Faculty member invests in collaboration and innovation

Author: Kevin Smith
Doraiswami Ramkrishna’s approach to research in chemical engineering, unlike those of many engineering colleagues, has a uniquely mathematical focus.

Doraiswami RamkrishnaThe Harry Creighton Peffer Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering says that real understanding of the essential behavior of systems can be reached by applying mathematical processes and formulas and building mathematical models. An important aspect of his research is evolving theoretical and experimental machinery for the identification of model parameters and phenomenological functions.

Now in his thirty-fourth year at Purdue, Ramkrishna’s work and approach has not gone unnoticed.

Earlier this year he was elected as a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the highest professional distinction for a U.S. engineer.

“I am amazed by it,” he said. “It makes me feel very good because I did not think I would gain this recognition. The award represents to me a vindication of the role of mathematical analysis in engineering research.”

Ramkrishna cites his studies at the University of Minnesota, where he gained a doctorate in chemical engineering in 1965, as laying the foundation for his research philosophy. He credits Arnold Fredrickson, Rutherford Aris, and Neal Amundson as having a major influence on his intellectual development during his tenure as a student and in his
subsequent career.

“It was a fantastic fit for me,” he said. “It showed me how doing mathematical work was such an important part of doing good engineering research. It also showed the way for other departments in the country to do a quantitative analysis of every problem.”

After graduating and working for three years at Minnesota, Ramkrishna took what he had learned back to his native India at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur. Various changes at the IIT, though, led Ramkrishna back to the United States in 1974, where he accepted visiting positions at other universities.

He joined the faculty at Purdue in 1976. Despite intriguing offers from other institutions over the years, his colleagues’ strong support for his research encouraged Ramkrishna to keep his work in West Lafayette.

Ramkrishna has published several books on the fundamentals of applying mathematical processes to chemical
engineering, including a study of population balances of particulate systems in engineering, as well as groundbreaking research in biological and reaction engineering.

Current projects include a biomedical study with Robert Hannemann in chemical engineering and Ann Rundell in biomedical engineering that applies mathematical models to alternative cancer treatment research. Unlike conventional chemotherapy, their treatment for leukemia provides a rational quantitative focus that seeks to kill 100 percent of all cancer cells with a specified probability.

He is also working in collaboration with John Morgan of chemical engineering and Lou Sherman of biological sciences on alternative energy research that focuses on the production of hydrogen from photosynthesis in blue-green algae and other biofuels. According to Ramkrishna, this work differs from traditional research in this area by looking at the amount of biochemical productivity in time, rather than the yield of a single cell.

Such interdisciplinary efforts are crucial in Ramkrishna’s research and in putting his philosophy into practice. He believes that taking an active role in the academic community allowed him to build these essential relationships.

As he looks forward to furthering partnerships with engineers at universities in Belgium, Germany, India and elsewhere in the United States, Ramkrishna envisions a globalized approach as the future of engineering research.

“A global approach is just the way to go,” he said. “It has caught on now because of economic necessity and it will continue to expand in the future. I think we should be looking outside of the Western Hemisphere to grow everywhere across the globe.”