For our next TGG, we have Mythreyi Ramesh! Mythreyi graduated in 2020 from the IDDD programme with a BTech in Metallurgical and Materials Engineering and an MTech in Computational Engineering, and is currently doing her PhD in Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University. From graduating with an award for the best academic record in MME for her batch, to her love for writing for Immerse, to the simple joys of reading smails and getting free seminar tea, she talks about her slightly unconventional (yet rewarding) insti journey.
Hello, I am Mythreyi, and I graduated in the first-ever virtual convocation at IITM. I had either volunteered for or watched the live stream of all insti convocations since I joined insti, but I never anticipated that mine would only be streamed. Yet, here I am trying to cram my insti-insights that have brewed over the past five years. One article won’t be enough. As I wrote and rewrote this article, the urgency to communicate everything ended up stifling my thoughts. Then, I re-read the other articles in the series from over the years, and there’s a wealth of insights out there.
Every journey is unique, yet I resonate with most of the learnings shared. And since that took the pressure off of me, I hope to convey some of what I wanted to and give you some food for thought.
Metals: They Can Provide Structure
I spent the whole of my first semester jumping from event to event. Insti offers a sea of opportunities for all those who want to do that. Looking back, I believe that it had been the best use of my time because it turns out that we get opinionated in insti very soon. So, it helps to get a whiff of everything when you still have the patience (and the time). But at the end of my first semester, all of us got a break from the buzz. Literally.
Chennai (and insti) was flooded, and there was no power for a few days. The best part about the floods was that it forced us to talk to each other without screens. The friends I made during those days are still some of my closest friends. When I finally reached home after being rescued, I remember thinking about how quickly things had gone by. I came back to insti with a vow to pay more attention to what was happening.
I spent the whole of my second semester jumping from event to event (in other words: nothing changed). Insti offers a sea of opportunities for all those who don’t want to do that too. However, because I was fighting back this time, I felt exhausted by the end of the semester. I kept telling myself that things were fine all along because nearly everyone around me seemed to be doing what I was doing: studying only when necessary, and doing a variety of other things meanwhile. However, every time I sat down to study before an exam, I enjoyed learning. It worried me that all I could do then was wonder why I hadn’t put in more effort before. It was also around this time that I realised many people around me were much smarter than me. So, I resolved to study extra, if needed.
Starting from my third semester, I took my academics very seriously. I took rigorous notes in every lecture. The notes inevitably reached many of my classmates, so I felt a certain responsibility towards them (I was the CR, after all). I opted for graduate-level electives starting from my fifth semester, and I did them till my final semester.
I took complete advantage of the flexibility that the (not-so-new-anymore) “new” curriculum gave us and only picked courses that I wanted to learn from, and I genuinely did learn from nearly all my courses. Reason: I always gave more priority to the professor than the course content.
It’s easy to like a course when someone teaches it well, but the reverse seldom is. My courses, in a truly interdisciplinary spirit, were spread across as many as ten departments. I was fortunate to connect with many inspiring professors in the process, and each interaction with them has been illuminating. I still had a few courses left in my wishlist when I graduated, but this is true for most things in insti.
I pledged my allegiance wholeheartedly to materials science. I soon realised that there were quite a few things that gave me personal satisfaction which didn’t seem to attract many others. Sometimes, I would stroll through the library and borrow books that seemed interesting. To be walking amidst tall shelves of books was refreshing. I had never been worried about being different, and my experiences were only giving me more confidence. And so, I held on.
Blind commitment, even if foolish sometimes, liberates you.
Ceramics: They Can Provide Function
If you ask me if I have any regrets from insti, one thing I would say is that I wish I had done more research when I was there. I was indeed involved in research for a majority of the time I spent in insti, but I wish that I had learnt the difference between learning things and doing research a bit earlier. The difference is deceptively subtle because learning plays a significant role in all research activities, but it’s very easy to mistake the learning with actually doing research.
A research internship during the third-year summer is supposed to tie directly to your chances of getting into good schools for higher studies. During my fifth semester, I had taken up three additional courses apart from my four core courses. Two of these electives were graduate-level ones, and I belonged to the set of people who had the least experience in the class. On top of coursework, as an editor, I was responsible for articles from four departments for the science magazine of IITM – Immerse. And, I had also taken over as the “Editor-in-Chief” of my department magazine – Etch. All of this meant that all my spare time either went into challenging assignments or setting up interviews with professors and PhD students and then working on making the research accessible to a general audience.
Simply put, I didn’t have spare time, and I was perpetually playing catch-up. This situation had an interesting consequence: I had no time to apply for research internships!
All fundaes from seniors involved a research internship (preferably on *cough* foreign soil). My CV would say that I did manage to do one, but not many know that the Mitacs Globalink Research Internship was the only program I had managed to submit an application for. My choices were either taking the Mitacs offer or spending the summer in insti dedicating time to research. Somehow, the choice was not obvious to me even then. But, I finally went with the option that reflected the conventional wisdom. Mind you; I did learn a lot during my time in Canada. Yet, I genuinely believe that I would have been able to do more research had I stayed in insti.
After one mixed experience with a coveted research program, I yearned to stand by a few things in the future. One, the reputation of a program and past experience of people can only give you a hint of what to expect. What you make of the opportunity is utterly dependent on you.
