Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society – Basuhi Ravi

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The When, The Where and The How

On an uneventful September evening, after two weeks of half-hearted, unsuccessful apping, I signed an IAF that I found slightly interesting. It was, in the weakest sense of the word, ‘similar’ to the work I had done in the preceding summers. About a week or two later, an interview was scheduled. In the Skype call, apart from my suitability to the research group (a quality they attributed to my interest and prior knowledge of basic molecular electronic structure calculations), the technicalities of DAAD Scholarship- which I was to avail for personal funding- were discussed. More importantly, they outlined a sketch of the project, somewhat malleable to my whims, that was quick to catch my interest.

Some 4 days before DAAD’s annual deadline of 31 October, I mailed my application to their office at New Delhi. And the following Monday, when I received a confirmation that my package had reached their office, I breathed a sigh of relief, my faith in the postal system restored. To say I wasn’t apprehensive in the waiting period would be a lie. But friends and acquaintances were quick to reassure me that with a decent CPI, I was sure to get it. And they were right, as later we would observe the clear CPI bias in the selection, maybe even extrapolate it to something as singular as a cut-off.

All the while, my ‘apping’ repertoire was non-existent. Being a stoichiometric ratio of lazy and quick to be disheartened, I had sent only 4 mails, all unanswered.  Winter vacation commenced, I was becoming antsy and I still steadily procrastinated resuming the ritual of sending mails and expecting disappointment. Two days before Christmas, I received a mail from DAAD congratulating me on being selected for the award. And two hours later, I decided I was going to the Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft in Berlin.

A fervent Google search had previously revealed that the institute, a part of the Max Planck Society, specialized in research in various fields of Chemistry and Chemical Physics. Unable to glean any more from the website now, I started looking into the specifics of my project and my department’s (Theory) work. The next few months constituted of VISA procedures and Europe plans. For anyone who is dissatisfied with my refusal to elaborate on VISA procedures, I assure you that the Schengen VISA for Germany, especially for a DAAD Scholar, is incredibly easy to obtain. An analogy to its ease escapes me.

The City, The Institute and The Intern

Upon my arrival to Berlin, on a cloud-cast Monday, I found the weather to be colder than my favorite sweatshirt could withstand. I was tired, and hungry, and shivering. My first encounter with the city wasn’t going well. I could only access my Guest-house apartment after 14:00. So I was shown to my office, a room slightly bigger than my H10 room, which I shared with another intern, a Chemistry major from IISc, and an empty desk. After an eternity of configuring my work PC following the instructions provided, I looked at the time. It was only ten thirty.

The reason I chose the Guest-house over other accommodation options, which I suspect might have been cheaper than my current arrangement, can be attributed to any of the following: proximity to the department (~50m) and consequently saving time and money on commute, easy LAN access, housekeeping services and the luxury of having a private bathroom and kitchenette. Looking back, the highlight of my time spent in the apartment was cooking. It had become something akin a hobby, and the supermarkets, apart from enriching my scant German vocabulary, were one of my favourite haunts. At this point, it would be unlike me if I didn’t spend some words to remark that I find the expansive, frozen display of Germany’s inherent non-vegetarianism, pardon my mis-appropriate choice of word, beautiful. [Oh! Some unsolicited advice? You do not need to be a culinary genius to cook your way through the summer, and it might just be a delight if you learn the basics before coming. Needless to say, it is more economical.]

After an initial longing for the familiar, I’d like to think I settled in fairly well. The locality of Dahlem in Steglitz-Zehlendorf district, where I live, is situated in south-west Berlin, tucked far away from the bustling, touristy city center. Walled by the Grunewald forest to one side, and open to the sprawling city on the other, it looks like a quaint European town enjoying the urban convenience it is embedded in. A distinctive feeling I remember from my first week in Berlin is of the fretful Saturday: I was returning from the Berlin Mitte (German: Middle, Center), a tourist hotspot, a collage of scenes postcards are made of. And as the train pulled into the the station right next to my street, the concrete gave way to greenery and my weary self had already started to look at Faradayweg 14 as home.  

The Theory department is one of the five departments that constitute the Fritz Haber Institute. A hexagonal building, befittingly built around its own computing facility, it houses some 50 odd theorists. In the hierarchical scheme of the institute, there is a Director of the department, who heads over a team of researchers (group leaders), each of whom have a team of Post Docs and PhDs working under their guidance. While this structure and a lack of undergraduates lends this place a rather professional air, one still enjoys the same perks as a university internship.

There are no fixed hours except for the administrative staff but most people seem to have a schedule in place. They come by nine and stay until no later than seven. I believe it is a consequence of the culture here that draws a clear line between work and the personal that most shops close by 20:00, restaurants stop admitting customers by 21:00 and the population dramatically thins after sundown, which is around 22:00 in the summer months. Weekends are sacred and almost everything remains closed on Sundays and national holidays. And if the said holiday sees good weather, then it is not uncommon to find friends and families enjoying the sun with beer and barbecue in one of the city’s many parks and garten-s.

Berlin, a huge city at nearly 1.5 times the size of Mumbai, has a stellar transit system in place, making travel an easy (albeit slightly expensive), convenient and pleasant process even to my -what-do-you-call-someone-who-has-an-irrational-fear-of-Mumbai-local- self. Also, being the capital of Deutschland, it is extremely well connected with the rest of the continent, making one’s quest to hit all the European landmarks a step easier. Severely lacking the passion or stamina to travel, so far I have stayed within the city limits over most weekends. Consequently, I have come to the corny realization that a city is more than a montage of photogenic tourist attractions, and the flea-markets, the food festivals, the open air music performances, the quiet parks, the public libraries, the shopping districts have a thing or two to tell the nonindigenous observer.

The Project, The People and ‘Research’

My project is to theoretically study the adsorption of O2 on 4d-transition metal surfaces and subsequently identify and model descriptors to predict the adsorption of the molecule on any clean surface. The beginning was not unlike my previous projects: I grappled with an elusive ab initio calculations software, prying over gory scripts and negotiating with sundry settings to get tangible outputs. Along with some literature study pertinent to the topic at hand, that is probably all I did in the first fortnight or so. Only quite recently, one month into my internship have I understood and unequivocally defined the problem I am trying to solve. I believe this inevitable delay is a recurrent theme across all theoretical projects limited by the necessity of long computational hours.

A research institute, with people who have already made their career choice, certainly offers a multifaceted description to the word ‘research’. Over the daily 15:30 coffee and cookies ritual, I get to interact with people beyond my immediate group, and listen to what they have to say about their work and I find that underneath all the jargon and accent, lies a genuine interest to solve a seemingly inconsequential problem. Then there are the various seminars that happen in the institute, a more straightforward approach to survey all that lies out there (in the subfield that I am interested in). I learnt recently that one could also request to have a personal meeting with the guest speaker: a prospect that my diffidence balked at, but nonetheless an extremely fascinating one.

If you have read this far, you are either an editor at Insight or a friend immune to my rambling prose, and either way, I believe this recounts my internship reasonably well. Of course I have left many things unsaid. Some are non-trivial: like my incredulity at finding everything (even my bank documents!) entirely in German. And then some are uninteresting to anyone but me: like my accidentally appropriate choice of winter clothing for Berlin summers.  But as I check the word count and fail to come up with a tacky conclusion, I can only think of this summer experience as a collection of perspectives, nascent and evolving, ranging from the subtleties of academic culture to the myriad aspects of living on my own.

Schlachtensee in Berlin, a scenic walking trail around the lake









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