Arhan Sayyed (CH7)
Interned at UNSW
Domain: Research in FTIR Spectroscopy
I had a research worm in my mind. My love for organic chemistry started back in the JEE time. I used to find myself so engrossed in the subject that I used to forget that I was studying for some exam. Even in IIT, I enjoyed organic chemistry a lot when studying CML, but I didn't get to do much research on it. So, I thought of applying for a research internship at some university. I started cold-emailing professors from various universities whose research areas aligned with my field of interest, and after the whole process, I got this internship at UNSW.
The process of application and preparation for the intern:
There are two general methods; the first is through structured programs, but they generally come with higher CGPA requirements, like 8 or 8.5. My CGPA did not pass those criteria, so I thought of cold mailing the professors, as I had some experience in the field. After my first year, I worked under Professor Vikram Singh, the coordinator of the Chemical Engineering Society, on a topic similar to my research intern one. I knew how to use two software, Matlab and Origin Labs, primarily used in research. I also had a good grasp of pandas and matplotlib in Jupyter Notebook.
Then, I made a pointwise CV, started mailing it to potential mentors, and gave them timely reminders. I didn't use any software; I did it manually. I used to go to the page and study their projects. If they aligned with my interests, I sent them personalised emails. I had mailed approximately 25 emails every day from mid-November to mid-January.
There is often a CG barrier for foreign research internships; for example, the institute I applied to had it as 7, but then they considered me in light of my past experiences and the Letter Of Recommendation from Prof. Vikram Singh. They prefer candidates with well-rounded experience rather than just a CGPA.
First, when I mailed my Professor, it started like a typical conversation. He asked, "Why do you want to do it?" Then I explained that I had been interested in organic chemistry since my 9th standard when I started studying it. I used to study Solomon and Fryhle during my JEE time, so I already had a deeper foundation of the subject in my mind. Subsequently, he took my interview. Initially, he asked some specific questions, and once he was satisfied with my answers, we moved on to a call. I faced an interview panel that had my Professor, who was the Head of The Department of Chemistry, and an Assistant Professor. The questions from the Assistant Professor were mostly HR-oriented and focused more on my motivation. The HOD mainly asked questions about my background and my practical experiences. For example, I was applying for chemistry research, but I had a C in CML. My Professor enquired about the same in the interview. I justified it by explaining that I had devoted equal time to a wide variety of topics within the field of Chemistry rather than just focusing on some specific topics that could have yielded me higher marks.
The Internship: Apprehensions, Experiences, and Takeaways
My University provided me with almost everything, like travel, accommodation, and meals. I was just left with my personal travel expenses.
With a specific research target, I made a well-structured plan for the nine weeks there. I collaborated with my Professor to decide my tasks for each week, taking the expected workload and my productivity into account. I used to discuss my work with my Professor and text him every Friday or Saturday. My task was to use the FTIR spectroscopy technique to estimate the presence of some specific molecules in the atmosphere. I was efficient enough to complete my desired work in 4 to 5 days rather than the projected 6 or 7 days, which gave me the luxury of having my Saturdays and Sundays accessible.
Being in Sydney, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, I took full advantage of my surroundings. I regularly visited the beach on weekends. Its distance from my room felt as close as Kumaon and Kailash. I also enjoyed being a part of weekend gatherings and parties. It could be the Friday parties in the office, or by some friend on the Saturdays.
Throughout my work, I was supported by a Ph.D. student, a laboratory assistant, and an assistant professor, who helped in case of any doubts or difficulties. Still, if I needed help to solve my doubts, I had direct access to my Professor. I have seen a significant difference in the system at IIT. While PhD students are present, you have to be in constant touch with the professors and interact with them alongside the PhD students. At UNSW, there was no continuous touch with the Professor. There used to be a weekly meeting for the updates.
Another noticeable difference was the diverse accents of the people I worked with. My Ph.D. was an Australian, my assistant professor was from the UK, and the Professor was also heavily Australian. Also, the undergraduate Supervisor was Chinese. Synchronising with these took some time.
My Professor had a unique style of mentoring. He often told me this work would take five days, giving me six to complete. His approach was rooted in the belief that one should not just work for the deadline, but one should love what they are doing. He encouraged me to put my heart and soul into the work by giving me more time. I recall when I did not get my results on Friday, so I continued working on Saturday. My Supervisor then called the Professor and told him about my dedication; the Professor drove from home to the campus, took me to the beach, and said that the most important thing was that I had given my best efforts regardless of the immediate results.
Challenges, learnings, and suggestions
When applying for a research internship, it is crucial to understand that the primary focus should be research, not leisure. Now, if touring and exploring is your priority, you will be underprepared for the research internships. I never prioritised touring, but I had a specific research goal.
So, the first step is to choose a research intern you are genuinely interested in. I advise taking a research internship only if you are genuinely interested. The research work may get challenging sometimes, and if you are not interested, your experience won't be fulfilling. While most professors are flexible with deadlines, frequent delays may lead to frustration. Initially, I had extended lab hours, accomplishing very little and observing the surroundings.
One of the significant takeaways from the research internship was learning to survive in a foreign country or city. I gained valuable experience with the city's transportation systems and developed the confidence to navigate new environments.
Regarding the stipend, you have to set clear expectations after the interview, after you are sure that the Professor wants you. You must demonstrate yourself as capable, motivated, and, if possible, experienced so that the Professor thinks of investing in you. For example, In my case, my Professor didn't pay for my flight tickets beforehand. Instead, he offered me a task. If I completed that task, he would reimburse my travel expenses and Visa charges.
The other thing to understand is that a research internship is more challenging than everyone calls it. For instance, in my fourth week, I encountered difficulties obtaining my experiment's results. I spent most of the time troubleshooting the problem. I brainstormed throughout the whole weekend to identify the issue and rectify that. I had to complete that on time so it would not affect my work for the following weeks. Being in a foreign country added another layer of complexity to my problem. I could have been better with the different accents at that time, and even my assistant professor could not provide an immediate solution as the issue was new. So, don't expect it to be very smooth. There would be times when there would be ups and downs in the entire internship with you if you are going at an excellent and challenging project.