It was in the winter of 1984 when a young physicist named Vasudev “Nitant” Kenkre wandered onto the campus at The University of New Mexico. Since then, Kenkre, who has been described as a physicist, humanist, humorist, magician, philosopher, scholar, writer, and more, has made an indelible mark in the world of interdisciplinary science not only at UNM but worldwide.
The latest recognition he has received is a Kenkre Festschrift: a book of research articles on various areas of interdisciplinary science his work has inspired, published in his honor by colleagues and students from all over the world. It has appeared as an entire issue of the International Journal of Modern Physics B published by World Scientific. This is a rare recognition indeed, the kind that only the most admired scientists in the international community receive in their lifetime.
Physics wasn’t his first choice when he thought about what he wanted to do when growing up as a young child in India. At the time, he was attuned to the humanities more than to the hard sciences, which would later shape his career as well as his life.
“I thought highly of the humanities and poorly of the sciences when I was a kid,” Kenkre recalled. “I wanted to be a poet, at least a writer in general, dabbling in languages and literature, nothing like a physicist.”
That all changed with some truly brilliant teaching in the field of mathematics by an instructor named Joe Menezes, whose inspired insights were responsible for Kenkre’s path getting into the sciences, more precisely into theoretical physics applied to various interdisciplinary subjects.
Kenkre, who is an Indian, and native of Goa (a former Portuguese colony in India) was educated there as well as in Bombay, now Mumbai, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1968. He left India then to pursue theoretical physics in the USA. He earned his Master’s and Ph.D. in physics, both in 1971 at SUNY at Stony Brook where he also began his incredible teaching career. He moved to the University of Rochester the following year and spent the next 12 years as an assistant and associate professor before moving to the high desert.
UNM was expanding at that time in various directions, the Center for High Technology Materials was just established, and the university attempted to add to its faculty young professors with vigorous research programs in condensed matter physics and related areas.
"The recognition by your peers is very nice because you feel good that they have appreciated your work and have thought that it is important enough to honor you in this way, but much more touching is the participation of the students and what the students have said." – Distinguished Professor Emeritus Vasudev "Nitant" Kenkre
Kenkre had established himself already as just a scientist with an international reputation in various European countries as well as the United States. UNM brought him in with the intention to construct bridges for research being carried out at Los Alamos and Sandia. He certainly fulfilled these expectations at UNM in the next several decades. During his career, Kenkre’s primary research areas included a scientific blending of interdisciplinary science connecting physics to biology, chemistry, and engineering; mathematical modeling of epidemics and related ecosystems; and quantum transport in organic materials and decoherence in nanostructures. He has earned significant recognition with his appointments as a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 1998 and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2005.
Vasudev "Nitant" Kenkre lifetime achievements include:
- Fellow of the American Physical Society in 1998
- Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2005
- Founding Director of an international research center, the Consortium for the Americas, for interdisciplinary sciences and led the center for 16 years.
- Distinguished Professor honor, the highest faculty award bestowed by the University of New Mexico in 2005
- Annual Research Lecturer in recognition of research/creative activity in 2004
- Supervised the Ph.D. work of 25 doctoral students and 24 post-doctoral scientists.
- More than 270 outstanding publications to his credit in the areas of nonequilibrium quantum statistical mechanics, and exciton/electron dynamics in molecular solids.
- Author of five books (with an ongoing sixth on contract) on theoretical physics
- Published a book on his poetry called Tinnitus, and two books on Hinduism, titled, The Pragmatic Geeta, and What is Hinduism and delivered lectures on Comparative Religion.
- Award in 2005 at UNM for his International outreach work.
At UNM, Kenkre was named Annual Research Lecturer in 2004 in recognition of his prolific research/creative activity. This is regarded as the topmost faculty award bestowed by the University upon its faculty. In 2005, he was promoted to the rank of Distinguished Professor, the highest rank possible for a UNM faculty member and reserved only for its most accomplished and recognized faculty. He has authored more than 270 papers published in refereed journals, as well as several research monographs. Early examples were a book on exciton transport and a co-edited proceedings volume on modern challenges in statistical mechanics. He has published several more books in his retirement. His research has involved 25 past Ph.D. students who now occupy leading university and industry positions in science all over the world, as well as 24 postdoctoral research associates, and has been financially supported by national and international funding agencies.
