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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Suraj Shankar ’19 Ph.D. Wins Physics Dissertation Award

Shankar is now a Junior Fellow at Harvard.

Feb. 13, 2020, by Dan Bernardi

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Suraj Shankar ’19 Ph.D., won the American Physical Society 2020 Dissertation Award in Statistical and Nonlinear Physics.

Suraj Shankar ’19 Ph.D. has won the American Physical Society 2020 Dissertation Award in Statistical and Nonlinear Physics. This award recognizes exceptional young scientists who have performed original doctoral thesis work of outstanding scientific quality in the area of statistical and nonlinear physics. Shankar’s thesis, which he began at Syracuse University and completed at UC Santa Barbara, involved using geometry and topology (the study of properties that are preserved though the twisting and stretching of objects) to develop new ways of thinking about and understanding the physics of some soft materials.

One issue addressed in Shankar’s thesis deals with kirigami mechanics, an ancient variation of origami that includes cutting paper rather than solely folding it. Shankar explains that a normal piece of paper does not stretch, but by adding perforations, it can be pulled apart, dramatically changing its mechanical properties. He developed a new approach to understand the mechanical response of paper by studying the prescribed array of holes and slits in a kirigami pattern.

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Shankar developed methods to understand the mechanical response of paper by using kirigami designs (top row) replicated onto a sheet of atomically thin carbon called graphene (bottom row). (Courtesy: Nature, 2015)

A second major topic in his thesis was “active fluids.” Active fluids describe the collective behavior of many living systems. Examples are the mesmerizing patterns seen in bird flocks or large collections of swimming bacteria suspended in water. Shankar’s thesis showed new ways to theoretically model the complex flows in such systems using mathematical analogies.

Shankar is now a Junior Fellow at Harvard University and was Syracuse’s first alumnus to join its prestigious Society of Fellows. Only one or two physicists become Junior Fellows each year and five have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Shankar’s co-doctoral advisors at Syracuse University were professors M. Cristina Marchetti and Mark J. Bowick, who are now at UC Santa Barbara.