Once Upon A Summer – Interning in California


This series is an attempt to capture the memorable experiences of students who have spent their summer doing interesting work. It has evolved from our previous series – ‘Internship Stories’ – to accommodate summer stories apart from those on conventional research or industrial internships. Find all the articles of the series here.


(Adarsh Tadimari and Saikanth Dacha share their experience of interning a summer abroad in California and what they learnt from it.)


 “A foreign internship is an experience by itself. If given a choice, I would do it all over again.”

– Adarsh Tadimari, [Intern at Viterbi School of Engineering in the University of Southern California (USC), Los Angeles]


There are two scholarships through which one can intern at USC, one is the SN Bose program and the other is the Viterbi-India program. While the SN Bose program allows the scholars to intern at any of the US universities, the Viterbi-India program is specific to USC. I was selected through the latter. Based on CGPA and the Statement of purpose, around 20 students from various colleges in India (4 from insti) are selected each year. You stand a very good chance of getting through the program if your CGPA is above 9.


Participants of the Viterbi-India Programme 2015
Participants of the Viterbi-India Programme 2015


I worked at the Signal Analysis and Interpretation Lab under Professor Shrikanth Narayanan. The group had published at least 70 papers in 2014. One of the research topics being studied by the group was analysis of movies. Some of the students in the lab formed a subgroup (code named MICA for Media Informatics and Content Analysis) and tried to answer various questions one might have about movies and their success; “Is there a gender bias in movies? Do men dominate the screen time in movies?”, “What makes a movie successful?”, etc. During the 9 weeks of my stay, this was the subgroup I worked with. My job was to analyse the impact of movie trailers on the success of a movie, and to answer the question-“Do movie trailers make you watch the movie?” Watching movies hence became a part of my work!

The lab had 28 immensely talented PhD students from all over the world (including India, China, Korea, Greece) who guided me throughout the internship. They were very accommodating and the excitement they showed towards tackling problems was palpable. Every evening, we engaged in meaningful discussions on a variety of topics ranging from recent advancements in research to sports, life and beyond. The closest to me was Naveen, a 6th year PhD student in the lab. Through him, I learnt about fine aspects in machine learning, signal processing and college admissions and research. I learnt that getting a good recommendation from a professor or a post-doc is more valuable than getting a research paper published. The latter could be a mere stroke of luck, for example, the student could have worked on an easily solvable problem while the former could indicate how hard working and committed you are. When asked about how one can keep himself motivated through years of PhD, he felt that it’s important to have multiple problems at hand and to look at other problems to solve when you are stuck at one of them.

Although there were four students selected from our institute for the internship program, only Sagar, Aravind and I pursued it. We stayed with 3 other graduate Indian students in a 3BHK apartment. Very close to our apartment was an Indian grocery store Manas. From Maggi noodles and Haldiram’s snacks to Cinthol soap, all Indian goods were on sale. Although food was expensive, we were never short of vegetarian options as many Californians lead a vegan lifestyle. To save some money, we cooked most of our meals. Cooking was easy but washing the dishes was the hard part. Compared to the effort we put into washing our clothes in our hostels, washing our clothes in the US was painless. Washing machines in the US amazed me; within two hours, your clothes could be washed and perfectly dried (you could wear it immediately if you wanted to)!


Hanging out at the California beaches
Hanging out at the California beaches


We travelled in a large group of 25 students every weekend. I loved hanging out at the beaches. There were three beaches close to the city, namely Santa Monica, Venice and Malibu. (However, if you are looking forward to seeing bikini clad women on the beaches, you are in for a disappointment!) During the first few weekends, we covered most of the tourist places- Universal Studios, Hollywood, and art museums to name a few. During our last few days in California, we went to places outside Los Angeles; San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Yosemite National Park.

