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Mitali Nanda - Helmholtz Center for Information Security


Mitali Nanda (EP)

Interned at CISPA- Helmholtz Centre for Information Security

Domain: Research in Noise Modelling of Atomic Clocks





Introduction

I am a current 3rd year EP student from Delhi. I interned at the CISPA- Helmholtz Center for Information Security in Saarbrücken, Germany. My internship at CISPA delved into noise modelling of atomic clocks under clock synchronisation. It involved statistical work, data modelling, and analysing the accuracy of assumptions in the utilised models. The project had an intersection between physics and computer science.


Motivation

Research has always intrigued me, and the internship allowed me to explore this field. It helped me discern whether research aligns with my career aspirations. In my second year, I was pursuing Engineering Physics, and I desired to blend my interests in physics and computer science. The prospect of exploring a program based in Germany with a focus on projects related to atomic clocks caught my attention. This particular subject intrigued me, as it was a fusion of both fields I was passionate about. The opportunity to delve deeper into the theories of atomic clocks, a concept I had encountered in my physics courses and labs, but from a computer science perspective, was exhilarating.


Application Process

I didn't mail much for my internship; I preferred applying through programs as the process was much more streamlined. Programs have a set procedure for application and selection, which I felt more comfortable with. My quest for this opportunity began with an online repository that listed various programs. Among these, I came across a program at CISPA that was explicitly meant for South Asians, which instantly caught my eye.

For the application, I submitted the usual prerequisites - a motivation letter, my CV, academic transcripts, and a reference from a professor. The deadline for the application was a potential hiccup. It was January 15, a notably late date for an application deadline, considering that complex visa processes had to be undertaken and responses regarding selection would only be communicated in March. This short window made the visa process slightly challenging.


One notable aspect was the requirement for a professor's recommendation letter. Here, the trick wasn't about seeking a specific reference deeply tied to the project but rather about finding someone who could vouch for my academic prowess. In my case, I approached a professor from a second-year course, someone I had frequently interacted with, who offered me a solid academic recommendation.


I didn't undergo a formal interview for the internship. After applying, I contacted my professor in January, who responded positively to my application and said he liked my profile. Although I did not initiate an interview, it's advisable to contact the professor via email post-portal application, which demonstrates genuine interest and dedication beyond mere application submission.


There weren't significant hiccups in the application. Still, the deadline and the visa process could certainly be an area of concern for future applicants, as even though my professor had said he liked my application, the formal letter of acceptance arrived in March.


Preparation

They know that if you're a second-year bachelor's student, you only have a little prior knowledge, especially a deep understanding of any subject. They don't expect that from you. They ask you to read up about the project sufficiently to get through the entire internship period. You can read up on different topics and learn more about them yourself.

Upon confirmation of my placement in the program, I found myself in a rare scenario where pre-internship groundwork was absent. The internship protocols in Germany demand a signed contract before any engagement in work. Hence, my preparations began upon arrival in Germany, offering unexpected free time beforehand.

Expectations for preliminary work or preparatory studies were minimal, as the professor explicitly stated work assignments once the contract was signed. The initial focus was not on research but on familiarising myself with Germany, its culture, and its language. The foremost challenge was the language barrier, as communication primarily involved the German language. Overcoming this discrepancy was gradual, adapting through a mix of broken German and gestures.


The Internship Experience:

Upon initiating the internship, the overarching experience unfolded over the course of eight to ten weeks in a well-structured yet relaxed manner. I was introduced to the intricacies of this research project under the guidance of a PhD student. Despite the independent nature of my project, I received commendable advice from the PhD student, which significantly streamlined my progress. The onset of the internship was marked by an informal gathering where I was introduced to my professor and the PhD student. This congenial initiation eased the transition into the formal work environment. Subsequently, the atmosphere transpired into a professional setup where I was encouraged to approach the professor or the PhD student for discussions and guidance whenever needed. Their assistance provided invaluable insights and directions for the project.


