Purdue Research Intern
I am Debanjali Chatterjee, a final year undergraduate (B.Tech). In my third year summers I interned at Purdue University as part of the Purdue Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) program. This article gives an overview of how I got this internship and my experience during those two months.
Pre-Internship season prep:
In my sophomore year summers, I interned at JNCASR. This, coupled with my experience at the national camp for IJSO in high school formed the basis of my decision to pursue research as a career. I found core mechanical engineering courses very interesting, specially thermodynamics and fluid mechanics in my second year and later heat transfer in my third year. At JNCASR, I worked on obtaining the phase diagram of a Lennard-Jones fluid through Direct Numerical Simulation (DNS). These two factors made me choose computational TFE as my dominant research area (with emphasis on fluids and heat transfer). I also wanted my work to not be purely theoretical but having significant practical importance. The experience I gained in numerical modelling and computation at JNCASR was the most important factor which helped me secure my third year internship at Purdue.
I secured my internship through the PT cell. I had signed IAFs for MITACS and PURE and was selected in both. MITACS selection is a long-drawn process which starts in September. There are 2700-odd projects to choose from on their portal, of which 7 have to be selected and ranked according to one’s preference. This along with one LOR and answers to some short questions (why research, why MITACS) form the first step of the application. The next step comprises being interviewed by professors given in the 7 preferences (November-December), or being waitlisted (these students may be called for interviews, but at a later stage). Based on the interviews, selection/rejection is announced by January. The selection process for PURE is much simpler: Fill out the application form with prof/project preferences and submit with CV and SOP. No LOR, no interviews. Applications open in November and the results are out by January.
Interview prep: The most important thing to be kept in mind for an interview is to be extremely thorough with the points mentioned in your resume. You should be clear about the work done in your projects and have sound knowledge on the fundamental principles used so that you can answer any questions the Prof has about your work. Your presentation should be clear, to-the-point and easily understandable. Also, at the end of the interview, remember to ask a relevant/intriguing question when the Prof asks “Do you have any questions”. This shows an interest in the Prof’s work on the student’s part.
SOP: Write about what motivated you to get into research, your areas of interest and why you’re interested in them, why do you want to get an internship under that particular prof (& univ), what are your qualities that you feel will make you a good researcher and how will your contribution be beneficial to the university and scientific community as a whole. Try to connect all these points logically and keep the entire write-up within one page (applications often have word limits for SOPs).
**Some tips: **
- When selecting profs, go through their major publications and note down the points that you found intriguing in them. You can mention these points in your SOP and also ask them questions on these if called for an interview. Profs appreciate this because it shows that the student has done his homework and is genuinely interested in their work.
- In PURE, the applications are sent out to all the professors in the department and not just the ones preferred by the student (this is what happens in Purdue ME). Often, students are selected by professors who they had not opted for (this happened in my case and with a few of my PURE co-interns as well). In such a situation, it is a good idea to go through the prof’s website, look up a few of his major publications to get an idea of his work and email him/her requesting to give an idea of the work he/she has in mind for you. My prof was kind enough to schedule a phone call where he clearly explained what work he expected from me. Looking at the applications, professors have a much better idea which student will be suitable to work under their guidance than us when we fill out our preferences in the application form, hence it’s best to trust their judgement.
- On receiving the selection email, do email the prof thanking him for selecting you and mention that you’re looking forward to working with him/her. Few weeks before the internship begins, ask the prof if there is any prior reading/preparation required on your part. This conveys interest on the student’s part and helps build a good impression on the prof.
I worked under the guidance of Prof. Partha Mukherjee at the Energy and Transport Sciences Lab (ETSL). Induction into the internship program: We were a group of 5 interns who worked at ETSL last summer. A week before the internship began, sir sent all of us some preliminary reading material and the location of the Flex Lab where we would work. Each of us was assigned a peer mentor, a PhD student who would guide us, and the work plan for each intern was clearly chalked out even before we reached there. On the first day, we had an orientation programme by the PURE organizing committee. We were shown around campus and also got to meet and interact with other students of the PURE cohort (from IITM and IITH). Later in the day we were given a formal presentation by Heidi, the head of the PURE program (free pizza too!). There were talks by several people about life on campus in general. Everyone was so welcoming and helpful and they were ready to answer even the silliest of our questions (At the end of all the presentations and talks, Heidi sat with all 35 of us and answered our questions like “can we drink tap water directly?”, which you can, btw. It was one of the many culture shocks we faced!). The next day, we got to meet Prof. Mukherjee at Flex Lab. Conner, a PhD student, took us on a lab tour where he showed us the variety of experiments being conducted. We also met our peer mentors and discussed in detail about our projects and the work output expected from us. Work: Prof. Mukherjee’s group at ETSL works on understanding the fundamental processes involved in energy storage and conversion, specifically the material-transport-interface