Amidst a raucous crowd of an overwhelmingly packed compartment of a local train, I can’t help marvelling at how I ended up there. It has been two years since I first got to Mumbai but nothing has been like the past one month. Life beyond insti is different to say the least. Couple of wrong train trips. Rush hours. Acquaintances over travel. And people. All kinds of them.
I’ve been commuting to Colaba almost everyday for a summer project. And this experience in its entirety is certainly unforgettable. I’ve never felt more like a part of Mumbai before. Here, I’ll make an attempt to describe the why, how and what of this experience.
Why and how this project?
Introducing myself a bit…I am a going-to-be EP thirdie. Two years into my undergraduate education and I’m still unsure of where my interests lie. That said, I wanted to get a flavour of research and was open to exploring anything new that seemed intriguing. The downside of this viewpoint, however, is that it’s hard to decide how choosy you wish to be about this ‘anything new’ or even how to find it.
Very few univs opened for Sophies of my department through the PT cell. So essentially, I was left to app on my own. I feel quite many people get sucked into a quagmire of uncertainty- where you are clueless about which field you want to check out and how. Unfortunately, for some this state of doubt is also accompanied with an initial lethargy. The solution to this, from my experience, is to start. Start looking. I began with websites of multiple universities and research institutes. I browsed through the news section of various departments and their subfields; bookmarked the interesting articles.Then I went ahead to check out the webpages of relevant professors. Another approach is to directly look at the profiles of different professors on their department websites. I didn’t find this way particularly yielding though. It is important to study a bit about the prof’s work before writing to him/her. It helps you concentrate your efforts towards fewer fields in your further attempts of apping. And more importantly, to decide if you are genuinely excited by the prof’s work. After you’ve listed a few profs down, it helps to maintain a google sheet to keep a track of who you’ve mailed and the status.
Many institutes also open up Summer Internship programs of their own. It’s advisable to look for and catalogue these by September as most have application deadlines post that. But I think your best bet is at personally writing to profs. And start early!
I did face a few problems. Some profs I wrote to didn’t reply initially. A few of them replied on sending a polite reminder, but in negative. Finally, I received a positive reply from Prof.Deshmukh at TIFR. The work in his lab, very broadly, involves fabrication of nanoscale devices and study of their properties. I had come across his paper on graphene-based resonators that, in simplified terms, generated mechanical vibrations when controlled by electrical signals. Though at that point, I wasn’t really equipped to comprehend the nitty-gritties of the paper. But from what sense I could make of it, I found it interesting. And so I had approached him with a project request.
I’m currently working with Pratap, a PhD student, who has already spent some time on it. The project aims to measure the changes in capacitance of a graphene device with variations in its gate voltage using a capacitance bridge. Ok, that might be a bit of a mouthful. Basically, it involves sending two voltage signals- a fixed signal through the device and another variable signal through a reference capacitor to nullify the voltage at the common node of the device and the capacitor. A crude analogy could be a weighing scale. Imagine trying to balance the device’s capacitance using the reference capacitor. The way you manipulate the weight of the reference capacitor is by varying the voltage signal through it. Once balanced, you change the weight of the device capacitance through voltage at its gate and look for the fluctuations at the common node.The catch is all of this done at crazy low temperatures to minimise noise. Now, low temperature measurements come with problems of their own- interfacing with the room temperature equipments and restrictions from the cryostat (that maintains this low temperature).
My work, so far, has been to read through some papers to get an essence of the project. Then, some building of circuits to test the signal and working of device. But it isn’t as simple as it sounds. For one, it takes a lot of attempts to put a circuit together. You need to break it into parts, examine each part and finally assemble the entire circuit to test the whole. And to add to this, you need to deal with quite a few testing instruments as well.
The people and the experience
Prof. Deshmukh’s group is very welcoming. I found myself conversing with them about topics ranging from physics to food to Satyajit Ray and Rabindranath Tagore (surprisingly, most of them happened to be Bengalis). Watching them work made me realise that experimental research comes in a package of its own.
You can’t begin with an experiment right away. Planning, device fabrication and literature study are all the part of the process. And all of this demands a lot of time, patience and diligence. And there are some not so obvious jobs as well. You might be required to help with the installation of a new device in your lab or learn a new testing instrument altogether. And when in a group, there are meets and presentations. These help in idea exchange and discussion.
It takes some time getting used to TIFR. It is a modest campus (in terms of size at least). Nevertheless, it houses a beautiful sea walk. Enter the main building and you’ll see huge nitrogen cylinders placed at almost every nook and corner. Lots of posters and notice boards with heavy jargon research papers are yet another common species here. In the beginning, navigating through this place will be fun too. Some dead ends open into rooms that in turn lead into another alley. The building has a mezzanine floor. So if you take the staircase, chances are that you’ll be perplexed to find yourself on the wrong floor. Walk through the corridors and you’ll be amazed by their length, it seems like each one turns into yet another part of the building.
The place aside, you’ll find many research groups here. Even as a mute observer, you can feel the intensity and seriousness of the work they do. There is a lot happening. Group meets. Seminars. And research, of course. Time, here,is more precious than money.
In Sophie year, you are likely to be confused about your interests and goals. And you should be, in a way, because you would’ve hardly explored all your options. What’s important, however, is that you keep an open mind and make an active attempt to create opportunities for yourself. Try, because unless you do you won’t know.
Oh and feel free to ping me if need be. 😛