Physics Spotlight

October 2020
Physics Spotlight

Varghese Mathai

Ph.D., University of Twente (2017)

This month, the Physics Department would like to highlight one of our newest professors, Varghese Mathai! We chose Varghese not only to introduce him, but to highlight his research focusing on multiphase fluid flows that involve interactions among soft interfaces, as well as, his diverse background both academically and within the industry sector. As one of our soft matter physicists, his current primary focus is on his latest research project that aims to achieve biphasic particle laden fluids. We are very excited to welcome Varghese to our department here at the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus! To learn more about him, read his Q&A below!

Welcome to the University of Massachusetts Amherst Campus! As a new professor, what are you excited about the most with regards to your first semester here?

Thanks! I’m excited about a number of things. One of the great experiences is thinking and planning for setting up of a new lab. I am also enjoying the interaction opportunities I’ve had with students during my first month here.

What is your professional background?  What did you major in and where? Where did you go to graduate school and for what?  How can your educational background help you teach and mentor students at UMass?

My background is in physics and engineering. I studied engineering for undergraduate, at College of Engineering, Trivandrum in India. I enjoyed my undergraduate courses, which motivated me to continue learning in a university setting. So, I went on to do my master’s at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), in Bangalore, India. I also worked for a year and half in industry. For graduate school, I moved to the Netherlands for a PhD in Applied Physics at the University of Twente. My research here was about particles in turbulence, combining experimental and computational methods.

With my broad background, I can mentor students with various inclinations and interests. I would imagine that these aspects will reflect in my teaching and mentoring approaches, helping students to gain a set of multidisciplinary skills.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school?  How did you decide which grad school to go to?  What advice would you have for a student who wants to go to graduate school?

This was not an immediate decision, nor an easy one. After undergrad, I resisted a tempting job offer from industry and went on to pursue a master’s degree. But, after completing the master’s I was thinking, “why not give industry a try?” I worked for a year and half in the Aviation division of General Electric Co., in Bangalore, India. Almost a year into this job, I decided that I would like to further my studies.

For graduate school, I was quite particular about pursuing research in an active and collaborative research environment. I applied to several PhD programs in the US, Europe, and in India. I had heard about the Physics of Fluids group at the University of Twente, so I applied there as well, and also wrote to the group’s PI. After a visit to the University and the group for an on-campus interview, I was offered an admission.

To students thinking about graduate school, I would advise to think carefully and do some level of homework before applying. It is important to look into the faculty who are active in a department, regardless of the reputation of the university. I’d also encourage prospective graduate students to contact current students (and faculty) to form an impression about the research atmosphere. This surely takes time, but it can be worth the effort.

What is your advice for a student who wants to go into this industry?

The main driver for industry is to solve problems that are (generally) of immediate practical interest.  For me, the time spent in industry was valuable, and I got to learn a great deal about turbulence and reactive fluid flows, as well as, about composite materials which are at the heart of the aviation sector.

The academic research we do in soft matter and fluids does have several applications. A few examples that I may relate to are the use of compliant materials for efficient propulsion and energy extraction, and the use of deformable bubbles or polymers for drag reduction in fluid flows.

For students interested in industry, I think the skills required are similar to those in academia. Good fundamentals and physical insights acquired through courses and research experience are important skills you would hope to gain. Along with these, skills to articulate your ideas and put them down in writing can increase your competitiveness.

In 140 characters, explain your research:

I am interested in understanding the physics of multiphase fluid flows that involve interactions among bubbles, droplets, and soft interfaces.

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

Certainly! I spent my first week of this fall chatting with UMass undergraduate students who showed interest in exploring laboratory-based research. I would encourage more students to approach me (email). We have a number of lab projects that can offer students with opportunities for learning and also to contribute scientifically. If you are not based in western Massachusetts, there might be a computational project that may be practical. The research that we typically assign to undergraduates will be something that is at a table-top scale. It will almost certainly involve visually appealing observations with interesting, not so obvious, underlying physics.

I have published papers with undergraduate students in the past. One where the undergraduate student was co-first author which appeared in the premier Fluid Mechanics Journal. We also have an upcoming work (to be submitted) where an undergraduate student at my prior institution made significant contributions. We are looking forward to having more UMass undergrads join our group.

What do you like best about being a professor and a physicist at that?

This is one of the few professions where you continue to interact with young people in the form of students and colleagues. You can make an impactful contribution in several ways, through training and mentoring. In the process, I also see the opportunity to learn from free-spirited young minds.

Academia, particularly the natural sciences, provides a special setting where you can pursue fundamental and curiosity-driven research, possibly, even when there are no foreseeable applications in sight. I also enjoy the opportunities for travel to conferences (pre-COVID era) and to have scientific and cultural exchanges around the world.

What is the most interesting research or project that you’ve worked on in the past?

I’m generally more excited about recent work. So, I’d say our recent work, developing an active biphasic particle laden fluid has been a very exciting and fruitful project.

What do you do outside of physics?  Do you have a hobby?

I enjoy biking, swimming and badminton. I also enjoy visits to natural parks and photographing wildlife.