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Graduate Student Highlight: Varun Mandalaparthy

11 February 2021
Varun Mandalaparthy

Each week, the Department of Chemistry highlights one graduate student who is doing great work around the department. In this installment of our highlight series, we are featuring Varun Mandalaparthy, a fifth-year student in the Noid group. 

Varun’s work focuses on trying to understand how small molecules, such as salts and neutral molecules, affect surface tension and protein folding. He studies this problem theoretically as well as computationally and tries to come up with models and statistical mechanical theories that explain the interesting behavior seen in experiments. The theories developed by the Noid group can also make predictions about the behavior you would expect to see in new experiments, which Varun describes as “extremely cool and powerful.” He also collaborates extensively with the Cremer group at Penn State.

This week, we sat down (virtually) with Varun to discuss his life in and outside of the lab! Please enjoy our interview with Varun Mandalaparthy.

Question: How did you get interested in chemistry?

Answer: Like a lot of other people, it was all thanks to some very inspiring instructors. During high school, I thoroughly enjoyed the inorganic chemistry labs. I particularly liked the flame tests of different metal salts. I was enthralled by the extremely varied colors you could generate by simply changing the cation, and I became interested in trying to understand this further. That was probably the spark that started me off and, about fifteen years later, I'm still amazed at how we can explain the things we see around us through chemistry.

Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of?

A: During my Bachelor's and my Master’s degrees, I got the opportunity to take (a lot of) classes and do research. I was always interested in teaching but never got the chance to mentor anyone or teach a class. Penn State gave me that opportunity, and I have been a TA for CHEM 213W (an organic chemistry lab) for most of my time here. I would say that the teaching award I won for this course last year would be one of my more treasured accomplishments. I think engaging instructors are very important for everyone to have, and I hope I am one!

Q: Where did you grow up? 

A: I grew up in New Delhi, India. One of my favorite things about that city is the excellent metro system. I have spent a lot of cumulative time in the Delhi metro, and it is, surprisingly, quite a peaceful place to be. I got a lot of reading and thinking done on the metro, and it is one of the things I always look forward to seeing when I go back.

Q: Do you have any hobbies?

A: My main hobby at this point is cooking. I enjoy spending time in the kitchen, following and deviating from recipes. I like to say that cooking is perhaps the best hobby: you get to eat at the end of it! 

Q: Do you have any fun science trivia to share?

A: My favorite quote from a chemist is from Justus Liebig:
"The loveliest theories are being overthrown by these damned experiments; it's no fun being a chemist anymore." - Justus Liebig in a letter to J.J. Berzelius, 1834

Many thanks to Varun for these thoughtful answers! Stay tuned for more graduate student highlights in the weeks to come!