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Soumya Prakash Behera

I spent my entire childhood in Bhubaneswar, a very quiet city in the heart of Odisha. Life there is laid back and goes at an easy pace. I enjoy problem-solving and have always found joy in getting to know the science behind the day to day phenomenon. That fueled my ultimate dream of getting into India’s most prestigious colleges. My parents would tell me that life gets easy once you crack IIT. I think you all know now how easy life actually is (sarcasm intended).

My first semester at IIT was really fun. I remember spending may nights exploring different extracurricular activities. A lot of these nights were spent just taking long walks or cycling around in the campus after dinner, playing CS GO or watching movies on DC++. One thing I always wanted to try in IIT was Robotics, so by the end of my first semester, I joined the robotics club. The pace of work was breathtaking! Just two months in and we were able to build a robot and participate in technical fest at IIT-B. I enjoyed most of my courses in my first year. The problem solving brought back some memories of JEE preparation, I won’t lie.

Most of my memories from the second year are from the Robotics club where I spent a lot of my time. We spend numerous hours working on robots for the annual ROBOCON competition. I really enjoyed the small family we built in the club which made the night-outs so much fun. The event took us for a memorable week-long trip to Pune. Although I had a great love for robotics, I really wanted to try out the research field. I was intrigued by the research in Physics but having no prior experience or coursework it felt difficult at first.

In the summer after my second year, I got a chance to pursue an internship at a biomolecular NMR lab at Australian National University (ANU). This was my first encounter with a quantum mechanics application and also the first time the things taught to us in PYL100 actually made sense (sorry not sorry). Due to my limited time with the lab, I mostly worked with a senior lab member helping her in her project and sticking to the data analysis part. This was also my first time outside India and it was as if the solo-travel part became a thing for me. Taking some time away from my work I would explore new cities and treks over the weekends.

The fifth semester was not happening. I enjoyed the chemical engineering courses and at the same time continued working on projects at the robotics club. I felt I should devote more time to research to be sure that I wanted to pursue a career in that direction after my undergrad. I had an offer for a semester-long internship from my previous lab at ANU. The coming five months I got to work on two different projects, the sheer application of the projects was enough to keep me motivated throughout and I really started enjoying research. Unlike my last trip, this time I had more time to explore the “countryside” that Australia had to offer. I went on long drives across the east coast of the country with my roommates.

After working on a biological application of NMR, in the summer following the internship at ANU I visited a lab at UC Berkeley where they used some basic quantum mechanical techniques coupled with optics to develop a new physical technique. My experience at the robotics club helped me a lot in getting aligned with the group. The internships had convinced me by then that I wanted to pursue a career in an intersection of physics and biology, more specifically using physical techniques to understand biological processes.

My seventh semester at IIT was by far the best I spent in the campus. This semester I took some amazing DE’s and OC’s, which coupled with the BTP kept me busy all day, but it was fun as I enjoyed the work I was doing. Towards the end of the semester, I took a difficult decision of not sitting for the placements and wholeheartedly following the path of research. The eighth semester kept me occupied with all the core courses and labs that I missed because of my semester internship. I grew jealous of my friends in the hostel chilling all day because they had their placement offers and one or two courses to do. However, I will always remember this semester as when we made that mandatory Goa trip “possible” during the mid-semester break.

While I had decided to apply to graduate studies, I felt like I had only two strong recommendations out of the three required that could vouch for me to get into a good biophysics program. This was you could say a low for me, and I started looking for RA opportunities. Luckily, my field of interest matched with the work going on in a lab at Harvard Medical School who invited me to work with them from the summer. I also realized that I need to spend a considerable amount of time from May to November so that I can get a good recommendation when I apply for grad school in December. This was a problem as I still had an HUL course which I needed to complete in the summer to get my degree in time. Unsure about where the paths in front of me would lead, I finally chose to take a risk by extending my degree by a year.

The next eight months were unforgettable. The lab at Harvard gave me very interesting projects where I was required to use my engineering skills to develop techniques for studying large protein systems. This time around I had company of four people from IITD who were also visiting Harvard for their summer interns. Together we explored a lot of places in the US, taking some time to cook or going shopping over the weekends. The last few months in the US brought in challenges, working all day in the lab and then spending nights in the library prepping for GRE and putting points together for the SOP. Into the mix was writing a first-authored paper for submission. The pressure brought out the best in me. My hard work paid off at the end, I got an offer for admission from Johns Hopkins University.

Getting back from the US my final semester at IIT, I am doing some interesting courses in this time, taking some nights exploring street food in Delhi and using the long weekends to hit the hills up north. Everything was going good before the coronavirus pandemic kicked in.

My journey at IIT has not all been a smooth ride, it was marked by a few difficult times. By the end of my third year after the sem intern in Australia, when I decided to pursue a career in research, I didn’t have a well enough GPA for getting into the top tier grad schools. Having completed almost two-third of my course required for my degree, the denominator of the fraction was heavy. It really took me great perseverance to get my GPA to the “athi” checkpoint.

The people, more than anything make IIT a very special place for me. They always act as your best support web during your lows. I still remember people who had just 2-3 courses those last to semesters waking me up in the morning or from an afternoon nap a week before the exams, asking me to study. Kicking me out of a PUBG match when I had played one-two games or giving me long sentiaap speeches when I missed a class. I can’t remember anyone who didn’t support my decision of not sitting for the placements, to extend my degree for a year and go for that 8 months intern at Harvard. I think it is this fearless way of approaching any career path which is a great takeaway for everyone leaving IIT.

Finally, the Chemical Engineering Department. Although most people graduating choose to follow a career in non-ChemE field, we can all agree that the coursework we did here are in some form helpful. Same is true for my field. It will not be wrong to say that it is the most supportive dept in IIT, the way they encouraged and supported me in every step during my time here is what I will always remember.

Signing Off,

Soumya Prakash Behera Chemical Engineering, IITD '20

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