About the Author: Ahana Chatterjee, a student of IIT Bombay, talks about her struggle of fulfilling her big American dream, and how she finally got the best of international research experience.
‘The tans will fade, but the memories will last forever’. The summer of 2017 held the key to one of the most enriching and immersive experiences of my life. My words won’t do justice to the richness of the entire journey, but I will try my best to pen down my experience. I had my eyes set on the IUSSTF Khorana program for a very long time. During my undergraduate days, I had applied for the same but my profile wasn’t up to the mark. What followed next were two years of grit and determination, with a GATE AIR of 62, a successful laboratory experience, and good conceptual knowledge of my subject. For those of you don’t know, IUSSTF is an Indo-US collaboration foundation, fostering scientific liaisons and cross-cultural ties between the two nations. The umbrella organization runs two famous fellowship programs: the Khorana program (exclusively for biotechnology and allied areas) and the S.N Bose program (for different disciplines including geology, engineering, chemistry, physics, and mathematics). The application process starts in August or September and continues well onto the end of November, giving you ample time to put your best foot forward.
Statement of Purpose (SOP) is the single most valuable document for applying to international internships, especially in the field of research. I spent days on my SOP and made sure my SOP marketed me in the best way possible. I clearly highlighted my technical and laboratory skills, previous research experiences, and why this position was an ideal opportunity for me. Often, I would be stuck in a rut and needed time to come up with a line or phrase catchy enough to capture the attention of the selection panel and yet not come across as overconfident. I didn’t seek help from online sites since an SOP which reflects originality has better chances of being taken into consideration. I made sure my writing was crisp and concise and proofread it countless times to make sure it was free from grammatical errors and was well within the word limit of 1000 words. I made it a point to come across as an ideal candidate to represent India on a global level and amicably engage in cultural exchange. Armed with a good research background, strong recommendation letters from my mentors, and a carefully worded SOP, I submitted my application in November. What followed were two whole months of restlessness and trepidation. And finally, the email arrived stating my provisional selection in the Khorana program 2017.
I was ecstatic, but little did I know that it was just the tip of the iceberg. I had to personally email professors in US universities inquiring about available positions. I included a short research proposal with the emails too. From the very onset of my masters, I had taken a liking to bio-nanotechnology. In my research proposal, I put forward my subject knowledge as well as potential problems I could work on. Although it might not be possible to narrow down a single topic which might be useful as internship work, I felt that a research proposal was mostly to test how much one had read or learnt about the subject and how clearly one could conceptualize something. Thus, I highlighted how different lung diseases were a prevalent problem across the world, with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cystic fibrosis etc. being occupational hazards faced by many people like miners and construction workers. Then I talked about how nanoparticles could revolutionize the way these diseases were being controlled and treated, thereby enhancing the quality of life.
I was aiming for top universities and often met with immense disappointment when I got negative replies. While the Khorana Program was the principal sponsor, I had to get a guide to approve of my big ‘American dream’. Amidst the multiple emails I sent out every day, I kept on hoping for an affirmative response from a potential guide. And it came. And it was from a very well-known biophysicist, at one of the best universities in the world, who not only agreed to host me for the summer but also agreed to give additional sponsorship for covering my visa and living costs. Johns Hopkins University is one of the top research universities in the world and called as the Mecca of Medicine by many.
The next few weeks saw a whirlwind of activities. Documentation from US universities is not a cakewalk and the bureaucratic processing took longer than I had hoped for. But with all documents in order, I applied for a J1 visa at US Consulate at Mumbai and was promptly approved. Tickets were booked by IUSSTF. I commenced my journey from my hometown, Kolkata. The long flight journey took me to Baltimore, with changeovers in New Delhi and London. The long solo journey by flight was a unique experience! The city of Baltimore is famous as a major port and educational hub, with renowned universities like Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland. I stayed in an apartment with some Indian girls, in a posh high-rise in Downtown. The initial few days went by with getting orientations, administrative work, setting up bank accounts, and lease documents. I was part of the Chromatin subgroup, in Professor Taekjip Ha’s lab in Johns Hopkins. The close-knit group was focused on solving key questions on how the chromatin is organized, regulated, and so on. What differentiated the group from contemporaries was that it focused on single molecule level, something which required expertise and sophisticated technology. I learnt to use a TIRF microscope for my work. It was fascinating, as seeing each molecule on a slide was a joy like no other. Even though I had handled microscopes before, TIRF was entirely new as it involved setting up the instrument, positioning and focusing, data collection, and so on.
I got to choose my own work and could set my own pace. I got a wonderful friend and mentor in a senior post-doc from the lab, who would guide me at every stage. Not only was he patient with me, he single-handedly managed to teach me so many lab skills. All the people in the lab were very receptive and forthcoming in their suggestions, advice, and inputs, which enriched my experience in the lab. I learnt about single-molecule studies and successfully conducted my own experiments. I liked that my work was a mixture of wet lab and data analysis (dry lab), giving me experience in different techniques and software. I was expected to present my work on a weekly basis, to let others know of my progress and get suggestions on any shortcomings. At the end, I also gave a complete presentation of my findings and submitted a term paper describing my summer work.
I bonded with other summer interns and lab members over food and other common interests. Besides the regular lab life, this summer internship paved my way to explore some of the most amazing places in the world. Yes, I ticked off some important ones from my bucket list. Baltimore being a city on the east coast has affordable and easy access to cities like Washington D.C and New York. I visited DC and was struck by the sheer opulence of the buildings which reflected the power of political capital of the world. I was dying to visit New York, from the time I had seen ‘Castle’ and ‘Suits’ and was floored when I did. The experience took me back to the TV shows and movies which had made me crave to visit those places. I also visited Niagara Falls and I cannot put into the words the beauty, the magnitude, and the force it exuded. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience! From Korean buffet and American breakfasts to long walks by the harbor and canoeing in lakes, I came out of a secure well and lived vivaciously. Shopping, exploring, eating, cooking (yes, staying in the States for more than 2 months taught me that!) – everything in those few weeks made me realize how a summer internship could change one’s life. It not only gave me close insight into the kind of work I wanted to pursue but also catapulted me to a league of people who professed their love for travelling before anything else.
Are you also looking for an enriching exposure like this? Apply to these cool science internships and kick-start your career.
Editor’s note – If you also have an interesting story to share, you can now participate in Your Internship Story Contest 2017 and win cash prizes and goodies worth INR 1 Lac!