study were published in Adv. Funct. Mater., 2019, 29, 1905273. I have also been fortunate enough to explore side projects with Professor Romain Vasseur, more specifically, working on a project linking the fields of topological phases of matter, quantum criticality and disordered physics in one-dimensional systems which is currently under review.

What are your future plans?

I will be moving to the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics (MPI-CBG) which is located in Dresden, Germany to do postdoctoral research with Professor Carl Modes. There, I will be working on developing a Computational Simulation Platform for Topology-Driven Morphogenesis.  Provided some biological tissue or organ shape, I will use the framework of topological defects to find out what are the minimal set of conditions that give rise to such a shape.

Is there a trend that you would like to see surface in your field of study?

Given my current interest in self-assembled systems and the development of DNA nanotechnology, I would like to keep seeing a favorable evolution of the field of DNA-origami which, so far, is proving to be an ideal platform to study the self-assembly of systems with length scales much larger than those of the conventional building blocks. The continuing success of this experimental technique would have impactful implications that can go from the deactivation of viruses to the construction of metamaterials with exotic and desirable properties.

Is there a course, seminar or program that you would like to see here on campus in the future?

Given the extensive and talented faculty that have joined our department during recent years, the Physics department has been doing a very solid and consistent job in offering multiple advanced graduate level courses. I would like to see this continued since this will only increase the quality of the education received by the students.

As an international student and member of a minority group, I would certainly like to see an increase in seminars where we, as scientists, can also learn and educate ourselves about, what I believe, are traditionally overlooked and sensitive topics like sexism, racism, xenophobia, and discrimination in general. Science is a collaborative process and is our responsibility to make sure that we can create an environment where everyone can feel respected, included, and appreciated.

What advice would you give to undergraduates considering Graduate programs?

PhD students could probably write a tome full of advice for undergraduates thinking about graduate school. Provided you are passionate and driven enough to go through graduate school, there are several factors that can make the PhD experience even more fruitful and successful. If I were to go for a single piece of advice, I would say to make sure you find an advisor that is a good fit for you. A PhD advisor is somebody that will have huge impact on your career and this fact should not be taken lightly. Do not simply use a list of published papers as the deciding factor of whether or not somebody is the right person with whom to work. Talk to current and former students and Postdoctoral fellows. Ask about their personal experiences in a group and use that information to make the best decision. Think about what is and what is not relevant for you, not only as a researcher, but also at a more personal level. A simple reflection exercise like this will allow you to answer several important questions that can only benefit you in the long run.

Do you have any hobbies?

It is sometimes tough to fit other activities into the tight schedule of a graduate student. When I have the chance, I like to experiment in the kitchen. I enjoy preparing meals that I have never done before. Sometimes the results are better than others, but the learning process is always very satisfying. I also enjoy outdoors activities like hiking, running, and grilling with my friends, as well as, playing an occasional soccer match.