Would you ever go to Paris and miss the Eiffel Tower? Coming to IIT Madras and not setting foot in a research lab would be a graver sin. But for most undergraduates, research labs are an abstract concept until it is time for the infamous BTP or DDP.
The alumni batch of ‘79 is trying to change that.
The IITM Young Research Fellow Program, which was announced in July, is a year-long intense and immersive research program open to all undergraduates of the 2018 batch.
The Fellow awardees will have the opportunity to work one-on-one with a faculty member on a problem of their choosing (including interdisciplinary ones) and publish their work in peer-reviewed international journals. They will also get funding to present at the best conferences all over the world. It is a win-win deal – the students will be given an honorarium and the faculty will be given incentives in the form of research funding for the sheer amount of work they will need to put in to groom the students.
At every alumni reunion, each batch tries to figure out a way to collectively give back to the institute. The Centre For Innovation – CFI, which was an initiative of the batch of ‘81, is a major example of this. This fellowship was the brainchild of the batch of ‘79. This alumni batch was particularly interested in undergraduate research. They wanted to figure out a way to provide those students who had an inclination towards research an opportunity to be a part of a research lab and immerse themselves in a fascinating problem for a substantial period of time.
Meet the Team
30 of the most influential and successful members of the 79ers, as they like to call themselves, came together to form the team for YRF. To mention a few, there is Kris Gopalakrishnan (former chairman of Infosys, Padma Bhushan awardee and founder of Axilor Ventures), Dr. Subra Dravida (Vice President of Technology at Qualcomm), and Sarath Naru (founder of Ventureast).
The 79ers are supported in this venture by Dean of Alumni and Corporate Relations, Prof. Mahesh Panchagnula, and the three-member team of Prof. Preeti Aghalayam, Prof. S. Aniruddhan, and Prof. Sachin Gunthe.
Similar Programs in Foreign Universities
The 79ers took inspiration from similar programs at MIT, UChicago and Purdue University. Particularly from MIT, which has a similar year-long program called SuperUROP (which stands for Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program). The team sat down with the founder of SuperUROP, Dr Anantha Chandrakasan – Dean of MIT’s School of Engineering for insights on how to frame the fellowship.
But ultimately the program is IITM specific.
Since students already have the provision of crediting an Undergraduate Research Project or URP for 9 credits, fellowship awardees will be required to register for URP in both semesters of their third year for a total of 18 credits.
The fellowship will act as a precursor to the BTech and Dual Degree Projects and the fellows are also welcome to continue their work in the following years as BTPs or DDPs.
The team believed that it was important to give students an opportunity to immerse themselves in research so early on in their undergraduate career as no exam or course can emulate that experience. Nothing can prepare you for research the way, well, research does. If learning can be imagined as a pyramid, remembering and understanding concepts form the bottom layer, application and analysis form the middle, the topmost tier is the ability to design and create original work. Research operates at this topmost level.
There are no explicit answers, only unchartered territories.
Additional Perks of the YRF
One of the additional perks unique to the YRF is that fellows will also be appointed a personal mentor from the 79ers – a CLIC or Career and Life Coach. Someone who has been there, done that, and is ready to give you the wisdom they have gained in the process. The CLICs have experience in all the different realms of the professional world across corporate, IT, or even venture capital, and they’re all extremely excited to work with the young students. So each fellow will be matched up with a mentor according to their needs and preferences.
The YRF is also a very lucrative opportunity for students as it will be in collaboration with industry partners. At the end of the program, the fellows will present their work at a big showcase event and the industry partners will offer feedback.
The program received an overwhelming response from faculty members with the submission of over 70 projects. Students were given a free reign to choose proposals from any department but with very limited fellowships up for grabs, the program is proving to be an extremely competitive one. In the pilot run for YRF, the team didn’t want to make any compromises on the design of the program which meant that they would only be able to offer a limited number of fellowships but they plan on increasing the number of fellowships awarded over the coming years.
The application form required the students to articulate their research problem and also explain what excited them most about the program. With the applications pouring in, the task of selecting the fellows became Herculean. While the application form does ask for CGPA, it is also the team’s philosophy that CGPA does not reflect research acumen.
The team received over 190 applications out of which 42 were shortlisted for a round of technical interviews. The cohort for 2020 was announced on 1st September and the final team of 27 fellows has been formed.
Research in the New Normal
Talking to Prof. Preeti, she commented on how the YRF team was really excited and eager to begin this initiative but with the current situation and the declaration of the online semester, changes had to be made in the kinds of projects that were taken up this year. Professors were encouraged to propose work that involved modelling and simulations and that could be pursued remotely. The BTPs and DDPs were also declared remote this year which gave the team confidence to go ahead with the same.
Prof. Preeti further adds, “We loved reading all your responses, and are extremely happy to see the quality. We hope that even the students that we had to turn down for YRF will explore research opportunities during their IITM stay – informally perhaps this year but via BTP next year.
In the new curriculum, BTP is technically open to everyone, DD students included, and we hope that rather than treat it as some fall back when you don’t get the electives you want, at least some students start using these to get deep and make those new discoveries big and small.”
Ultimately the aim is to be able to give the students an opportunity to rediscover the joy of discovery – the opportunity to see a figurative Eiffel Tower up close.
A special thank you to Prof. Preeti for all her help with the article!