My PhD advisor was incredibly supportive. I often visited his office with queries. Although our offices were a few buildings apart, I worked in the flex office close to my professors' groups. If we saw each other, we'd occasionally have casual, insightful conversations during lunch, discussing everything from group activities to politics and healthcare. I initially worked alone in my research group. While there were supposed to be interns from Iran and other places, they started later. Towards the end, more interns joined, and we had a great time together.


The journey was a dynamic mix of literature study, data analysis, coding, and thorough discussions. I was encouraged to seek resources and scholarly materials recommended by the PhD student to facilitate a deeper understanding of the subject matter. This amalgamation of self-study and hands-on work assisted in comprehending the theoretical concepts I had encountered earlier and understanding their practical applications in the research realm. The work environment was relatively flexible and lenient, with minimal stringent deadlines. This environment was particularly beneficial for my second-year Bachelor's level expertise. It allowed me to immerse myself in the field without unnecessary pressure or time constraints. It provided a conducive learning environment, fostering an understanding of the subjects and allowing me to comprehend the work at my own pace. Challenges were prevalent, especially when grappling with new concepts that had yet to be covered extensively in my academic courses. The steepest learning curve was overcoming these new, unfamiliar topics and ensuring that I was on the right track. Navigating these uncharted waters took patience, persistence, and a continuous cycle of self-evaluation and guidance from the PhD student.


One notable incident involved a roadblock toward the completion of the project. Toward the end of my tenure, an expected result became inconclusive due to contrasting findings in the hypothesis tests. It was a significant challenge that needed resolution. However, the PhD student's guidance and encouragement to tackle complex problems in the research field were particularly valuable, as they enlightened me on the inherent uncertainties and detours research might encounter. Regrettably, post-internship continuity with the project was impeded by my academic commitments and the PhD student's obligations. Nonetheless, the overall internship tenure provided an illuminating, hands-on encounter with the intricacies of research. It was not just a professional journey but also a personally enriching experience, fostering growth on multiple fronts.


Amid the academic rigour of the German internship, I discovered several enjoyable and enriching experiences beyond scholarly pursuits. Exploring the European lifestyle was a highlight, offering glimpses into various cultures and architectural wonders. Solo trips to places like Paris and Strasbourg unveiled diverse experiences and histories that fostered personal and academic growth. Encounters with different locales broadened my perspective and nurtured a profound understanding of global nuances. Experiencing various cultures went beyond relaxation; it was a conduit for enlightenment, weaving a vivid tapestry of insights and learnings.


Key Takeaways and Learnings:

1. Independence and Adaptability: The experience ingrained in me the resilience and adaptability needed to navigate a new environment independently. It taught me to embrace and learn from cultural differences and language barriers, fostering personal growth.

2. Research and Academic Understanding: This internship deepened my understanding of the research process, demonstrating how it's okay not to achieve expected results and how to learn from those experiences. The hands-on engagement taught me more than theoretical knowledge could ever encapsulate.

3. Holistic Growth: It wasn't just academic but also about embracing life experiences. Travelling, exploring, and embracing different cultures added a new dimension to my academic pursuit.


Advice to Juniors:

For those seeking similar opportunities or contemplating a research internship, I'd like to offer some advice:

1. Open-mindedness: Embrace new experiences. Research internships provide exposure to diverse facets. Even if it seems theoretical or different from what you're accustomed to, it's a chance to explore, learn, and grow.

2. Persistence and Resilience: The application process might be arduous, and results may take time. Stay persistent, send regular follow-ups, and continue to build your profile with relevant experiences.

3. Preparation is Key: Before starting your internship, request reading materials or suggested resources from your mentor. This will better equip you for the tasks ahead.

4. Engage with Advisors: Don't hesitate to ask questions or seek help from your advisors. Open communication and discussions can significantly aid your understanding of the subject matter.

5. Embrace Unexpected Outcomes: Research only sometimes leads to anticipated results. Don't be disheartened; it's part of the learning curve. Embrace the unexpected outcomes and use them as learning opportunities.

6. Stay Open to Research: The internship experience might pave the way for a future in research. Keep an open mind; it might ignite a passion or change in your career trajectory.

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