Caltech – Kunal Deshmukh

It’s been three years since the JEE summer. I recall being just another naive student back then, confused about where to go and what to do. The popular “do what interests you” advice sounded as dumb as it could to me, and a series of weird yet fortunate decisions brought me here. My journey so far has been quite turbulent, but I’m fast approaching my “interest” asymptote, which is what my research experience has been all about.

Hello, I’m Kunal Deshmukh, a third-year MEMS undergraduate who has probably determined what he wants to do in life, and definitely determined what he doesn’t. Like any other typical IITian about to choose their college, my criteria revolved around jobs, infrastructure, and culture. I never considered research to be an option, and hence didn’t even bat an eye while ruling out a BSc degree. Do I regret doing that though? Absolutely not.

My time in insti has been quite entertaining, probably in all possible contexts, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in this world. The way I like to look at it is, I’ve been through a bunch of interesting phases, and the latest one is by far the most stable. 

I started off as a BC enthu freshie, only to flunk my freshie year and console myself saying it wasn’t something I didn’t anticipate. I spent my second year improving my grades and taking interest in core topics. I even took up an honours course and a minor that I thought would suit me best. One thing I had definitely made up my mind about was not getting into the non-core sector. At all. I just couldn’t see myself doing any of it.

Back then, I wasn’t in a position to decide between doing research or taking a job, but I’m glad things have changed. My third year was perhaps the best phase, which introduced a “wildcard” option and brought me to the “I know what to do” stage. 

Astronomy has been a beloved hobby of mine since my school days, but I had never imagined I could end up working in it. It was December 2018, when attending a couple of awesome winter schools and talking to a bunch of seniors convinced me that maybe there’s a chance. Consequently, I joined the GROWTH-India project under Prof. Bhalerao from the Dept. of Physics in March 2019.

GROWTH-India is a part of the much bigger GROWTH collaboration (Global Relay of Observatories Watching Transients Happen) with a total of 17 partners spread all over the world, led by Caltech. IIT Bombay and IIA Bangalore are the Indian partners in the collaboration, and together operate the GROWTH-India Telescope located at the Indian Astronomical Observatory (IAO) in Hanle, Ladakh. As the name suggests, the science focus of GROWTH is “transients” – astronomical events that show (relatively) rapid changes in appearance in one or more parts of the electromagnetic spectrum – right from radio waves to gamma rays. These events range from detection of asteroids that are nearby to some of the biggest cosmic fireworks like Supernovae and Gamma-Ray Bursts (GRBs) that go off at cosmological distances.

As interesting as it might sound, there’s a long way to go before a beginner gets to the science part of things. I had to start with a lot of basic “backend” stuff and it felt quite monotonous at times. Those were my first few days into research and I’d realised it’s not all glamorous right away. In retrospect, I feel dumb to even have expected that, but it was nice to realise it through experience and build my own perspective.

About three months into the project, I had seen enough and was happy to commit myself in the longer term. I knew I’d have to wait for black-and-white “results”, but I was willing to work towards it. Being a non-physics student, I’ve always been sceptical about how exactly it would unfold for me – right from getting an internship to getting a good grad school. However, things have been good so far, and I can’t complain much (well, not yet). 

The whole process of landing this internship was quite a roller coaster. It began in July when I was put in touch with Dr. Bryce Bolin, a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech and a GROWTH collaborator, to work on a part of my project under his mentorship. Naturally, I figured if I did well, I might as well stand a chance to go there as an intern. I (quite controversially) didn’t register for the PT cell internship portal since I was very sure of not getting an astronomy research internship that way, being an MEMS student. I’d essentially put all my eggs in the basket of “apping”.

A lot of my seniors gradually told me to start apping – some in September, some in October, and so on. Everyone had a different opinion about being “on time” and being “too late”. I was quite confused (and somewhat lazy) and ended up not sending out a single email till December. I came across a couple of good funded programs and filled out their applications. My restlessness was growing, until one day the possibility of Caltech SURF was discussed by my mentor. He expressed his interest in calling me over as a summer student, and I’d already started counting my chickens before they’d hatched.

To my dismay, things took a negative turn yet again, when I didn’t get through either of the two programs and my mentor told me they might not have the funds to have me over. I was told to apply to the same place through a different program that required funding from IITB, which turned out to be a dead-end. I had already conceded that I won’t be going abroad and started thinking about my options in India (the likes of IUCAA (Pune), IIA (Bangalore), etc. which are pretty awesome too). All that until one fine day in the first week of March, while I was walking out of my hostel just after dinner, I received a message from Dr. Bolin saying –

“Hello Kunal, I think I can go ahead and tell you, that you are selected to be a SURF student under George Helou at Caltech this summer. Congratulations!”

