Tell me about the lifestyle in Caltech, and the spirit towards engineering fostered there.

One of the things that i really like is that the people here do what they should do in the time that they personally allot to it. When they’re at work they work the stipulated hours. After 6 o’clock if you write them an email they won’t reply until 9am the next day. It’s a very easygoing schedule. No one pressures you to work, they expect you to take your time and complete the project at hand as thoroughly as you can. One of the things I associate exclusively with Caltech is that they think about every situation from the very fundamentals. Let’s say I’m doing my project and I’ve come across an obstacle. Generally, we make an assumption and carry on with our affairs, however,  these students don’t go forward until they can justify the assumption to a third party. Their validation lies in the fact that, at a later stage if the project isn’t working, you won’t know which assumption went wrong. When they explain a concept to someone, they don’t use technical language. They use very simple terminology that even a 12th grader can understand, often by taking everything down to the atomic level. Occasionally, when I had to present a project in IIT Madras, I would sometimes intentionally add technical terms to confuse the person I’d be presenting to, since I myself did not entirely understand the underlying concept. People here truly indulge themselves in the pure sciences. It’s very common practice to see people in the gym talking about quantum particles and other geeky affairs. Here in IIT, geeking out outside the classroom brings forth images of an introverted person who studies too much.

The best thing about caltech is the weekends-no one is going to bug you.This also gives them time for personal and social life helping them to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Also, there’s a lot of motivation cultivated in students to act and finish. For example, they have a finals week for each subject and you can go and write the paper whenever you want to in that week. The same paper you write will be written by someone else sometime else. They trust you to not cheat. They have a very sound honour code.

Although Caltech seemingly nerdy on the surface, it throbs with a gamut of cultural and sporting activities giving students the right blend of everything that life has to offer. There are really good courts, swimming pools and gymming facilities at Caltech with good coaches. SURFs can opt for these facilities by paying 75 USD for the duration to subscribe for the entire duration of the internship. Pasadena, the town that Caltech is situated in, is also bustling with events like Chalk Festival, Concerts, Parades and multiple BBT references like Cheesecake Factory. Climatic conditions wise, Pasadena is very similar to, if not better than, Bangalore. The maximum is about 35 deg C and the minimum is 10 degrees.

One of the things I associate exclusively with Caltech is that they think about every situation from the very fundamentals.

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Tell us about how you handled the financial aspects involved in the internship.

In my programme, the stipend was 6000 USD. They simply hand you the money and you have to take care of all the living arrangements/transport by yourself. Once you get the internship, you will get the money irrespective of whether or not you complete your project. They are very clear about that fact on the first day during the orientation,however they add that the entire purpose of research as an entity holds more importance that the individual, and since we have come this far, we might as well work. A 1000 USD goes into flight tickets and 500 USD for visa processing. About 60 USD a week for food, and you can either stay inside the campus or rent a house outside for cheap. I personally didn’t want to go through the trouble, so I took a small cottage inside the campus that I have to share with one other person for a 1000 USD a month-making it 2500 USD for 10 weeks. This leaves you about 1000 -1500 USD to enjoy your weekends and buy presents for your family- which is approximately 60-90,000 rupees. Or you could save it up for GRE and applying for higher studies. In LIGO SURF, you are paid 600 USD on a weekly basis. They also book your flight tickets, so one expense is saved.

What’s the coolest project you’ve seen going on in Caltech?

Every project seems so fascinating to me. Anything with the word quantum in it sounds alluring. One of my friends is working on the reduction of quantum noise. If I say I’m working on shape memory alloys-that’s coolness level – 1 but If I say I’m working on ‘Quantum’ Shape memory alloys that’s coolness level infinity. That being said if I had to pick a favorite I’d say, there’s a boy who’s an incoming freshman, which means that he’s currently in the 12th grade. He is working on neural correlates- which basically involves correlating what you’re seeing with the part of your brain that gets activated. He’s experimenting with mice. Instead of waiting for the mice to look at something, figuring out what it’s looking at and then testing the part of the brain that gets triggered, he’s decided to put virtual instruments on the eyes of the mice and control what it is looking at. Mice have different eyes so they have to make different virtual instruments. There is also the JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) SURF. This time they took 600 SURFs, working primarily on two things- the mars rover 2020 and a probe they are sending to Europa (Jupiter’s moon).

What career options are you thinking of pursuing, after gaining the experience you have in this internship?

This experience was basically a prequel to what I want to do later on, an integrated MS+PhD. Earning an MS in america is an expensive affair. With a decent GRE score, it’s easy for an IITian to get in. However, you have to fund yourself for the first year at the least, whereas for the second you can opt to be a TA and attempt to get an out-of-campus job to make your own money. For integrated MS-PhD, a professor selects you for a PhD and he/she funds you for your MS. You have to start looking early and begin the mailing process well in time. It’s very rewarding if you approach a professor in IIT Madras for advice, since they have a good idea about how hard the programme is and where it is being conducted, etc. They don’t expect you to be an MS for an integrated program which is a common misconception since you’ll mostly be competing with other undergraduates to get in. I was further skeptical, and started wondering about the hypothetical situation of me getting a place in the program, but later realizing that the professor I’ve joined under is incompatible with my interests. In response, Caltech told me that they’d give me two years to switch labs and professors, until I’ve found a suitable programme. Unless you feel like you’re working for yourself you can’t do a research internship and a PhD in the grander scheme, properly.

Authors: Rishbha Jain (DD-ME ’21) & Vineet Gopakumar (BT-CH ’19)

Looking for Part 1? Read it over here:

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