Being a targeted individual and pushing the limits to pursue a fellowship in one of the top 10 research universities in the world is exactly what Somayajulu Dhulipala, a fourth year student in Mechanical Engineering B.Tech course did in the summer of 2017, by heading over to California Institute of Technology (Caltech) as a part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship programme (SURF). Most of us know Caltech because of its breakthrough research that shifts paradigms, creates new technology, the fact that Caltech alumni and faculty include 34 Nobel Prizes and 6 Turing Award winners, or maybe as the home of Sheldon Cooper from the big bang theory. Despite the occasional reluctance to admit it, the engineer inside each and every one of us has dreamt of visiting this university and exploring the hidden spirit of innovation that lies within, and that is exactly what Somayajulu has experienced and shared in this confab.

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What kind of research are you working on in Caltech?

I am currently working in the Mechanical and Civil engineering (MCE) department in the domain of smart materials. I’m working on a shape memory alloy which is basically an alloy that remembers its shape. For example, if we take a wire made of a Nickel Titanium alloy, deform it and heat it up, it remembers its previous shape and goes back to it. I’m currently trying to build an actuator from a Shape memory alloy. My professor started out in his field with a shape memory alloy project so he thought I’d be inspired to pursue research on the same path. I’m working alone, with the help of the professor and a post-doc. There are no budget constraints for my project, to the extent that my professor told me, “I have a problem. We have a lot of money. We need to use it.”

How did you get the internship? Throw some light on the application process.

The best way would be to find someone in IIT Madras who has contacts in Caltech. The most important part is finding a professor in Caltech. Once that is done you have a very good chance of getting in. Sometime in October/November one should email a professor at Caltech or find someone who has contacts- preferably an institute professor.Once you have contacted a Caltech professor,you need work with him a come up with a 2-page project proposal. Additionally you’ll need to fill up a questionnaire that Caltech provides-which is basically an SoP broken down into pieces and also submit 3 letters of recommendation and your grade transcripts  The application deadline is generally in mid-February. The results come out in the first week of April and Caltech brings you here on an F-1 Study Visa (quite different from other US Internship Programs that bring you here on a J-1 Visa). Although the results come out pretty late, the VISA application process is very smooth and Caltech makes doubly sure it is that way – I got my VISA three weeks after the results.

In IIT Madras, we tend to have this reluctance to talk to institute professors, and a misconception that they won’t really know you unless you’ve worked under them for a project. But this experience changed that mindset for me. Professors do notice you if you’re doing well enough in class. I got my letters from Prof. B.V.S.S.S. Prasad – HoD of Mechanical, Prof. M.S. Sivakumar (DOSt) -who I met in the EFL – Engineers For Life program, and Dr. Arockiarajan-a professor I’d done a project under. Prof. M.S. Sivakumar also knew about the project I’d done under Prof. Arockiarajan – well, we aren’t the only ones who gossip a lot-teachers do too and they tend to know you if you’re a good student. If you like a class very much you should talk to the professor ,and even though a professor is very strict in class, you must believe that he wants you to have a bright future and will try to help you out in any way he can . You don’t directly need PoRs for the application, but a lot of PoRs can get you in close contact with professors in IIT Madras and If you do really well in PoRs then the professors will know you. The approximate weightage distribution for the application process would be 70% for project proposal, 20% for letters of recommendation and 10% for CGPA.

Tell me a little bit about the demographics of the internship.

This year they had 800 SURFS-(Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows)-400 from Caltech, 320 from other places in America and 80 international – 15 from India in different programmes. Most of the students who came as SURFS locally are first years. The stipend is 6000 dollars-the highest provided by any of the well known research internships.

There are 3 programmes that Indians normally come here on-one is LIGO SURF. It is a part of Caltech but the application process is entirely different. You’re working for an organisation of sorts-kind of like IITMSAT. Most people from IIT who go to Caltech go for LIGO SURF. This time there were 5 indians in LIGO  SURF. In order to apply, you have to upload your resume, grades, and 3 letters of recommendation onto the LIGO SURF portal. They interview the top 10 applicants from each country. it’s mostly opted only by students of pure sciences and EP.

