The room was totally silent as Pavan Ravindra decided what his move will be. Would he try the techniques he perfected in practice or throw caution to the wind and just go for it? The timer started, and Ravindra’s fingers began to move as fast as lightning, flipping the cube and matching every side, color by color. Just 5.58 seconds later, the crowd erupted into cheers. Ravindra has just become one of the fastest Rubik’s Cube-solvers in the world.
At UMD, as a junior biochemistry and computer science dual-degree student, Ravindra has to solve complicated problems on a daily basis. But none of them are more exciting to watch than when he tackles the complexities of a Rubik’s cube and makes finding the solution look like child’s play.
Ravindra, a 2020 Goldwater Scholar, started solving Rubik’s cubes way back in the third grade. By the time he got to high school he was solving them for speed and entering competitions.
“In ninth grade, I met a kid in one of my classes who was solving a Rubik’s cube pretty quickly,” Ravindra recalled. “At that time, he was averaging around 15 seconds and I was around 30 seconds, so he was really impressive.”
Ravindra joined the Rubik’s Cube club at River Hill High School, where he started developing techniques for increasing his speed, which takes practice and patience.
“It’s like learning to play basketball,” he explained. “First you learn how to dribble, and then once you’re comfortable with dribbling, you learn how to do other things. With learning to solve a Rubik’s cube, first you learn the different ways to solve it, then you begin trying to optimize to find the fastest solution.”
As one of the fastest Rubik’s Cube-solvers in the game, Ravindra has competed in countless competitions, including the 2015 United States National Championships where he finished in the top 10 and had one of the fastest single-solve times in the world—5.58 seconds.
At UMD, Ravindra discovered that he could apply the skills he mastered solving Rubik’s cube to his work in the lab of Pratyush Tiwary, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology.
Last summer, Ravindra was working in the lab with biophysics graduate student Zachary Smith, trying to find a way to describe proteins in chemical systems, when Ravindra found he could approach that scientific challenge with the same mental focus and hands-on problem-solving skills he uses to solve the Rubik’s puzzle.
“I realized that this problem of describing the system, using a minimal set of parameters, is difficult and is usually done manually,” Ravindra said.
Eventually, Ravindra found the solution, developing an algorithm he named AMINO, Automatic Mutual Information Noise Omission, which creates a small set of parameters to describe the proteins that characterize different chemical systems.
“Researchers can now use AMINO to hopefully overcome the barrier of needing information about the system they are looking at beforehand,” Ravindra said.
AMINO was an important milestone for Ravindra for another reason—the discovery led to
his first first-author scientific paper, published online in the journal Molecular Systems Design & Engineering in November 2019.
“It feels great to have made something that other people can use,” Ravindra said of his publication. “I know this is just my first step into research, but I also know that I’ll be making many more contributions in the future, so this was a great learning experience for me.”
It’s no secret to anyone who knows him—Ravindra loves to win. Whether he’s tackling a Rubik’s cube for time or solving a complex problem in the lab, it’s his love of challenges that drives him to succeed.
“The challenge is the fun part to me,” Ravindra said. “I find competing and succeeding super rewarding.”
And these days, you could say, all the right pieces are falling into place.
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The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 9,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and more than a dozen interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $200 million.