“This interdisciplinary thrust along quite different directions is a crucial part of my UNM research,” said Kenkre, now a Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the UNM Department of Physics and Astronomy. “My big love has always been interdisciplinary science because it involves cutting across fields, a bit like languages, which was my original passion, and which has continued to fascinate me. My career at UNM was accordingly based on building bridges of physics with two quite different subjects: engineering (materials science) on the one hand and biology (more recently ecology as in the spread of epidemics) on the other.”
It's those bridges that Kenkre built along the way of an incredible five-decade career that has brought him worldwide acclaim, discovery, and recognition. Now, he is being honored and recognized by colleagues in several circles for his distinguished career as a statistical physicist, teacher, educator, and a magnet for his many accomplishments throughout the decades with a Festschrift, a collection of research articles and stories spawned by his work from some 50 scientists including former students and collaborators in his field from all over the world. The book, published by World Scientific, can be found as a special issue in the International Journal of Modern Physics B 36, 2022 edited by Giuggioli, Tiwari, and Sen. In addition to scientific contributions of original research on numerous fields ranging from proteins in living cells and the spread of epidemics, to topological measures of visibility graphs, widely different areas his work has influenced, the book contains reminiscences about Kenkre as a scientist, teacher, and person.
“The recognition by your peers is very nice because you feel good that they have appreciated your work and have thought that it is important enough to honor you in this way, but much more touching is the participation of the students and what the students have said,” Kenkre said. “For me, that's something very important. I've had 25 Ph.D. students and these individuals have gone off to win accolades, achieve exceptional goals and reach all kinds of wondrous goals of their own. They have always been close personal friends as well to me, people in whose development I have invested not only time but a major part of my energy and enthusiasm. I have truly learned much from them and consider myself honored to have had them in my life.”
"My big love has always been interdisciplinary science because it involves cutting across fields, a bit like languages, which was my original passion, and which has continued to fascinate me." – Distinguished Professor Emeritus Vasudev "Nitant" Kenkre
Excerpts from colleagues as part of the Festschrift say this about Kenkre:
V. V. Raman from Rochester Institute of Technology, Emeritus Professor of Physics and Humanities – "In an age of extreme specialization when, as the saying goes, a specialist knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing, Kenkre has been digging deeper and deeper into more and more subjects, knowing a good deal more about many topics than many people. A mere listing of the fields in which Kenkre has worked and published papers could cause the head of the nonscientist to reel. It would be like reciting the 108 Upanishads to someone unacquainted with Sanskrit lore or Hindu thought.”
Katja Lindenberg from UC San Diego, Distinguished Professor and Chancellor’s Endowed Chair – "A teacher among teachers,' Professor Kenkre is just about the very best educator of graduate and young postgraduate students that I have run across in all my years in this profession. He produced several Ph.D.s who then became independent and highly successful in their own right and trained several postdoctoral researchers. I do not know how he does it, but he has always taught his students to think, challenged them to the limit, and they learned not only the science but the way to approach science.”
The words conveyed by colleagues and former students in the Festschrift, among them University of Missouri’s Distinguished Professor Paul Parris who described early memories of Kenkre’s research group, carry special, heartfelt meaning for Kenkre.
“The zoom conference lasting two entire days that led to the Festschrift was like a family reunion,” said Kenkre. “They were kind enough to spend their time to come together and kind enough to express their sentiments and recount reminiscences. One encounters such expressions typically as eulogies in obituaries and I have been very lucky, in person, to hear what the students said. It was really touching.”
Kenkre was also recently honored with a Lifetime Excellence Award for his outstanding research contributions in physics by the North American Konkani Association (NAKA), an all-encompassing national organization that helps unite the North American Konkani community to preserve the language, showcase culture, and nurture customs and traditions. Konkani is Kenkre’s language from India and that association is an organization across the USA. The event involved about 2,000 attendees from the United States and India in San Jose, Calif. in July 2022. The citation stated: “In recognition of excellence in contributions in theoretical physics…role as founding director of an international research center for interdisciplinary sciences, and…position as Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico” as a researcher and teacher.