Two, when it comes to research, all you need is a healthy, collaborative environment where the professor and the group inspire you. It doesn’t matter where you find that. Three, choice is important, but it sometimes doesn’t help if they are radically different ones you can’t compare. So, I decided that I wouldn’t even apply for another internship for my fourth-year summer. This decision seemed to surprise many. Some of them were even kind enough to tell me that I am most likely sabotaging my chances at getting into top PhD programs by making such a decision. Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen. Of course, I didn’t know that for sure beforehand, but I stood by it. I was equipping myself with skills and utilising most of the relevant opportunities available in insti. I stuck to attending seminars, reading books, learning through courses, maintaining a good rapport with professors (some of whom lent me more books), and perhaps these helped with the top admits.
Polymers: They Can Provide Variety
Unless you knew me before, you’ve probably already classified me as a maggu. The definition of the term is debatable, but I did more than academics at insti.
One of the most rewarding and valuable dimensions of my insti life was writing, and I stumbled into it by chance.
During my second semester, I won the popular science writing contest in the first-ever Physics Fest. I was surprised that I won because I had never considered myself to be a writer until then. I was even more surprised when I heard that the other participants included the then T5E Exec Head and other Immerse team members. Inspired by my success, I decided to join the Immerse team in my second year and became an editor for the magazine in my third year. In my fourth year, I came across an inconspicuous smail about the first-ever Kenyon-IITM Writing Workshop. I immediately applied for participating in the Science Writing section (the only undergrad to do so). However, due to my prior experience in the area, I got a promotion to be a teaching assistant instead! The workshop instructor later recommended me for a fellowship to attend the Kenyon Review Young Science Writers workshop in the US. So, I made my way there in my fourth-year summer to spend two weeks working with high school students from across the world — our only focus: writing creatively about science. I was a teaching assistant and the youngest among the instructors (all other instructors were almost twice as old as me). I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the experience.
Looking back, I realise that I had only participated in the Physics Fest because my friend was organising it. I only registered for the workshop because I read all smails (I bet you can’t even name three others who read every mail). And, funnily enough, I probably only got to attend the workshop in the middle of summer because I wasn’t already doing another research internship.
I wasn’t involved much in the co-curricular and extra-curricular circles in insti, including the usual PoR routes and ladders. But the good thing about insti is that you don’t need to belong in these circles to do the activity. Not all dancers are in Choreo, and not all who tinker with tech are at CFI. I too participated in a few TechSoc and LitSoc events and earned points for my hostel! And although I admit that I played table tennis mostly just for the two weeks of Schroeter every year, I did manage to win the Bronze medal once (full disclosure: the competition wasn’t very fierce that year). Belonging in the established circles helps if you want to utilise the platform that the clubs provide as a launching pad into something substantial, but if all you want to do is sing in the hostel room and on hostel nights, that’s fine too. I made plenty of memories, and also got to meet interesting people.
Glasses: They Can Provide Decoration
Insti culture of (giving and getting) fundaes makes it possible to form many acquaintances. But, living through adversity together is one of the best ways to form friendships. These adversities could be difficult assignments or last-minute hiccups in an event you’re responsible for.
My batch also faced a myriad of natural calamities: floods in 2015, a cyclone in 2016, drought in 2019 and the pandemic in 2020. All of this helped me find a set of battle-hardened friends I rely on even after graduating.
Doing higher-level electives and taking an active part in research also means that you soon start to find friends who are more experienced than you. Not only do they help you out when you are going on a path similar to theirs, but they also pay for you when you eat out together. There’s a lot I have learnt from my friends through osmosis, just by sticking around. Some of the best conversations I have had happened over food: be it in the mess, in the eateries on campus, or during treats off-campus or even over food ordered to the hostel rooms (and sometimes, department labs). Trust me; it takes a strong will and lots of planning to decide whether to cycle till the Main Gate or take the insti bus to pick up an order from a restaurant that only delivers to the Main Gate (No, Sharav is not near Taramani Gate). Still, the toils payback multifold.
For all the people I met and had enlightening conversations with, I don’t think there was a single person whose every advice I followed. I know that most of the advice was solicited and all of it was well-meant, but the unspoken truth about insti (and perhaps its biggest treasure) is that no two people are alike.
Everyone would eventually chase different things, and that’s normal. I benefited from backing myself when I felt it mattered. Someone told me during my first year that no one would care about something like Immerse, but it turned out people did! A few others said that courses would get boring as time goes by, but I still feel there exist courses that I wish I had done! More than a few said I should accept the PhD offers from MIT or Caltech, but… (I will fill in the details here after a few years).
We have a disproportionate advantage because of insti. The deluge of options comes with both freedom and incredible challenges. But, remember that insti is also just a sandbox. I would urge you not to get overwhelmed. Insti has many butterflies, but don’t become one. Choose to commit your time and effort into whatever it is you pick. It will pay off.
P.S.: Not everything that’s valuable glitters.
Perhaps create a low profile bucket list once you return to insti after the pandemic. Some suggestions: watch an OAT movie with friends, watch an OAT movie alone in the rain, visit the Heritage Center, cycle till the Main Gate at night just for the cool breeze or a bowl of Mac and Cheese, walk around on a warm morning or evening and look at the trees, observe the monkeys and ponder about how much they resemble humans in behaviour, read every smail (Yes, even the seminar ones. Who knows what you’ll find? I got plenty of cool T-shirts).
You can find Mythreyi on her website.
Editor’s Note: You can also read the other articles from the TGG series here, and check out old issues of Immerse, IITM’s science and research magazine, here.