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“Four score and seven years ago…”, as I stared at Lincoln’s immortal words engraved at his own memorial in Washington DC, my thoughts backtracked to the time of my favorite history lessons in high school and a subject (called physics) I was just beginning to develop a slight interest in. “Will I ever get to visit these historic places in person?”, I would have wondered then. I could not have imagined the dots connecting which would lead me right here after 7 years; but somehow, they just did!
Hello! My name is Sandesh and I am a senior undergraduate in Engineering Physics. I am writing this blog about my experience of an internship at National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) this summer.
I was sitting in an evening class in January and a sly notification pinged on my phone. “Dear Sandesh, I am pleased to inform you that you have been provisionally shortlisted for the prestigious S.N. Bose Scholars Program 2017.” Pretty cool for a January evening, eh? This is a fellowship which provides an opportunity to Indian students to do a summer internship in the US. After spending the last summer in Europe, I wanted to get a taste of American culture, and this hit in the right spot.
The selection is through an application procedure in October. One has to submit a resume, statement of purpose and send in a couple of recommendations. There are about 50 students both from basic sciences and engineering from colleges all over India who are awarded the fellowship. It covers travel to the US and a $2000 stipend.
I am broadly interested in the newly emerging field of Quantum Information & Computation in Physics. With some experience of the working in the field from my past, I managed to secure a position at the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg.
Traveling to the US
My flight was scheduled for 1st May. Since my endsems ended on 28th April, I was on a tight schedule. Being a vegetarian complicated things further. After a frenzied shopping spree and weight-conscious packing regime, I had everything ready, or at least I hoped so. I landed in the US on 2nd May with one bag packed with Indian food and the other with the usual stuff. 🙂 Well there nothing to be said about that, is there?
I decided to take a taxi from the airport to my new home. Much to my surprise, the driver of which was from the Indian subcontinent and turned out knew ‘broken’ Hindi. Full points for globalisation!
Since NIST was not exactly a school, I could not find accommodation along with other students in Gaithersburg. I was living in more like an American home, wherein I could rent out a room. I knocked on the door, and in the next few hours, settled right in!
I had my first meeting with my advisor scheduled in the afternoon. My landlady was kind enough to drop me off to work on my first day. The first time I entered at NIST, I was amazed at the sheer size of the campus, given that it’s a research institute. I managed to find my way through an array of similar looking buildings each devoted to a discipline of science or engineering, finally reaching my intended workplace, the Physics building.
After the initial paperwork and resolving all the logistical stuff, we got right down to business, i.e physics! Post a joke on Ohm’s three laws (look that up :P), I got to know about the details of my project. I was going to work on something that I really loved, the wonderful world of semiconductor quantum dots. I was going to work on modeling such physical systems and developing machine learning algorithms for experimental realisation.
I spent my first week mostly about reading the basic physics related to my project. I also managed to meet other graduate students and postdocs in the research group. Everyone had their own unique type and style of research, and over the course of my internship, I learned about the different ways in which people look at problems and their perspectives on science.
The most important lesson in my research was probably that one is allowed is to make wrong assumptions, until one knows they are wrong. It is not wrong to be wrong, in doing physics, as long as the wrong is known. In Jake’s own words, “Not the known unknown but rather the unknown unknown is the real thing to be afraid of.”
NIST is always bubbling with seminars and colloquiums. After attending quite a few of these events, I learnt a new viewpoint about doing experimental physics. NIST being an institute responsible for standards in physics, had this principle ingrained in its people of doing accurate and precision science with table-top experiments over large scale (read bang-bang) experimental setups. I hope by the end of this summer, I will have absorbed as many new perspectives such as the one above from this awesome place.
Ok, enough with the work part. Time for some adventures…!
After the clouds playing spoilsport for the first weekend, I finally got out on a fine and sunny Sunday morning next weekend. I took the metro from my home to Downtown DC and got off the closest station to the National Mall. Few blocks down south and my adventures officially began for this summer, with walking down the road in front of The White House!.
After becoming an ardent fan of House of Cards and Designated Survivor over the last year, I could not have imagined visiting Washington DC next summer! The National Mall is always an area of activity on the weekend. From the neck-straining height of the Washington Monument to the magnificent Capitol, DC looks lost in political history.
An Unexpected Adventure…
There are 50 Bose and 30 Khorana scholars (for students from a biology background) selected every year. This year, an orientation and an informal get-together was planned by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Since I had arrived in the US earlier, I got to fly from Washington DC to Madison, only this time on a budget airline. After a stopover at beautiful airport of Detroit, I managed to complete the tedious journey from DC to Madison. But it was worth all the trouble.
The orientation was planned as a set of talks and group-activities amongst the scholars. I got to meet an infinitude of people, all beefed up about their topics of interest including but not limited to cancer research, glaciers and statistics of worm patterns, bubbling with enthusiasm and forever ready to strike up a conversation about their work.
We all worked in various informal activities, one of which was a logo designing competition. At the end, they took us to for sight-seeing around the city of Madison. Though the rains managed to play a spoilsport for a large fraction of the time, we managed to catch nice glimpse of nature around the lakeside. The visit ended at the Capitol building, which is one of the largest in the US.
Living in the US
My house felt like a home. The landlady was well over 60 and very helpful in getting me settled in the first few days. The people living in the house as tenants were also very friendly. I managed to pick their brain on a wide range of topics from beaches in South Carolina to Goethe’s poetry! The diversity of people living around and their life-experiences can sometimes be indeed striking.
Speaking of life experiences, on one particular weekend, I was invited by my landlady to meet her family. She owned a beauty-shop in a prominent mall in the city. She showed me around, and to my utmost surprise, offered me a hair-cut in her shop! And along all that time, she proudly spoke all about her life, from starting in the profession at 17 and coming to Washington from Bolivia in her 20s.
I also spent multiple evenings going out with the graduate students and postdocs at my workplace.
From my first visit to a Chinese takeout place (where I struggled with chopsticks 🙁 ) and a newly found interest in playing board games on weekends right until 12am, this summer has been riddled with many ‘firsts’ for me.
In all, this past month has been a roller-coaster ride of sorts. From diving into research to travelling around, plenty of experiences have shaped up my thoughts on life, universe and everything. I have gathered new perspectives on doing science (the whys and the hows) as a profession. I have learned how diverse fields can be mixed into cocktails to do good research. And so on… And I have learnt to eat with chopsticks! I can claim in conclusion that this experience has made me think deeply about everything and developed me, first as a student and also as a person.
As June draws to a close and sunshine warms up DC into a more ‘homely’ environmental setting, I look forward coming back to the beloved insti. Adios amigos!
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