It was completely out of the blue and it’s hard to say how happy I was at that very moment. I called up my parents, told all my friends, it was the joy of getting exactly what I wanted the most, nothing short of a dream come true. However, that happiness turned out to be quite short-lived, and the whole SURF program was officially cancelled for international students due to the ongoing global pandemic. 

It was quite disappointing to be robbed of something that big just because some guy somewhere had bat soup. Nevertheless, I’ve continued working with Dr. Bolin anyway, the only things missing being the money and the 10-week stay in California.

Dr. Bolin is a part of the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) collaboration, also led by Caltech, which is (not exclusively) a part of the GROWTH collaboration. He’s currently leading the ZTF Solar System Working Group and my recent work with him has been associated with ZTF, most of which doesn’t come under GROWTH. 

To my surprise (not so pleasant initially), I wasn’t assigned a particular 2-3 month-long standalone project. Instead, I was given regular tasks (often unrelated to each other) that usually took 2-3 weeks each to complete. As I went along, I realised that I was getting well equipped with newer skills and getting bigger and better tasks gradually. It wasn’t too long until I found out that each of them was essentially a contribution to different potential publications, and I would be lying if I said it didn’t make me work harder and better. It won’t be easy to draw a line between before-internship and during-internship since I’ve been working with Dr. Bolin for almost a year now, but in the past few months, I have worked on things like photometry and colour characterization of comet P/2019 LD2, astrometry of a mini-moon asteroid 2020 CD3, documentation for a ZTF asteroid detection pipeline Zstreak and a bunch of other tasks – each of them an additional arrow in my quiver. 

A stacked (and pretty)  image of Comet P/2019 LD2 (center). The elongated figures in the rest of the image are trails of background stars, a result of the images being stacked on the moving comet. 

The perks of these new skills showed up almost immediately. I was offered an interesting detour – compiling and stacking loads of ZTF data for an outbursting stellar object for a professor at Caltech. Although the science of this object is beyond my scope at the moment, a humble yet necessary contribution was well within my abilities. It was a tedious process but also particularly satisfying, owing to the beautiful before-after visual transformation. Being my first time doing something for a professor I’m not formally associated with, it was an unanticipated networking opportunity that fell right into my hands, and hopefully there’s much more to come.

A typical ZTF exposure (image 1) compared to a stack of 59 such exposure (image 2). Apart from aesthetics, the technical purpose of doing so is increasing the SNR of sources. A visual indication for this is the increase in the number of sources visible and much better contrast (dark nebula says hi)

Coming to work experience, it (fortunately) turns out that observational astronomy fits very well in the WFH system. I’m not exactly missing anything work-wise because of being at home – all I need is my laptop and a stable internet connection. The major drawback, however, has been the slow pace of things – especially since my verbal interaction with Dr. Bolin is usually restricted to weekly meetings. There’s no easy workaround for it, and being in (quite literally) opposite time zones certainly doesn’t help. Nevertheless, the fact that I already had a good working relationship with Dr. Bolin has made things much easier for me. 

My productivity for the first couple of months of the lockdown wasn’t really good. The comfort of being at home got the better of me for a while, but I somehow managed to keep myself going at the minimum required pace. Things improved with time and the constant inflow of work helped in keeping me on my toes.

The weekly meetings have always been fun. Apart from us updating each other, Dr. Bolin often tells me what else he is up to and what all I would have to face when I reached his stage – something we would call fundae in insti lingo. I also get to attend the biweekly ZTF Solar System Working Group meetings where people working on different things update each other, sometimes discuss their results and even plan observation proposals. I couldn’t have asked for better exposure to how collaborative research in astronomy works (I could have, actually, but then being at Caltech was ruled out :/).

To sum it all up, this experience has only reinforced my desire to pursue astronomy professionally. I have progressed a lot over these past few months, being able to contribute more and more to research. Just recently, my first paper as a co-author (Bolin et al) was published in the Astronomical Journal, and at least a couple more are on their way, thanks to everything I did this summer. 

Every single decision over the last three years has brought me where I am today and I only have our insti and the people I met here to thank for helping me throughout. This is definitely not enough to satisfy me, though, and my next short term goal is getting a first/second author paper published before I graduate. I’ve already started working towards it with a completely new project in place, with newer and bigger challenges that I look forward to taking on. In the longer term, I have every intention to join a grad school, get a PhD, and perhaps go all the way to become a professor. People often ask me whether I’ll have the patience to do it all, and I’ve never been in a better position than this to say yes, yes I will.

Finally, my two cents for the readers – make the best of whatever you get. The most important lesson I’ve learnt over the past year and a half, from my professor as well as from my own experience, is that *luck* is a huge factor in our professional lives. Things seldom come together just the way you want them to, and when they do, it’s totally up to you to make the most of it. So work hard, be brave and take (calculated) risks 🙂

6 months ago