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Tejas Srinivasan is a 2nd year Undergraduate pursuing a B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering.
The Selection Process
The onset of sophie year is quickly followed by the batch’s collective pursuit of a summer internship, with everyone rushing to submit their résumés before the deadline and shortlisting IAFs that they would like to apply for. Having little interest in my department (Mechanical), and having an inclination for CS and programming instead, I chose to try to land an internship in the latter – a long shot, at best.
Being curious about academia and wanting to know if research was something I would be interested in, I decided to try apping for a research internship in CS, knowing full well that it was highly unlikely to work out. I was proved right, as the mails I sent elicited few responses, and around February, I realized that apping wasn’t going to work out (Protip: If you want to apply to professors directly, decide early on and send out emails from October itself, and don’t do it half-heartedly like I did).
Luckily for me, Purdue University was coming for the first time through PT Cell, with several departments looking for summer interns. I decided to apply (with little hope), and outlined my preference for programming and Computer Science in my Statement of Purpose. There wasn’t any interview process or shortlisting, unlike most other IAFs, and when the selections were announced, it came as a pleasant surprise. I had been selected by a professor in Purdue’s Mechanical Engineering department, but most of my work was programming, so I was pretty happy with the end result. Armed with an adequate stipend to fund my living expenses, and accompanied by two friends who had also scored the same internship at Purdue, I looked forward to the internship.
All the interns selected by Purdue were allotted to a professor, who had selected their student on the basis of their interests expressed in the SOP. My professor was very accommodating, and allowed me to choose which project(s) I would like to work on during my 9 weeks here. I’m currently working on two projects here : a) a module for eye-tracking devices to work with 3D objects, and b) an interface design project using dynamic human-machine feedback (though pretty vague, that’s as specific as I’m allowed to get).
Most of my work is programming, and figuring out how to proceed with the projects has been a challenge. I had to mostly work with OpenGL, a C++ graphics library, and when some of the in-built transformation methods did not work as I’d hoped they would, I ended up re-writing those modules myself.
While I have freedom to work from my apartment, working in the department lounge area is quite comfortable (and also ensures that I get more work done). Work hours aren’t super strict, and the professor and PhD guides are more than willing to help out if you have any problems. Working with a team of fellow undergrads on one of the projects has been an enriching experience, and getting to use the eye trackers in our lab was fun as well.
Overall, it’s a very comfortable work environment, while also posing challenges that I haven’t faced before.
While travelling and sightseeing weren’t (and shouldn’t be) the main aim of the internship, one can’t deny that it’s a nice bonus. Central USA, however, has little sightseeing potential. Apart from Chicago, there hasn’t been much to see around here, with most of the attractions being on either the East or West Coast. Travelling to other cities isn’t very economical (but it’s not a bad idea to blow out a significant portion of your stipend on travelling either, much like I did), and activities like concerts and sports matches will set you back significantly.
A lucky break: we were stuck at Dubai for a day while departing for Chicago, and were put up at a sweet hotel by the airline and even toured the city that night. Good times.
Just American Things
For a vegetarian, US is far more convenient than Europe. Almost every single restaurant has multiple veg options to choose from, and the food is quite good (although subs and pizzas do get repetitive after a while). Like any self-respecting Indian, we try to minimize our expenditures by constantly looking for discounts, trying to figure out the cheapest place for groceries (WalMart) and sharing a single drink (unlimited refills, baby!). As for cooking, my roommates and I have survived with an ample supply of Maggi and ready-to-make sabjis (thanks Mom!). I’m proud to say that the end result is mostly better than what I have to live with in my hostel mess.
There are some American peculiarities, that take some getting used to. One is being greeted with an overly warm “Hi! How’s it going?” whenever you walk into a restaurant; I initially mumbled an awkward “Umm uh thanks” before getting used to it (random people yelling “Go Cavs!” and high-fiving me when I wore a Cleveland Cavaliers tee was pleasantly surprising). Also, cars always stop for you and let you cross the road before them (can’t imagine that happening in front of insti Main Gate).
It’s not all perfect though. The tipping culture in US is straight up batshit crazy, with a minimum of 10% tip expected at restaurants. Public transport over here isn’t very good, with buses being the only option and frequency being pitifully low.
Also, I prefer life without toilet paper.
Overall, the internship has given me a lot of insight into what research and academia entail, and whether I’d like to pursue it as a career option in the future – things that I’d hoped to figure out when I first thought of apping. I’ve met some very interesting people in my time here – an Ethiopian taxi driver who won a US citizenship in a lottery and dreams of opening an Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago, two French dormmates in New York who handed me a beer 30 seconds after I met them, and an American raised in Singapore with a track & field scholarship who is also interested in research in Mechanical. More disturbingly, I have started rolling my “r”s when speaking (I expect to be mocked while my accent re-adjusts back home).
Foreign interns do have their perks, and living abroad for 2 months with two slightly-less-clueless batchmates is certainly character building. 10/10, would recommend.