Hello there! I’m Chaitrali Duse, a sophomore undergraduate in Engineering Physics. This summer, I’m on an internship at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria.
Having spent most of my previous winter on a theoretical and partly simulation-based project in particle physics, I spent a long time agonising over whether I need to stick to the field. After several attempts at introspection, I concluded that I couldn’t sit at a desk and calculate field Lagrangians all my life – I needed to work with my hands. I had a new “passion” – experimental science. (This time I won’t drop it like a child bored with their favourite toy, I told myself.) Eventually, my confidence bolstered by encouraging seniors, I decided to take the leap of faith into the hitherto unexplored realm of experimental condensed matter physics.
When it came to the actual deed though, I wasn’t ready for the self-esteem-shattering process of apping and the subsequent string of rejections. A combination of laziness and the illusion of being too busy led me to half-heartedly convince myself that I could land an intern by sticking to the very few internship programs that are open to sophomores. I applied to the summer internship program at IST, christened the ‘ISTernship’, sometime in mid-February. It’s pretty straightforward – you send in your transcript, one or two letters of recommendation, your (hopefully well-tailored) CV and a statement of purpose. The regret at not apping only got stronger with the passing weeks, until one March evening, my phone pinged with an email notification titled ‘ISTernship selection decision’. My impatience at the suspense-laden subject line quickly turned to jubilation as I scanned down that long email. I got in!
The ISTernship program is funded by OeAD, the Austrian Agency for International Mobility and Cooperation in Education, Science and Research. Cumbersome name, I know, but they spell out all the paperwork and legalities for you down to a tee. A few forms, several cancelled and un-cancelled visa appointments, a long queue and precisely 13 days (yes, I was counting anxiously) later, a little courier package arrived at my doorstep! Apprehensive as we tend to be about visa glitches, combined with my propensity to always presume the worst, I could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
At IST I’m working with the Nanoelectronics group led by Prof. Georgios Katsaros; to say these people are an absolute delight to work with might be a bit of an understatement! The day before I started, I dropped in to say hi; to my incredulous amazement, my professor showed my office that I would share with another intern, complete with my own PC, a whiteboard covering a whole wall and my name on the door! I spent a few of my early weeks here just taking in the exciting workplace, particularly the immaculate cleanroom for nanofabrication and the large state-of-the-art nanoelectronics lab equipped with four dilution refrigerators and a Helium3 fridge that go down to the milliKelvin range, in addition to Helium dewars for cooling samples down to 4 K. I can’t resist mentioning how different I found the work culture here to be, with the group feeling more like a bunch of friends than co-workers!
The inner workings of a dilution refrigerator
Various projects are running in the group, ranging from realising quantum dots and spin qubits in different substrates to using superconducting materials to create resonators and semiconductor heterojunctions. Since I didn’t have a specific project assigned to me before I arrived, I have been lucky enough to dabble a little in many of them – an opportunity to learn a variety of techniques and methods for characterisation of low-temperature devices. My main project now is to design and optimise superconducting microwave resonators for circuit quantum electrodynamics, to couple to qubits as a readout mechanism. A simplified way to look at it would be: when a two-level system changes its state (a qubit transition, for instance), the resonant frequency of the coupled resonator coupled to shifts, which can be measured as a change in the transmission or reflection coefficients. A lot of this involves electromagnetic simulations to explore the effect of geometric and material parameters on the device. While my simulations are running or, occasionally, when I am irked by computational oddities, I also work towards another project that deals with superconductor-semiconductor heterojunctions in nanowires where we hope to observe the fascinating Majorana zero modes, and ultimately to realize topological qubits for robust quantum computation. For instance, I help with transferring nanowires from the growth substrate to a marked chip, designing the device structure to be fabricated over the nanowires using electron beam lithography and carrying out measurement at 4 K (or even lower in the rare event of a successful sample!)
If you have made it through all my excited physicsy rambling, I confess I’m impressed at the tenacity. Moving on to less arcane matters, I would be remiss to gloss over the IST campus, which is picturesque, if not downright gorgeous. I chose to rent an apartment on campus, which turned out to be rather spacious with its own balcony and a well-equipped kitchenette. There is a cafeteria close to the offices where our group goes together for lunch every day. The downside was that it’s one of the few only-9-to-5 places here. For those who’d rather starve than risk burning down the house (read: me), the on-campus supermarket with its instant pasta was nothing short of a godsend. The institute is located in the quiet town of Klosterneuburg, about half an hour from central Vienna, which makes it the perfect combination of suburban and tranquil. I spend most of my weekends either playing ping-pong with fellow interns, exploring Vienna, or curled up with hot chocolate; often the latter during the first few weeks. May tends to be cold and rainy, and all the more this year (as I immediately discovered outside the airport and in the chilly cab, with my non-existent knowledge of German and misfortune of a driver who didn’t speak any English).
There’s no dearth of intellectual or social events at IST, with several seminars or talks every day on almost everything under the sun, weekly ‘think-and-drink’s, the IST barbeque as well as a special Open Campus day this year! Furthermore, there are some special presentations organised for the ISTerns as an overview of the research that happens here in each field. IST encourages and emphasises interdisciplinary research and collaborations, so this was a perfect way to experience first-hand how the various facets of science join together, like pieces of an elaborate jigsaw puzzle which, on completion, would tell us how the world works. Work hours are surprisingly flexible; some evenings, I would stay late trying to perfect whatever new design had caught our fancy, and a few I’d leave early for trips to the supermarket or Vienna. I was amazed by how seriously the country takes holidays – almost all shops are closed on Sundays and public holidays, sometimes even Saturdays!
A relaxing afternoon at Donauinsel (the Danube island)
Vienna is, of course, an utterly beautiful city and every visit yielded a new boulevard to stroll through. There is a plethora of churches, palaces, museums, memorials and of course, music halls! The city of Music has been kind to me, and I was able to catch quite some performances: the opera Aida at the dazzling Vienna State Opera, and the Klavierkonzert at the Musikverein Wien to name a few. Getting (almost) front-row seats for the annual open-air Sommernachtskonzert (summer night concert) at the exquisite Baroque Schönbrunn Palace by none other than the Wiener Philharmoniker, one of the finest orchestras in the world, was probably the best stroke of luck I’ve ever had!
Sommernachtskonzert ft. the Vienna Philharmonic
I meant to travel a lot more, but despite putting off planning to zero hour and the perpetual I’ll-deal-with-it-when-I-absolutely-have-to attitude, we strung together weekend escapades to Burgenland – the land of castles in eastern Austria, Budapest and Prague. But those are probably tales for another time. On my travels, I was often reminded of the immigration officer at Zurich who saw a cold, tired young woman trying to figure out her way around Europe and took the time to tell her she’d love every bit of it. She couldn’t have been more right.
View of the Hungarian parliament from a night cruise on the Danube in Budapest
This internship has been a rollercoaster – teaching me the delicate balance of excitement and dismay that research entails, and a fuller understanding of what I’ve gotten myself into. I’ve learnt a lot about experiments, science and life through stimulating discussions with my professor. (Primary takeaway: intuition is a great and terrible thing.) I still have a few weeks to go till I fly back to the humid and hasty insti life, and I hope I miraculously run into some ground-breaking results at the very end, in true insti fashion.
*Ping!* Simulation complete.
The nanoelectronics group!