To be honest, the idea of doing an internship in a foreign country was irresistible. That may be the case for most of you applying for research internships. In my case, I was lucky to have a good mentor who guided me throughout the project. Many of my friends ended up with professors who were too busy to spend any time with them. If you are really keen on doing research in a particular field, do your homework and try to find professors who do excellent work in the field of your interest and then find a way to work under them.


“Caltech is an amazing place to be, and the summer I spent there was full of new experiences and stories. Be it operating one of NASA’s premier labs, JPL, or leading research in LIGO, Caltech has a very strong research community, and working there has been a great learning experience.

Saikanth Dacha [Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow (“SURFer”) with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) group at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).]


When I first entered the Caltech campus and looked at the small physical space that it occupied, the compactly spaced buildings and the small number of people on campus, I wondered if it was the same university that has ranked one for 4 years now. Following is a synopsis of the interesting work that I did there.


What is LIGO?

LIGO stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory. It is an ambitious project initiated by Caltech and MIT to experimentally detect Gravitational Waves for the first time in history.

Gravitational Waves are ripples in the curvature of spacetime that propagate as waves, traveling outward from the source. Gravitational Waves are produced by any acceleration that is not spherically or cylindrically symmetric. Only the GWs coming from astrophysical sources such as a binary neutron star or binary black hole system are capable of being detected, and that too with extremely precise measurement apparatus: LIGO itself.

LIGO consists of a Fabry-Perot Interferometer (which is similar to Michelson Interferometer), with the length of each arm equal to 4km! The gigantic arms, the super-smooth mirrors, ultra-high vacuum system in the arms, and the extremely complicated network of sensors, actuators and optical components make for the most sensitive detector on the planet; one that can detect motion at the scale of a fraction of nuclear radius.


What is SURF?

SURF, Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, is the summer research program of Caltech, and is known to be the most competitive program around. LIGO SURF is a part of the SURF umbrella, and as part of this program, undergraduate students from around the world are selected to work with the LIGO Laboratory Group at Caltech. The webpages for SURF and LIGO SURF are well-maintained. (You can take a look at them for more information on application procedure)


What did I work on?

My work was on an experiment they had been working on for a few years now, to detect something known as Crackling Noise. It is a very sensitive and state of the art experimental setup, and I am happy I got to work on it. My job was to develop a feedback damping (control) system for a certain part of the setup, and that was my first formal encounter with Control Systems!

I got to learn a lot: Interferometry, Controls, some Optics, Data Analysis, and Experimental Physics at large. Though the aim of that experiment itself is totally Physics-led, to get there takes a lot of engineering skills! To me, that’s the beauty of Experimental Physics: a physicist gets to be an engineer, a technician, and a physicist all at the same time!


The cute little studio we stayed in for a month
The cute little studio we stayed in for a month


My (first) experience in the US

I spent most of my time (that is my internship duration minus 3 days) in the state of California. It was summer, and I was happy to not be in Chennai!

Caltech is located in the city of Pasadena. At the foothills of the majestic San Gabriel Mountains and right next to the densely populated and vibrant city of LA, Pasadena is a surprisingly calm, quiet (sometimes deserted!) and peaceful city. With cute little houses, greenery around, breath-taking views of the mountains and ever-smiling people, this place made for a very memorable summer!


The LIGO SURF 2015 team at the LIGO Livingston Observatory
The LIGO SURF 2015 team at the LIGO Livingston Observatory


In the last couple of days of my internship, I also got to visit one of the LIGO detectors, in the state of Louisiana. Now once I got out of the airport in New Orleans, it was damp, humid and hot: that so reminded me of Chennai!


Did I travel a lot?

Hell yes! Apart from exploring Pasadena and Los Angeles when possible, I also visited other parts of California. San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Solvang, Yosemite National Park, Stanford University etc., all of them wonderful places to visit!


The iconic Rose Bowl stadium
The iconic Rose Bowl stadium


Caltech also has the California factor attached: whether you are a movie lover, nature enthusiast, business person, IT engineer, entrepreneur, physicist, or an investor, California is the place to be; it has just about everything…well, except water!

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