“There were thousands of people who came for this event from India and various parts of the United States,” said Kenkre. “It was a three-day event with a lot of different activities including the award ceremony. It was something completely out of my usual experience, but I enjoyed it enormously and it was nice to be recognized. The event was very impressive, indeed.”
Kenkre has many research accomplishments over the years including two major interdisciplinary programs involving biology and engineering. Those research efforts at UNM led to a large collaboration involving former Vice President for Research Terry Yates and Bob Parmenter on Hantavirus. That work later led to National Institutes of Health funding and research with Distinguished Professor Jim Brown and Professor Felisa Smith on the PIBBS grant they received in biology. The other involved continual pursuits as a member of an engineering center – the Center for Microengineered Ceramics with direction provided by Professor Doug Smith who founded it and by Professor Abhaya Datye who directed it for many years later.
"The Consortium of the Americas was a truly extraordinary visionary effort that made a tremendous difference in a new world that brought together scientists from this hemisphere, from this entire hemisphere, for interdisciplinary work. The full inclusion of Latin America was a first." – former Ph.D. student and University of Missouri Distinguished Professor Paul Parris
Kenkre himself directed two Centers at UNM including the Center for Advanced Studies. He was also the founding director of the Consortium of the Americas for Interdisciplinary Science, a highly successful 16-year UNM initiative that began in 2000 and has been called one of Kenkre’s most rewarding collaborative creations and UNM’s significant contributions. The Consortium's mission was interdisciplinary and internationally directed at Latin America. It brought in approximately 150 scientists from Latin American countries including Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, and Venezuela that came to the center for varying periods of stay.
“They worked in an exciting intellectual atmosphere as they shared their knowledge and activities in workshops (more than 50 of them over the lifetime of the center) arranged or supported by the Consortium as well as in daily exchanges,” said Kenkre. “The Center had a twin mission, to perform interdisciplinary research with the tools of physics, and to encourage and support collaborations of UNM researchers and researchers in the neighboring laboratories, particularly Los Alamos National Laboratories and Sandia National Laboratories with scientists from Latin America,” Kenkre said in the appendix of one of his published books, Theory of the Spread of Epidemics and Movement Ecology of Animals.
“For me, the most unique and impressive international interdisciplinary entity conceived and created by Professor Kenkre was the Consortium of the Americas for Interdisciplinary Science at UNM,” said former Ph.D. student and University of Missouri Distinguished Professor Paul Parris in the Festschrift. “He dreamt about it for many years, worked tirelessly to get it started, gave birth to it at a great personal cost in terms of time and energy, and singlehandedly nurtured it to adulthood.
“The Consortium of the Americas was a truly extraordinary visionary effort that made a tremendous difference in a new world that brought together scientists from this hemisphere, from this entire hemisphere, for interdisciplinary work. The full inclusion of Latin America was a first,” added Parris.
The UNM College of Arts and Sciences Center, which closed with Kenkre’s retirement, was strongly supported, and funded by the National Science Foundation and led to the way they shaped their subsequent international programs including serving as a pilot for some of NSF’s international projects. It was also funded by Los Alamos National Laboratory and by Latin American Foundations.
Although Kenkre retired in 2016, he has kept himself busy writing several physics and philosophy books published by Cambridge University Press and Springer Nature. The latest among those books, on Interplay of Quantum Mechanics with Nonlinearity, dedicated by Kenkre to his undergraduate classmates and teachers, was selected for a special write-up in Nature Portfolio Community. An earlier book, on Memory Functions, Projection Operators, and the Defect Technique, was dedicated by Kenkre to all his 25 Ph.D. students.
The first of these physics books that Kenkre published on his ecological work was coauthored with his former student Luca Giuggioli, now a professor in Bristol, UK, and dealt with the Spread of Epidemics and Movement Ecology of Animals. He has also authored two philosophical books on Hinduism and a book on his poems and has signed a contract with Springer Nature to publish yet another physics book, on the Smoluchowski equation.
“It's five books I have published since I retired,” said Kenkre. “I have written eight books overall and five of them since I retired in 2016, meaning I have been busy in my old age,” he said with a laugh.