The normal SURF is the second program that you can go to Caltech through. I went through this but there haven’t been many people who have gone through this route from IIT Madras in the past (None in the last three years).  In the normal SURF, you report to a post-doc. The Post-docs are to-be professors and have a very sound knowledge.

Another programme is JPL SURF,however you need to be an american citizen or a permanent resident for this. Most of the projects undertaken by fellows are available online on the website- http://growth.caltech.edu/undergrad-internship-projects.html

If you haven’t really done a project under a professor in IIT Madras, would you recommend someone to try this out? Also tell me why a lot of people don’t opt for this programme.

People generally talk about, DAAD, Mitacs, SN Bose, etc. when it comes to research internships. This is mostly because the deadline of these programmes are in October or November followed by results in January. Once they find out they haven’t gotten a positive result from any of these, they start looking for other opportunities like NTU, Purdue and Caltech SURF. but by then it’s too late for Caltech SURF. However, if you are focussed on Caltech and are not thinking of it as a backup, then you can surely get the internship. Just take some time out to research about different professors at Caltech and find the one that suits your research needs or like I already mentioned before, ask professors in IIT Madras.  Another reason would be that most people think this programme is out of their league but it really isn’t. Because of the high failure rate that is inevitable and when no one targetedly endeavors to get the fellowship, people assume it’s too hard. Additionally, SURF officially starts on June 20th and ends sometime in August. People think that they will be missing a part of the next semester. However, for international students, Caltech lets you begin the fellowship as early as may 11th, and you can go back home by the end of July.

What advice would you have for a student who is aiming for this internship in their third year? Tell me a little bit about your general outlook towards research.

Work with professors. Don’t force yourself into research but if you genuinely like it then they’ll try to push you. Try to get a gist of it in second year at the latest and don’t think of it as a resume point. If you’re researching, you’re doing it for yourself, and you should have very little expectation from your work. You just have to keep working hard, and enjoy the process of learning. Frankly,  whatever I’m doing now mostly revolves around fundamentals of JEE physics. Also, don’t wait for the right course to come through and motivate you. Instead, start working on a project and you’ll see that all the courses that you do are relevant to you in some way or the other. For example, the project that I did under Prof. Arockiarajan used concepts ranging from Physics – II to Multivariable Calculus to Materials and Design to Fluid Dynamics and beyond and I think that almost everything I have learned as a part of my curriculum, since I arrived at college, could have also been understood by me independently, given the time and resources. JEE concepts are enough for most things, so first years should try to do a project under a professor and research if they are interested.

If you start on a research project, at least as an undergrad, the professor won’t be constantly pestering you to get work done. People have a misconception that you’ll be under the obligatory pressure of reporting to the professor if you take up a project under a professor but frankly they don’t care unless you show promise. They’ve witnessed the allegory of so many students who would come to them really enthusiastically, desperate to be a part of a project. However 3 months later they see the professor somewhere and scratch their head, saying “Oh! I used to do a project under you right? I don’t really remember what it was.” People don’t take undergrad research that seriously. I make it a point to meet my professor every week- even if he doesn’t really pay attention to my research that much. He is a very engaged man, and undertakes affairs that involve going to singapore for a business conference for a day, or getting government grants for hundreds of millions of dollars for a project. Given his busy schedule, he won’t take an interest in me unless I put in the effort.

A research internship is not a set of tasks with a deadline. The tasks may or may not work out. For a company internship, the company knows what it wants from you and they know if the task at hand is possible. When it comes to research, the entire mindset is different. If your project doesn’t work out, then you feel okay, because scientists everywhere have a new thing to work on. If it does work then you should be kinda scared, because if it is working out that easily then someone must have achieved it before. You want your project to work but you don’t want it to work easily. It isn’t a 9-5 job. However, it is all worth it in a monetary sense, since, at a later stage companies pay more for research than they do for operation.

If you’re researching, you’re doing it for yourself, and you should have very little expectation from your work. You just have to keep working hard, and enjoy the process of learning.

 

This is Part 1 of a two part article. Catch Part 2 of the article here:

http://chennai36.iitm.ac.in/dream-of-californication-a-summer-in-caltech-part-2/