Saarthak Marathe is a third-year undergraduate student at the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He talks to our correspondent Rohith about his experience at the ISIR Lab in France where he conducted research on robotics at the end of his second year. Here are some of the excerpts from their conversation –
Why did you choose Sorbonne University to intern at?
Well, it’s not about the university, it’s about the lab. The ISIR Lab has a good reputation for robotics and haptics all over the world and especially in France, and Sorbonne University happens to be a very good university. I actually saw the affiliation with CNRS first. CNRS is a collective group of government labs in France that are ranked first in the country, and that’s how I searched for the laboratory. I found the ISIR lab looking for labs that specialized in robotics.
Could you briefly describe your internship?
The internship lasted for 10 weeks, from Mid-May to the end of July. The work experience there was very good, and as our institute currently does not have any core courses related to haptics up till the 2nd year, it was all very new to me. The exposure I got there was unmatchable.
Please describe your work to a layman.
Haptics is the study of the sense and perception of touch. My work over there was divided into two parts, one was designing and the other was the electrical aspect of it. It was the designing of a tribometer, which measures the frictional forces of a particular sample when you move your hand over it. The laboratory’s old tribometer had quite a low bandwidth. I was tasked with reducing the mass and improving the inner compliance mechanism. I was able to reduce the mass by 69% and increase the bandwidth from the previous model’s 450 Hz to 2,000 Hz.
How was your typical workday? How was the work culture there?
French people are quite relaxed, they don’t have any particular work timings. Usually, you would come at 9 or 10 and leave around 6 but it being a research lab, some of the Ph.D. students stayed up till 8 or even 9. Saturdays and Sundays were off. By off, I mean I wasn’t allowed to enter the lab. Personally, I would usually stay in the lab from 9 to 7:30 after which I would go exploring the city.
The work culture was pretty chill. You are given some amount of autonomy and when you face any challenges, you can easily approach a professor, or a Ph.D. student, anyone superior really, to guide you.
What were your takeaways from the internship?
Earlier, I had mostly theoretical knowledge. There, I learned how research in a lab actually takes place. Because I was surrounded by Ph.D. scholars and professors, I could get some insight into their thought process while approaching a problem. I found that while they ideate on a task, they always think of the physical relevance and how it could be converted into a real-world experiment. In addition, I learned a lot of new simulation techniques and how to go about designing various parts. I was exposed to some other projects in micro-robotics, artificial intelligence, AR, and VR. I actually played a small part in another micro-robotics project, in creating and testing their simulations.
Has your internship changed your plans for the future?
Initially, I wasn’t really considering doing a Ph.D., but I definitely am now. I am a dual degree student, so I am going to do an IDDD, and probably a Ph.D. after.
Did you face any particular difficulties living in France?
The language barrier is quite large. It’s fine if you know a little French, but otherwise, you will face a lot of difficulties with communication, reading signboards, etc. I faced a lot of difficulty while getting a bank account set up, as the whole procedure was only in French. I had to take a friend of mine to the bank almost every day for translation. Personally, I knew how to read the language to some extent, but couldn’t converse in it as I had just done the beginner level French course here. I used to mention the course on my pitch emails, maybe that helped me.
Can you elaborate on the financial aspects of an internship in France, a country with a high cost of living?
The French Government gives a minimum of € 554 per month to all research interns. The Charpak scholarship gave me another € 800 per month. That was more than enough for my stay there, I even brought back some of it.
Can you describe Charpak and the application procedure?
Charpak is a scholarship provided by the French embassy in India. They select 23 out of 1000s of applicants. As for the application procedure, first, you need an internship confirmation from a professor. Then in the application, you have a bunch of statement-of-purpose related questions, like “Why do you want to do this scholarship?”, “Why do you deserve to get the scholarship?”, “What are your future academic plans?”, and so on, all of which require 1000 word answers. You also need to submit your resume and letters of recommendation, if you have any. I had no recommendation letters, more importance was given to the statement of purpose. There is no interview round.
Was there a preference for any particular branch during the selection?
Well, not exactly, I think they mostly check the academic courses that you have completed, as well as the projects that you have been a part of. I had participated in a robotics project here under Dr. Somashekhar Hiremath. I was also a part of Aneshak, which is also very related to robotics. So I think those helped me get the internship, not my branch. In fact, I know a guy at the lab who was from the Civil Engineering Department of IIT Delhi.
Do you have any memorable experiences that you can share?
I became good friends with my labmates. We used to go out every weekend exploring the city. Paris being a beautiful city, new experiences were always just a stone’s throw away, so that’s also something to look forward to. We would have picnics, where I would often share stories about India.
Do you have any final words for your juniors?
If you are interested in research, do try. It’s difficult, I know. My fourth semester was very frustrating as I got a lot of rejection emails. But it’s truly worth a try. In IITM, you are just in a bubble. Foreign exposure is a must to decide what you want to do with your future.
Saarthak encouraged any student who wants help with respect to the Charpak Internship to contact him. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author – Rohith, EE’23