Physics Graduate Student Excels: Kameswara Mantha is a researcher, mentor, scientist extraordinaire

Kameswara ManthaExceptional is just one word to describe Kameswara Mantha, doctoral student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Department of Physics and Astronomy.

He is one of five individuals who are vying to be the first physics doctoral graduate at UMKC specializing in astrophysics. He’s making a name for himself through his dedication to physics research, scholarship and mentorship.

Pure determination and talent brought Mantha to where he is. While physics is Mantha’s passion, the path to a career in the field hasn’t been easy. Owing to the very limited opportunities to pursue physics degrees in his native India, Mantha earned a bachelor’s degree in electronics and communication engineering instead. In order to apply for graduate schools, “I self-taught to take the physics GRE,” Mantha said, and applied to top graduate schools in the United States. However, he was denied admissions by several institutes due to a lack of the right undergraduate degree.

So, armed with an engineering degree, Mantha joined the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering as a master’s student in August 2014. One day before the scheduled UMKC engineering student orientation, he learned about the UMKC Physics and Astronomy program, which stoked his hopes to pursue astrophysics. In a desperate search for an opportunity, Mantha pondered, “I’m going to try one last time” before approaching Professor Daniel McIntosh in the UMKC Physics and Astronomy Department.

Persistence paid off for Mantha. He entered the UMKC graduate program by passing the Physics graduate qualification exam at a Ph.D. level. “They gave me a chance. They gave me an opportunity when no one else wanted to.”

Mantha said he’s driven by the passion in learning and looks for opportunities to grow.

“My brain itches to do stuff,” Mantha said. “I used to pester Dan (Daniel McIntosh, Ph.D., Mantha’s PhD adviser and Norman Royall Distinguished Professor and ask him to give me something to do. He let me on my first project that I recently published.”

Mantha now co-supervises three undergraduate students with McIntosh. Working with undergraduates is not something doctoral students typically do. But Mantha thinks it’s important to mentor and nurture young minds, which is supported by McIntosh and Mark Brodwin, associate professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics and co-graduate adviser. And, he gains teaching experience at the same time. Mantha has also become a mentor to others who have the same aspirations. He recently visited India to interact with other students at the Astronomical Society of India meeting and National Center for Radio Astrophysics.

“I tell them ‘Talk to me,’” Mantha said. “No one should be denied the opportunity to become a scientist. I want to change that.”

Getting accepted to the Physics Ph.D. program was just the beginning of Mantha’s fantastic journey. Through research, he wants to understand the role of galaxy collisions (mergers) towards the growth and evolution of massive galaxies in cosmic time (often dubbed as galaxy evolution).

To do so, a fundamental step is to know the frequency of mergers over the history of the universe. In recent work led by Mantha, he quantified the rate at which similar-mass galaxies are merging over 11 billion years of cosmic history using the premiere Hubble Space Telescope survey Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey (CANDELS) and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). A project that is now published with Mantha as the lead author is one of the most comprehensive analyses to date in this field, using one of the largest-ever surveys with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Mantha is now developing a new tool for the innovative analysis of astronomical images that aims to extract faint signatures hosted by merging galaxies, which McIntosh calls the “Mantha Method.” This work earned Mantha science investigator status on a proposal submission for NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope as part of a core team of CANDELS collaborators. This proposal was one of 13 awarded.

Mantha’s work is catching the attention of important people around the country and the world. He was one of six graduate student medalists in the Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Award Student Prize competition at the 231st American Astronomical Society Meeting in January. These awards recognize exemplary research by undergraduate and graduate students who present at one of the poster sessions at the meetings of the AAS.

But Mantha’s first goal is to finish his dissertation.

“The scope of his dissertation is exceptional in terms of its significance and potential impact to the subfield of galaxy origins and development, which are recognized as strategically important areas by NASA and the National Science Foundation,” said McIntosh.

Mantha’s doctoral research involves the detailed analysis of unprecedented samples of cosmically near and distant galaxies using some of the premiere samples in astrophysics.

“As impressive as these accomplishments are, he has also begun his ambitious dissertation research in which he will apply his novel analysis tools to investigating the physics of galaxy growth by undertaking the first-ever comprehensive data-theory comparisons using the output from state-of-the-art cosmological simulations,” McIntosh said. Mantha has independently developed relationships with world-renowned theorists necessary for this work, which led to the successful acceptance of a Hubble-Archive proposal commencing January 2018.

“Mantha has accomplished all of his while contributing to our department as a GTA and role model graduate student,” McIntosh said.

After he finishes his PhD, Mantha wants to work at NASA before returning to his home country. He wants to lead an effort to launch an Indian space-based telescope.

“Astronomy in India is rapidly expanding,” Mantha said. “I want to contribute and inspire as many young minds as possible.”