Virginia Tech Workplace

Virginia Tech – Nikhil Bapat

I feel glad to share my experience as a visiting Research Summer Intern at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, commonly known as Virginia Tech or VT situated in Blacksburg, Virginia in the United States of America. I will be sharing my overall experience and will try to do my best describing the selection procedure, logistics of getting here, my research work, life of a researcher in Theoretical/Computational Chemistry and life in general in the States and in Blacksburg.

I recently finished my third year studying under 4 year BS Chemistry program at IITB.
I write this article as I spend a cloudy afternoon with a beautiful view of Burruss Hall at the infamous Drillfield (an enormous grass field) situated at the heart of the campus (attached pic below).

Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech

Selection Procedure

Professor T. Daniel Crawford has been taking in Summer interns from IITB since more than 4 years now via the official Internship Cell. I applied for the same on 1st Nov 2017 by signing in with my Resume. A skype interview was scheduled for the short-listed applicants with Prof. Crawford on 7th Jan 2018 and I was glad to receive my final acceptance within the next few days.

Skype interview

Prof. Crawford is very professional and an expert in theoretical chemistry. The interview wasn’t too long and I started off with talking about my interest in science and research in general. I hadn’t had experience in research in Chemistry before but I had a strong inclination towards Quantum Science along with interest in programming and shared my knowledge on the subject based on the bunch of courses I had took. I also talked about my experience working on an Astrophysics project I took as part of an Additional Learning Course which I think was also helpful towards my selection.

Work

I am working at a theorist lab at the Davidson Hall building with all the other Theoretical/Computational Chemists of the Department. The lab is unlike any other Chemistry lab since we don’t deal with Wet Chemistry. All of our work is on computers and involves working out algorithms, writing programs which execute quantum chemical theories and run computations for various quantum chemical models, and, in the end, inferring computed results by comparing with experimental results/known data.

Prof. Crawford (or crawdad) and his team (crawkids as we like to call it) focuses on using Coupled Cluster Theory to evaluate and speculate Specific Rotational values (chiroptical properties) for different Chiral compounds. Their team along with some other universities developed PSI4, an ab-initio Quantum Chemistry software. Along with PSI4, we also use the popular quantum computational software Gaussian for some of our calculations.

My project in specific focuses on calculating vibrational contributions & related correction factors to optical rotation using Coupled Cluster Theory and Density Functional Theory in rigid organic molecules (starting with methyl oxirane and 22 other similarly structured chiral compounds).

Virginia Tech provides with excellent infrastructure for all of these computations along with a great working space (with free coffee :D) for all the Chemistry theorists. (see attached pic)

Virginia Tech Workplace
Virginia Tech Workplace

Starting off as an undergraduate intern with all the other PhD researchers is surely intimidating. With the help of senior researchers and a specifically designed programming assignment projects series you learn to work your way through the coding used in the computations. The projects start off at a very basic level where you read various input files, calculate simple geometric properties like bond lengths/angles/torsional angles etc and later on to iteratively calculate and optimize energies using Self-Consistent Field procedure of the Hartree-Fock theory. The projects are all based on C++ but you can choose to do it in any other programming language as well.

IITB Courses Relevant/Useful to the field of work include :

  1. PH107 (Basics of quantum science)
  2. CS101 (Basics of Programming)
  3. CH107 (Using quantum science to represent atomic and molecular models)
  4. CH425 (Takes CH107 a few steps forward)
  5. Others useful topics: Matrices and Linear Algebra, Calculus (MA106, MA108), Computational Chemistry (CH504)

Work Life

A usual working day would have me get ready by 9:30 and work from 10AM to 5-6PM. There is no time constraint as such and everyone in lab works on their on own time. But I found it most useful to match my timings with other PhD students so that I could reach out to them for any help.

All the chemists have immense knowledge in quantum chemistry and programming and there’s always plenty to learn from them. There are around 5-6 Indian PhD students in the lab as well including 2 graduates from our very own IITB.

I made friends instantly with all of the lab-mates and we have parties for birthdays and celebrations and even movie nights. The environment here is a work hard – party hard type which is amazing.

I usually take the transit bus to go to the lab. They are the most convenient and all rides are free once you get a Virginia Tech ID (aka Hokie Passport). I also got a bicycle from a friend here to get around and explore the beautiful campus.

Life in Blacksburg and places to visit nearby

Alright, the fun part of the article is here. To state the obvious, life in US is somehow different in almost every aspect when I compare it with India. Since it was my first trip abroad I was having some trouble getting to know the way things function around here but nonetheless it was an interesting experience. I love talking to people here and to know more about their culture and society. Blacksburg is a very small town and is completely university-centralized. I live around 2 km away from the university area which is in fact considered far from the campus.
People in Blacksburg are extremely kind and helping. I cannot say the same for the other big towns in the US (speaking out of experience). 😛

Blacksburg is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful towns I’ve seen. Summertime brings extremely pleasant weather with occasional rains. The campus is lush green with spaced out huge archaic type buildings. The Lane stadium, duck pond, golf course, horticulture department are some of the most scenic places on the campus.

The town also gets really empty during the summers since all university students are usually away home or gone for an internship. Hence its a good idea to plan outings for the weekends. Virginia is the perfect place for going hiking as it contains a major stretch of the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountain range. There are at least 5 to 6 amazing hiking destinations nearby Blacksburg with breathtaking views. I hiked with my co-workers to Cascades, Barney’s Wall and Dragon’s Tooth within the last month and plan on going on more hikes soon!

Chilling at Barney’s Wall cliff
Chilling at Barney’s Wall cliff

Washington DC and New York are nearest big towns along the East Coast. Other interesting places to visit include Virginia Beach City and Charlottesville. I also visited DC for an impromptu solo-trip which turned out to be an amazing experience. I plan to visit other places soon. You can book and live in a hostel (shared bunk beds with foreign internationals) or book an airbnb. I also made use of Airbnb experiences and facebook events which is another great way to meet new people and find interesting events happening around you like hiking/surfing/arts/music/parties/bar-crawls/museums/festivals etc.

Post a hike along Anacostia river in Washington DC
Post a hike along Anacostia river in Washington DC

Overall Experience

I feel fortunate to have had this opportunity to experience research culture before graduating and it will play a crucial role to help me choose my career ahead after graduation. At the same it gave me a chance to independently explore a foreign country.

Key learning outcomes for me include knowledge and exposure to research culture in theoretical chemistry in US, and also to the infamous American lifestyle.

After having spent a month I feel motivated to learn as much as I can during my remaining stay here and also to travel and explore other places of the world in future.

Feel free to reach out to me on facebook for any logistical queries about traveling/living/VISA in US or to hear other uncensored stories 😛

Thanks for reading. 🙂

Nikhil Bapat
15B030025
Final Year Undergraduate
Department of Chemistry
IIT Bombay

2 years ago