The fact that math can be applied in so many ways to so many fields, from the sciences to the arts, only adds to its beauty.

Sanjay Dharmavaram

Sanjay Dharmavaram was hardly on the road to being a mathematics professor in his early academic career. As an undergraduate in India, he studied mechanical engineering before completing his doctorate in theoretical and applied mechanics at Cornell and pursuing postdoctoral work in biophysics at UCLA.

It was during his graduate work on applying bifurcation theory to understand lipid membranes that he discovered what he calls “the beauty of pure mathematics combined well with the applied version of the discipline.” He was hooked.   

“It was surprising to me at the time, because people there applied rigorous mathematics to mechanics problems,” Dharmavaram says. “Math is about precise thinking. What I enjoyed most was being careful and meticulous about how you do analysis.

Dharmavaram is interested in applying mathematics to understand biological systems. His recent work has focused on understanding the structure of viruses. “They are relatively simple biological structures. In my research, I build mathematical models to understand how viruses assemble,” he says. “Perhaps if we can understand that, then by disrupting the process, cures can be found for certain diseases.”

As much as Dharmavaram likes research, he says he has always known that he would teach. “Even as a kid, I would study by teaching to an imaginary audience,” he recalls.  “They say you only know something when you can teach it. Even then, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in education.”

Dharmavaram takes great joy when undergraduates with diverse academic backgrounds jump over the wall of abstraction and start applying it to real-life subjects.

“I realize that while some like math for its intrinsic beauty, many people want to know how it’s useful for society,” he says. “In my teaching, I always try to reach a broad audience, not just math students, because it’s important to see how other fields use mathematical ideas. The fact that math can be applied in so many ways to so many fields, from the sciences to the arts, only adds to its beauty.”

Posted September 2018