Kranthi Mandadapu realized early in life that he was good at math. He was born in 1984 in a small town in Andhra Pradesh, a southeastern state in India that lies along the Bay of Bengal. Says Mandadapu, “My father was a clerk and my mother a school teacher. She was an inspirational biology teacher, but when I was young she was assigned to teach maths. It was hard for her at first, but I helped her—I enjoyed explaining things. In the end she enjoyed teaching maths, too.”
At age 15 Mandadapu scored so highly in his secondary-school board exams— seventh out of 600,000 students—that he won a scholarship to attend a boarding school in the city of Hyderabad. Two years later, in 2001, he started his undergraduate studies at the Indian Institute of Technology at Madras (Chennai). There he studied civil engineering.
Civil engineers are responsible for understanding and modeling the forces that affect dams, buildings, and other massive permanent structures. Perhaps nothing revealed the impermanence of these solid objects like the earthquake and tsunami that struck Chennai early on Sunday morning, the day after Christmas, 2004.
Although his institute was far enough inland to escape the floodwaters, Mandadapu vividly recalls the earthquake and how ill-atease it made him feel that morning. But life continued, the city slowly recovered, and he earned his B.S. in civil engineering in 2005.
Mandadapu came to Berkeley’s College of Engineering in the fall of that year. He earned his M.S. in civil engineering and switched to mechanical engineering for his Ph.D. studies at Berkeley. He worked with Panayiotis Papadopoulos and wrote his thesis on non-equilibrium molecular dynamics, graduating in 2011.
Classical, or Newtonian, mechanics—the science of describing the motion of objects under the influence of different forces— includes solid mechanics, fluid mechanics and statistical mechanics. Mandadapu has studied them all.
The statistical realm and the continuum realm require different approaches. Mandadapu explored continuum mechanics as a postdoctoral scholar at Sandia Labs in Livermore, then statistical mechanics, starting in 2013, during a second postdoc with the late David Chandler in the college. He also found a mentor in campus biophysicist George Oster.
As Chandler noted in his authoritative introductory textbook, statistical mechanics “is the theory with which we analyze the behavior of natural or spontaneous fluctuations.” Mandadapu had started with civil engineering and the apparent solidity of large structures. Along the way, he grew interested in the realm of microscopic fluctuations, how bacteria move, and how proteins in biological membranes can assemble.
Mandadapu joined the CBE faculty as an assistant professor in 2016. He keeps one foot in the microscopic realm of statistical mechanics, and the other in the macroscopic realm of solid and fluid mechanics. “I am trying to solve problems that span a range of length and time scales,” he notes. “Every problem takes a year to solve. As I get to know them, I cannot help but fall in love with these problems.