interactions and coupling of reactive transport phenomena with electrochemical kinetics, and applying this knowledge to improve the performance of clean energy sources such as Lithium ion batteries and fuel cells. My work last summer was to develop a machine learning model to characterize the transport properties (porosity, tortuosity and conductivity) of porous battery electrodes. While transport properties have traditionally been characterized using finite volume DNS, this process takes a lot of time. The ML approach allows much faster prediction of these properties. I had no prior experience in Machine Learning, in fact, I was afraid to delve into this field initially. But I took it up as a challenge and the following two months became the greatest learning experience of my life till date. I had two peer mentors: Navneet (a PhD student) and Mukul sir (a post-doc) who were extremely helpful. The three of us sat together and brainstormed over several ideas and their implementation for hours together. Using ML for transport property prediction has started very recently, often we didn’t have readymade solutions to our queries. We made changes to the model and figured things out by actually trying out our hypotheses. My peer mentors took into account my views and opinions with equal importance, which made me become more responsible. Once we spent all day trying to fix a glitch in our code. It was late evening, so Navneet asked me to go home, saying that he would try again that night. When I woke up the next morning, I found an email from him sent at 3:30 am with the corrected code attached and a note “Fixed the code. Now use this to crop the images and start training the model.” To this day, this incident reminds me to work with as much dedication as him, if not more. Lab atmosphere & interaction with colleagues: Prof Mukherjee’s lab group is huge: there are around 20 students pursuing their PhD/Masters. All of them are highly motivated and dedicated to the work they do, creating a conducive environment for ground-breaking research. We had lab group meetings every Friday where we presented updates on our progress and a final presentation at the ETSL summer minisymposium. In these meetings, we got inputs from everyone, including the prof. One particularly memorable event was getting to witness a Master’s thesis defense. That gave us a very good idea of the quality and quantity of research we’re expected to perform during our time in grad school. We had interesting discussions with Bairav, Venkatesh, Sobana, Navneet and Sushmita about work and life as a grad student in general. I remember Daniel who was a PhD student from Mexico, but essentially half-Indian because he loves Indian food and is a die-hard fan of Hindi movies. He told me he planned to watch DDLJ as a reward after completing his PhD! Prof. Mukherjee is one of a kind. He’s extremely busy and often had to travel for conferences etc., but whenever he was in lab, he made it a point to talk to each one of us, not only about work but also about life in general. Every Monday he used to ask me “what did you cook this weekend?” We had some really interesting discussions with him, ranging from his love for Harley-Davidson bikes to how one could overcome a “writer’s block” situation in grad school. He even invited us over for dinner at his place! Sir shared some interesting “one-liners” too: “Oh you’re getting NaNs? That means you’re close. Keep going.” His words motivated all of us to work harder and give our best to our projects. While this was all about ETSL, we got to interact with students from other labs too. The major highlight of this was the concluding ceremony where all students in the PURE cohort presented their work through elevator-pitch presentations.This exposed us to the diversified research being carried out in several fields ranging from engineering to basic sciences with one single goal: improving the quality of human life in a sustainable manner, in harmony with nature.
Travelling to the USA for my first trip abroad was a dream come true. I couldn’t explore much of this country within the short duration and with heavy workload, but whatever I saw is unforgettable, something to be cherished for a lifetime. Purdue campus is beautiful. Wide roads and pavements, gardens with lush green grass and brown sloping-roofed buildings create a picturesque scenery, the bright blue sky adding to the beauty. You might also find a squirrel or two hurriedly crossing the road! We visited several places close by in Lafayette. These include the Colombian Park and Zoo, Wolf Park and the Tippecanoe war memorial (which we visited on Memorial Day). The Wabash Heritage Trail along the Wabash river was a treat to the eyes. We also enjoyed going to the Mosey Down Main festival which had live performances by street artists and music bands, lots of food and shops selling several things like clothes, earrings, wall hangings and other decorative items. On July 4th, Prof Mukherjee invited me and my co-interns to join his family for dinner. We had a wonderful time and later we watched fireworks over the Wabash river! Chicago stole my heart. The skyline that showed up as we entered just blew my mind away. Next on the list was Lake Michigan. I had never seen water so blue and clear, and certainly did not expect that in a city! Chicago’s famous deep dish pizza for lunch followed by sightseeing at Millenium Park and Buckingham fountain, The Bean, strolling along the Chicago Lakefront all the way to the Navy Pier and back… crossing over from Swami Vivekananda way (and feeling proud to be an Indian) to enter into Downtown, gazing up at the skyscrapers… ending the day travelling to the top of the Willis tower (103 storeys up in 1 min!), watching the sunset from the skydeck and nighttime Chicago unfold below, dazzling with lights… all this will remain etched in my memory forever.
Takeaways and future plans:
I consider this internship at Purdue to be an extremely important event in my life. In addition to allowing me to push my limits, taking up new challenges and realizing my potential, it has directly carved a way into my future plan of higher studies. I will be pursuing my PhD at ETSL under Prof. Mukherjee’s guidance starting Fall 2020. My experience during those two months was essentially a glimpse into what life as a grad student is like and I really enjoyed it. I am ready to take up this challenge as well and give my best to it.