The first to arrive
Das knew she wanted to be a physicist since she was in middle school. A self-described introvert, she spent much of her time observing the world around her and trying to figure out how things worked.
“I was very fascinated by how some insects could walk on water and eventually I was told that it was because of surface tension and physics could explain that,” said Das.
“I learned that if there was an oil spill on the road, you could see all of these colors of the rainbow because of interference. So I decided that if physics could explain all of these things, I would become whatever I had to become so that I can study this subject forever. I was told that means you have to become a physics professor.”
Das reached that goal in 2012 when she joined the faculty at RIT. Now an associate professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy and program faculty for the School of Mathematical Sciences, her research focuses on biological systems, using mathematical modeling to explore their mechanics, geometry, and structural properties.
Das has earned more than $3.2 million in sponsored research to date, and her expertise in modeling biological systems has led to collaborative projects with investigators all over the United States.
In 2017, she was part of a $4 million National Science Foundation (NSF) “Big Ideas” initiative grant to build synthetic neurons that can be used in programmable networks. The goal is to identify the rules that govern life and predict an organism’s characteristics.
She has received other large grants from NSF, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and private foundations to collaborate on projects to study the fundamental rules that allow bacteria to compartmentalize the functions within their cells and to design and create next-generation materials inspired and empowered by biological cells. The research could pave the way for materials that can be used to build bridges that repair themselves or wound-healing prosthetics, for example.
When she started as an assistant professor, Das said her field of physics was largely homogeneous, predominantly composed of faculty who were white men. According to the Institute of Physics, in 2018 just 27 percent of newly hired physics faculty members were women. White people accounted for 84 percent of U.S. physics Ph.D.s earned in the classes of 2018 and 2019.
But she said that has begun to shift in recent years. She felt the tides start to turn at RIT in 2017 when Padmanabhan joined the Kate Gleason College of Engineering’s Department of Chemical Engineering as an assistant professor.
Soon others would follow, including Parsa in 2019 and Mohapatra in 2020, and RIT had gained what Das called a “critical mass” to start making a broader impact.
“We now have experts in living and non-living soft matter, fluids, gels, granular matter, liquid crystals. And in my department and others, we want a diverse demographic not just in terms of gender, but also race, ethnicity, country of origin, socioeconomic status, and more.”