Malavika - Indiana University

Confessions of a very confused person

Namaste people. I am Malavika, a to-be final year student (🥲) in the Physics Department. I am currently doing a research internship with Prof. Srinivasan Iyengar at Indiana University. In order for you to understand why and how I ended up here, there are a few things that you, dear reader, should know about me.

Star Trek III: The Search for Projects

When I first joined IITB, I knew I wanted to ultimately do a PhD in Physics. The logic was simple: I loved physics, hated engineering, and would never sell my soul to the corporate world. I was the starry eyed (pun intended) freshie, who’s only exposure to astro was a couple of lectures at IISER Mohali, and Hawking’s “Brief history of time”. Physics was fun, exciting, and I was convinced that I was meant to discover the mysteries of the Universe.

Fast forward to September 2021; I had never been so confused in my life. EP wasn't all that I thought it would be. You're constantly surrounded by brilliant people, and sometimes, that isn’t very reassuring for your academic self esteem. So while my classmates were applying to research programs and scholarships, I was putting off my decisions because I was sort of unsure about whether I was “cut out” for academia. And a non-core intern would make it easier to score a non-core job during placements, should I need one. So I half heartedly signed an IAF for Capital Group, while also keeping an eye out for other research internship opportunities coming my way. Most of my friends had already started apping, but I wasn’t even sure about what area I wanted to work in so I didn’t start. And surfing through Mitac’s website didn’t yield any interesting projects so I was in a limbo (getting an internship in astrophysics, cosmology, or high energy physics is not a very easy ordeal. Unless you have a DAAD scholarship, because most good project groups in these fields are in Germany. you still have to app for those tho).

I think around that time I found that I wasn’t short-listed for interviews by Capital Group, to my relief. So I decided to fuck it and focus on finding a research internship. Ultimately, I liked working on my projects; and even if I wasn’t the best in class, I was still very very interested in research. I also decided to expand the areas in physics that I would like to work in. So when this IAF came through the PT Cell, I was already on the Indiana University website, looking at research groups that I thought were interesting, and going through their recent publications. I found a project that uses quantum computing to solve hard chemistry problems, and that sounded perfect. So I filled out the form, sent in my résumé and signed the IAF. QC is something that I hadn’t really explored before (the MnP workshop doesn’t count) but it seemed like the project involved quite a lot of quantum mechanics and overlapped with areas like nuclear physics and computer science. Most of my other projects that I had worked on were in astrophysics so I really didn’t know whether I would love this project but I thought I should apply and see what happens. Worst case: I will find that I don’t like QIC so at least I will be able to cross out that area when looking for a PhD. Having convinced myself that the summer would be the best time to figure out my shit, I set forth on the path of my choosing— a little more relaxed.

I was called for an interview with Prof. Srini subsequently, and I had a fun time. We talked about quantum computing, his research group, and my future plans, and I made sure that he knew I was an open book and just wanted to learn. It was more of a conversation than an interview. I then forgot about the IAF and the interview and started making a database of all the universities and professors that I could apply to. I found out in early November that I had been selected to work with Prof. Srini, so I was thankful and relieved that the search for an internship had ended, and that I don’t actually have to app now. And that I got the internship ofc.

The Intern

My project started way before I arrived in the US, and will continue way after I leave this country. I already sort of told y’all what the project was about but I’ll just summarise it in a few short sentences.
Some chemical systems have quantum effects that are confusing and weird and we want to know what’s going on. To do that you need to solve the Schrödinger’s equation using a computer but for really complex systems, the computational power required to solve that is too much. One of the alternatives is to use a quantum computer. My lab uses an ion-trap quantum simulator to map the Hamiltonian of the chemical system to the Hamiltonian of the ion trap. Its a fairly new way of doing things so I am sort of working on trying to find solutions to some chemically complex systems. The people in my lab are very friendly and helpful and made sure that I understood stuff and was comfortable with everything. The professor also takes an active role in the group and we have regular work update sessions, and free pizzas. Overall, the work was quite new to me so I alternated between gaining theoretical understanding of various aspects of quantum dynamics, and also working on the aforementioned problem, which was very computational in nature. During the first few weeks, Prof. Srini asked me what I wanted from this internship and what I expect to gain from this project. At that time, I told him that I wanted to learn and work on something new, and that I didn’t really expect a publication in two months. I think working without that expectation allowed me to broaden my horizons and work on a lot of different things at the same time. Moreover, although that was never the goal, I do have a paper on the horizon. If you’re still here and still want to read this to the end, be my guest. If you had wanted to just know about the technical aspects of my internship, this is a good place to stop. Bye bye.

IU campus is beautiful, in sort of a Prague meets Chandigarh way. I had a really fun time roaming around the woods, picking fights with some obnoxious squirrels, and revelling in the downtown life. My roommates and I joined this hiking discord server and we enjoyed being picked up by strangers and trampling about in the woods around Bloomington. I convinced my aforementioned roommates to try online dating and friendship making and we’ve met and hung out with pretty interesting people that way. I started cooking for myself and I was surprised that I was actually a decent cook. And during the longer weekends, we had plenty of opportunities to travel to other places in the US. We spent 4th July in NY and that was the most amazing experience that I ever had in this country. I’m right now finishing this article in a casino in Vegas. So yeah that was the good stuff. The bad stuff I guess would be dealing with junkies in the public busses and being afraid you’d be shot in the most random places (recent events had not helped with that fear). Fortunately, Bloomington is a safe, blue, college town where most misdemeanours happen to be underage drinking (👀). No one has been shot here afaik, and the junkies mostly keep to themselves. All is well as long as you’re smart about your surroundings.

So yeah that’s about it. I had a fun time overall and I don’t regret anything. I do think it was a good idea to try out this new field because it opened lots of different doors to lots of different areas of research. I’ve discovered that research is something that I love. And that while grades certainly help in their own way, they’re not a measure of whether or not you’re cut out for research. The experience that I had here is incomparable. Living on my own has certainly made me more confident in myself, my capabilities and my resilience towards the shit that comes at me. I won’t say that I’m completely certain of my life goals and paths, but I am less scared of the uncertainty. And that is more than enough for me.

(I’d just like to add a little more stuff for anyone who is inclined to the American way of things. US public transport system sucks so if you’re there for 5 years get a car (unless you’re one of those people who hike everywhere in which case gg); google map works so there’s no need to memorise the topography of the country; veggies are boring don’t eat them raw or boiled, ew. Despite the sucky transport system, don’t be afraid to travel. Get out there, have some fun, enjoy overcrowded stinky cities because frankly they have the best stuff to do. And you’ll be fucking blown away by the magnitude of opportunities that await you)
In the end, remember that your hot girl summer isn't manifested by where you’re at, but rather what you make of it.