Faculty Spotlight: Sachin Shanbhag

| Thu, 03/07/24
Sachin Shanbhag is a professor in Florida State University’s Department of Scientific Computing.
Sachin Shanbhag is a professor in Florida State University’s Department of Scientific Computing. Courtesy photo.

Sachin Shanbhag is a professor in Florida State University’s Department of Scientific Computing, part of the College of Arts and Sciences. He received his doctoral degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 2004 and has been a faculty member at FSU since 2006. In 2010, Shanbhag was awarded the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, the organization’s most prestigious recognition of early career faculty who serve as leaders in education and research. His research lies in the area of computational material science with a focus on polymers.

Tell us a little about your background, where you’re from and what brought you to FSU.

I grew up in a small city, Belgaum, about an hour away from the west coast of India. In many ways, my hometown and the town I now call home are quite similar. As a kid, I enjoyed puzzles, math, and programming, which led me to study chemical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, where I earned my bachelor’s degree in 1999. I then earned my doctorate in 2004 at the University of Michigan, before coming to FSU in 2006. Given my interests, I joined the scientific computing department after it became an official FSU program in 2008.

Can you break down your areas of research for us?

My research lies at the intersection of computational modeling and soft materials, particularly polymers. Polymers are long chains of repeating groups that constitute a diverse array of materials ranging from fabrics to DNA. Currently, I am working on novel polymers that can be recycled without compromising the material’s properties in collaboration with Ralm G. Ricarte, who is a professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at FAMU-FSU College of Engineering. I am also developing fast and accurate numerical methods for characterizing and designing soft materials like gels, with Yogesh M. Joshi, a professor of chemical engineering at IIT Kanpur.

What makes you passionate about your topics of research?

Good research areas are either interesting or important. I believe materials modeling checks both boxes. This research is scientifically fascinating, technically challenging and industrially significant. But what keeps me excited on a day-to-day basis is the freedom to make up puzzles or projects and to try to solve them.

What inspired you to choose your field of study?

Serendipity. I ended up in this field because I gravitated towards undergraduate and graduate mentors who were extraordinarily smart and generous. What they worked on was secondary — I just wanted to be like them. Passion is infectious, and it did not take me long to catch the bug.

What do you want the public to know about your research? Why are your topics important?

Polymers are ubiquitous: Everything from automobiles, fabrics, electronics, building materials, and surgical sutures to the proteins and DNA in our bodies is partly or entirely polymeric. On the other hand, we've all seen depressing images of plastic waste composed of polymers as well. Our relationship with these materials echoes a line from the U2 song, "I can't live, with or without you." However, there is hope: Materials modeling helps design efficient processes that can potentially reduce waste and improve recyclability.

What is your favorite part of your job?

A university like Florida State is such an energizing place — you get to pick the brains of colleagues who have devoted a lifetime to learning something deeply. I sometimes remind myself what a privilege that is. I also enjoy the vitality students bring; they keep us faculty fresh.

My wife and kids will tell you I am a sucker for murder mysteries — even bad ones! In more than one way, my work lets me scratch the same itch for puzzles and mysteries in a more respectable setting.

What is your best memory so far from working at FSU?

Since I have been at this university for nearly two decades, it is hard to pick a single memory, but there is a type of recurring event I cherish. It usually involves me teaching a subject for the billionth time when suddenly a student asks a question I have never encountered before. That moment never stops being fulfilling.

Who are your role models? Are there certain people who have influenced you most in your life and career?

Outside of my family, my primary role models are my undergrad and graduate research supervisors, professor of chemical engineering at IIT Bombay Kartic C. Khilar and UM professor of chemical engineering Ronald G. Larson. I ended up in academia because they saw my potential where I could not. I was drawn to them because they were outstanding researchers, but in retrospect, what I am most grateful for is the generosity and grace they showed me. The older I get, the more I am convinced that kindness is more important than intelligence or achievement.

Do you have any exciting upcoming projects or goals you’re working towards?

For a while, I was skeptical about the usefulness of machine learning for conducting science. Machine learning occurs when artificial intelligence is used to enable machines to do tasks previously only doable by humans. However, after many discussions with my colleague, professor of scientific computing Gordon Erlebacher, my mind has changed. I am quite excited about working with him on using scientific machine learning to bridge the gap between known physics and experimental observations in a systematic way.

If your students only learned one thing from you (of course, hopefully they learn much more than that), what would you hope it to be?

My advice is to keep a journal where you jot down promising ideas or leads, even if you have no time to pursue them at that moment. It does not have to be organized. Anytime a spark goes off while reading a paper or listening to a talk, record those thoughts. It is very easy to forget. Periodically, you can go back to the journal for inspiration. I know it does not sound exciting, but you can thank me later.