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Harshit Sahay is a 3rd year Undergraduate pursuing a B.Tech in Metallurgical Engineering and Materials Science
The onset of the third year at IIT-B is somewhat stressful, with resumes to submit and interviews to prepare for. Besides these anxieties, I was also struggling with decisions about what kind of internship I wanted. After some thought, I decided to stick to aiming for a university intern. The problem here was that my field of choice, Biology, was radically different from my stream (MEMS) meaning that I’d have a slightly harder time than usual. The number of university interns coming through the PT Cell has increased significantly, meaning that if you’re interested in procuring one, apping (henceforth used as a valid word) is no longer your only recourse. However, these universities would almost always be for core materials science projects, and hence not what I was looking for. All of this should suggest that I ought to have apped harder from the start – which would be a rather inaccurate. Anyway, if you are looking for a research intern, apping, though tedious, has its advantages. I wasn’t able to zero in on what I wanted to do until after exploring the biology departments of various institutes, and expanding my idea of what the field I wanted to work in (Genetics) could offer. It’s is ideal to start around September or October, since some scholarship programs like DAAD have their deadlines around this time. Also a good idea is to look for centralised programs that colleges offer, since not all of these come through insti. Apping fundae are something that can take up another article, so I won’t go into any more details. After some positive responses but no sources of funding, I eventually heard back from a professor at the University of Florida somewhere around late December. I had originally written to a different professor, who liked my profile but didn’t have the funds. He forwarded my mail to the biology department and, Prof. Stuart McDaniel, the professor who’s hosting me right now contacted me. The internship was only finalised around late Feb, after a couple of talks on Skype that seemed less like interviews and more like a casual conversation.
The VISA nightmare
Even without a Trump tightening the borders, getting to the United States turned out to be a much more arduous task than I had imagined. The paperwork involved is huge, both on your and the university’s part. With some delays in sending me the relevant forms and letters on the part of the university, amongst other mishaps, my plans kept getting delayed, and it wasn’t until the first week of May that I was able to apply for the VISA. Thanks to the insane demand, the interview slot I received was a whole month later. After some trouble I was able to receive an emergency scheduling, enabling me to expedite (the already delayed) process by 2 weeks. It wasn’t until the last week of May that I was able to start a 30 hr journey to Gainesville, Florida, where I’d spend my summers. While my case for more or less an aberration, VISA problems are not unheard of, so make sure you stay on top of the paperwork required, more so if you are apping, since your process may not be as streamlined as a university with a research program through PT Cell’s might be.
My work falls under the category of Computational Biology- which involve the development and use of softwares designed to handle the large amount of data generated by fields such as Genetics. More specifically, it involves working with the genome of the moss Ceratodon Purpureus. Ever since the sequencing of the human genome, the field of genome analysis has grown significantly, with more and more species being sequenced each year. The way this works is that an individual from the species is completely sequenced, and then becomes the reference for that species. Subsequent individuals from the species are sequenced and mapped against this reference, with the differences helping us answer questions about evolution and development, and/or differences between males and females. The underlying program is purely a computational one, and has been the source of a lot of excitement and study in computer science, which has lead to various algorithms and programs that help you achieve this. However, nearly every case has some unique features due to which these programs need to be tweaked and modified to suit your case. This optimization by running statistics on results obtained from traditional algorithms, tweaking them to achieve better results and then combining the generated data with existing one to gain more insight into the behaviour of the species, is the bulwark of what I am working on. The lab I work in is involved in both the biological part – growing and extracting DNA from moss samples around the globe, as well as the computational part – analysing the data generated.Since I had done somewhat similar things on the biological part before, I decided to stick to the computational front, which was completely new to me. A lot of these problems are very computationally intensive, with programs and codes running for days or even weeks of computing time, which means access to a robust and high capacity computing cluster, such as the one UF has, is necessary to do any research in the field. If this is too vague to understand, just go with what an Uber driver here described it as – “Genetics? Ah, so the cool stuff they show on CSI?”. A good chunk of my time back home and also after coming here was spent in establishing a basic understanding of the field, since I had no direct courses under my belt. Courses done online and as part of the Biology minor did help though; in fact they were behind getting me interested in this.
As far as work pattern goes, it’s pretty relaxed and peaceful. The hours are flexible, and I have some awesome company to work with. The professor and everyone else working in the lab are very welcoming and fun to interact with, which makes getting along really easy. This wonderful atmosphere has been one of the nice takeaways from the summer, which has made going in every morning not seem like a chore at all.
Life, Travel, Culture and Misc.
Gainesville, the city where the University of Florida is based, is located in the northern part of the state, and for most purposes seems to revolve around the university itself , with a huge chunk of the inhabitants affiliated to it. Travelling around the city is free of cost with a student ID, and work is just a 10 min bus ride away. Most residential areas in the cities are complexes lent out to students, typically 3-4 bedroom flats shared by 3-4 inhabitants. This being Florida, all such complexes have a pool and a clubhouse, where you can beat the scorching heat and relax. It was quite easy to find such a place to live.
The climate is more or less Bombay-esque, hot, humid with torrential rain. Like most American cities, all facilities and amenities are rather easy to procure, and adjusting to life is not really tough. For the most part, the people are very friendly, and it takes a while to get used to bus drivers, shopkeepers, office people and pretty much any random strangers smiling and wishing you a good day. Apart from making complicated decisions such as which of a 100 (figure not exaggerated) Coca Cola products to drink, or what of a billion varieties of cereal (again, not exaggerated) to buy, life is not that hard.
The University itself is incredibly beautiful, and many a lunch break goes by just wandering around soaking it in, or spending time in the splendid library that has pretty much anything you’d want. For one, unlike the mythical ever elusive insti crocodiles. their lakeside has legit alligators that you can see while relaxing on the bench, (unless like in the pic, it’s post a thunderstorm) The rest of the time is usually spent getting used to Gator puns – with the animal lending its name to everything in the city – from newspapers, bus services, buildings, sports teams, drinks to even the goddamn computing cluster I have to work on.
I have rather enjoyed the freedom and solitude that living on your own provides, including cooking for myself, which surprisingly didn’t lead to as many disasters as I thought it would. Its also given me a lot of quality time alone, not to mention countless popcorn nights with the improved catalogues that Netflix, HBO and Amazon have to offer in the USA. (Yayy for free trials).
Lastly, to talk about another often publicized element of the intern experience – travelling.
In the USA, this is not as easy as it is in say, Europe, primarily due to the huge area and lack of non flight connectivity. That said, most places of interest in and around Florida are accessible by bus, or if you can find someone interested, by road. Orlando, which is home to the two incredible adventure parks Universal and Disneyland, is about a 2.5 hour bus ride away. Plans to go there have so far been thwarted by rain, but I did manage to catch the one game Brazil managed to actually show up for during the Copa America, their 7-1 win over Haiti. This being my maiden trip to a football match, was a wonderful experience.
Miami, of course, is about a 8 hour journey away, and another place worth visiting, with its art deco architecture, lush beaches, and incredible art districts. South Florida is also home to the Everglades national park, the only place in the world where both alligators and crocodiles can be found in the same ecosystem. Besides these two cities, Florida is studded with beautiful beaches, and also has several nice hiking and biking trails, for those interested.
Overall, working and living at the University of Florida has been a great experience, with loads of interesting ideas encountered, and nice memories made.