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Millennium park, Chicago
Being interested in going to grad school after graduating, university intern was the obvious choice for the summer. For the past year or so I had been working on developing and implementing algorithms with applications in CFD and had fallen in love with python and high performance computing (HPC) in the process. So, I was looking for opportunities which would give me a chance to explore applications of HPC in CFD or in other fields.
I was too lazy to go through with apping so PT cell was the only option. UIUC was one of the first universities to come through PT cell. The profile being computational nuclear engineering, the IAF opened only for CS, Elec and Energy Science. I mentioned to my roommate who was also an IC that the profile was exactly what I was looking for. He sent some mails and finally got the IAF open for Aero.
The professor shortlisted 9 students for an interview. The interview was pretty casual. She asked me questions about my interests and future plans and explained some prospective project ideas.
The US Department of State maintains a list of high risk topics called the Technology Alert List. Students applying for a visa under a topic belonging the the TAL may need to undergo extra security checks. Nuclear engineering was at the top of that list.
My work profile as it read on the DS-2019 form was “Modelling and simulation in Nuclear Engineering”. Being an Aerospace Engineering major didn’t help either. Sure enough, my application was put under administrative processing. The interviewer handed me a green slip and asked to submit a bunch of documents over email. Administrative processing can take over a month so it’s crucial that you apply early if your area of study belongs to the TAL.
Lifestyle and Travel
UIUC is located in the twin cities of Champaign and Urbana. The apartment that I lived in was in Champaign. Champaign is a quiet and beautiful city located at a 2 hour drive from Chicago.
I wasn’t provided accommodation with the internship and had to look for it on my own. UIUC has a facebook page where people post about apartments they are subleasing. I rented an apartment from an IIT-B senior while I was in India. You can also stay at a hotel or an airbnb temporarily while you look for apartments when you get there but I would suggest you get it out of the way as soon as possible as there will be a lot of paperwork and HR stuff you will need to get done in your first week (at least at UIUC you need to).
One of the most fun parts of the internship apart from the work was the food. If you are a non-vegetarian, US is food heaven for you. I have tried cuisines from all over the world and eaten at almost every restaurant in Champaign since I’ve been here. Also it’s fun when people get all confused on hearing your name at the pickup counter (I now know why a Korean student in my group calls himself ‘Teddy’).
Champaign being located in Central America doesn’t have much potential for travel. Apart from Chicago, there aren’t many major cities nearby. You can get a bus from Champaign to Chicago for as low as $12.
Travel tip: If you are planning on staying in a hotel anywhere in the US, check if the hotel has a minimum check in age. We had booked a hotel in Chicago and were not allowed to check in as none of us were 21. Fortunately I knew a batchmate who was interning at UChicago and could spend the night at his place.
My work falls under the application of HPC to computational nuclear engineering. The group that I work with is involved in the development of an open source software called cyclus which is a python library for nuclear fuel cycle simulations. My job was to automate numerous parallel cyclus simulations on Blue Waters, the fastest supercomputer on a university campus.
The work hours are practically non-existent here with a freedom to walk in and out anytime you like as long as you get the work done. I actually completed my original project in less than a month and spent the remaining time solving problems I chose myself!
The good, the bad and the ugly
I have read a number of posts on this blog and none of them seems to talk about this. Maybe I am the only one to experience it or no one else thought much of it. However, I have been asked to write about my experience here and leaving this part out didn’t seem right to me. I also do not want to be caught in the middle of a discussion on political correctness so I will present these incidents verbatim without putting a label on them.
This one time I was walking to my apartment with my dinner and the street was completely empty. From the corner of my eye I could see a person standing on an apartment balcony. A few steps after I walked past him, I heard a crack behind me and something splattered on my foot. I looked behind in reflex and saw this guy run into the apartment and bang the balcony window shut. Apparently he threw an egg at me and he missed. Around three weeks later, again on an empty street in the evening, a guy (probably stoned) stopped me and asked if I knew how to go back to India. When I started walking away he shouted, “Can you walk there?” and started laughing.
These stories are not meant to scare you or discourage you from taking up an internship in the US. You will find such people anywhere you travel in the world. I believe that you should not let yourself become paranoid and get discouraged from interacting with strangers by such incidents. After all, for each jerk I met, I also met 10 other people who were extremely nice.
PS: Not a good idea to be roaming around alone after hours. Most streets here get completely empty by 10pm.
I find it sad that a lot of students in India look at college as means to get a high paying job and not as an opportunity to find and pursue their passion. Working with the students in my group here, I realized that they were extremely passionate about what they do and it is reflected in their strong work ethic. Perhaps this is because I have been surrounded by mostly graduate students here but I believe this is one area that needs a lot of work starting from a very fundamental level in the education system back in India. I would highly recommend everyone to consider doing a research internship as it helps you gain perspective and broaden your mind.