In this edition of Insight’s summer blog, Mihir Kulkarni discusses his internship at the University of Wisconsin, for which he got selected through the SN Bose Scholarship Program.
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Dear Mihir, I am pleased to inform you that you have been selected for the S.N. Bose Scholars Program 2014. Congratulations!
I treated this email with a mixture of joy and skepticism. I’d been gunning for a research based theoretical CS intern this summer— evident from countless carefully worded SoPs sent to various institutes all over Europe and the US. However, what I got was something seemingly more mundane—purely programming.
The pros seemed to outweigh the cons though, and I went for it. And hindsight is always 20-20, but I do not regret the decision one bit.
My internship is in the University of Wisconsin in Madison- a relatively small city 200 kilometres from Chicago . The SN Bose program is a collaboration between this university and the Government for engineering undergraduates all across the country to do summer research internships in the US . This does come through PT Cell. Officially, it is open only for DRs 1 and 2 —but others can apply if aforementioned DRs have gone off on other interns. You’ll require a couple of recommendation letters from professors and an SoP apart from other personal documents.
Once you’re selected, you can apply to any professor in the USA. Alternatively, the prof. may mail you himself —as was my case. There is no formal interview as such, but you might want to Skype to discuss project details and your skills.
It will pay for your airfare, plus a cool stipend that is more than sufficient for your daily costs and several weekend trips if you have accommodation. This depends on the university — UW-Madison provides it entirely, some will pay for half, some tell you to find your own.
It’s advisable to apply for a visa ASAP. The DS-2019 form (for the J-1 visa, an equivalent I-20 exists for the F-1), which confirms that you’re going there on a short-term internship, can take a long time to arrive. It should not take more than a week to finish off the entire visa process once you receive it.
The people in-charge are committed and helpful. They’ve helped us in checking out places to visit and organized meetings from time to time with delicious free food (the textbook method to impress undergrads). They’d also asked all of us to prepare short presentations which gave some flavour as to what problems people are trying to solve across fields. This culminates in a final project presentation in Delhi, in August (initially scheduled to be in Washington DC ).
The scholarship is pretty well-respected all over the country and abroad. A large percentage of ex-scholars have successfully applied to top universities all over the USA.
The internship is with a space scientist who is an expert on the planet Venus. The module I worked on consisted of writing image files from various NASA missions into a format that could be read by a powerful weather analysis software for studying Venus.
Implementation has its own joys and frustrations. Finding your feet with dirty low-level representations of data can take time, but seeing your results is worth all the pain.
Projects like these need you to be self-motivated and follow proper programming practices, which is something I struggled with initially. Spending weeks trying to figure out an annoying bug and finally getting the program to work two days before you leave is … character building to say the least. We couldn’t achieve all that we wanted, but I think I’m wiser for the experience, and have gained some perspective about what I want to do (or not do) in the future and how to do it.
Workload is generally a function of the enthu of both you and your prof, not to mention your actual project—but the minimum is reasonably low. I’ve been lucky enough to have a mentor who gave us a lot of freedom with respect to how we did our work, with very flexible hours. This has also given me the time to explore some more core-ish projects in the CS department(which unfortunately did not work out), check out other stuff to do …and travel.
There is always a vegetarian option in each restaurant/eatery/cafe/”dhaba” that you will go to (except maybe the odd McDonald’s). Indian groceries are easily available. Plus, there’s quality cuisine from all over the world and there’s always an inexpensive option. The salads, for one, are exquisite— I’d been having one nearly daily. Desserts are relatively cheap and always massive. Be warned though – there will be tons of sugar, oil and salt. You need to be careful to avoid sudden increases in body mass.
We have a group of sixteen Indians from various colleges sharing the dorm. To quote from newly learnt IIT-M lingo, this allows juntey to put peace in certain aspects of life i.e. we cook our dinner together. This can be great fun when done in groups— not to mention a very handy life skill. Most of us learnt it just before coming. We’ve tried out quite a few things. Some failed, most didn’t.
Tall brick buildings. Flashy cars that will wait for you to cross the road before they zoom past. Kids on coffee tables discussing their latest app ideas. Cyclists with tiny dogs poking their heads out of their backpacks. All types of people clutching cups of coffee or walking their strollers, looking dapper/hipster/mysterious in a wide range of (or for shirtless joggers, nearly no) clothing.
The US of A is different from us in both subtle as well as prominent ways.
The general philosophy is bigger is better. It is a consumerist’s wet dream. Products of all kinds and varieties in all sorts of shapes and colours abound in its huge malls. Ten different varieties of orange juice and twenty brands of yoghurt wave out at you from their refrigerated enclosures. Food portions in restaurants can approach inhuman quantities – you can easily live on one or two meals a day. The country is prosperous and likes to display it. Loudly.
Certain aspects make indelible impressions. A culture that values dignity of labour, human life and inculcates meritocracy with a brutal focus on efficiency is something that will stay with you long after you’re gone. Entire systems are built on the assumption that people are mostly honest and will not take undue advantage. People seem laid-back and less judgemental . Random strangers will greet you on the street. PYTs flash dazzling smiles and everyone makes small-talk. It can seem superficial but one never feels like a foreigner.
The internship has introduced me to some wonderful people. I am working with a seventy-five year old retired programmer who comes to the lab thrice a week to keep his brain active and because he “loves Venus”. The system admin is a grad student with longish blonde hair and an easy demeanour. He rides a Harley Davidson, owns a pretty impressive collection of comic books and musical instruments and looks like a rock star. He is also fifty years old, returning to the university to “learn a few new tricks”. Our mentor’s invited us to have beer with him on the lakefront, go sailing on the lake with him and has regularly taken us out for food.
It’s ironic that I began writing this on World Environment Day. The USA is the highest generator of waste in the world. Comes as no surprise when they insist on covering popcorn in three layers of packaging and follow a single-use and throw philosophy. Entire plates of food are left untouched and shoved into dustbins in restaurants. They don’t let it show though. Roads are much cleaner than back home.
Much has been written about the joys of travelling. It is an extremely worthwhile investment, especially so in a developed country. Self-discovery happens almost naturally the more you travel. Do travel extensively, walk through the cities with friends and click lots of photos. Glistening towers in Chicago, the hustle and bustle of New York and the raw energy at Summerfest are things you won’t get to see back home in their native form.
Pro tip: The city passes for big cities will save you quite a bit for weekend trips.
The other students are a stimulating and fun group to hang out with and some strong inter IIT (and NIT) friendships have formed. Spending time in the dorm, discussing life’s big questions and exploring the country with them has probably been the greatest takeaway from the trip- an almost Institute-like hostel experience without the ugly infra issues.
The overall experience is fantastic. You’ll learn a bit more about the world outside and yourself, meeting some really cool people on the way. It will also add some sheen to your resume, though that should not be the motivating factor. Highly recommended.