Hi there, I’m Abhirup Majumdar, currently a 5th-year student of the BS-MS Dual Degree program in the Chemistry Department. I am here to tell you a tale of the time when I got to hold the Nobel prize medal in my hand. Well, you read it right, I will narrate my story of a summer internship at the Chemistry Department of Purdue University last summer. Confined to the monotonous walls of my house during the lockdown and the constant nagging by our beloved DAMP-C made me finally write this article, after much procrastination.
I got this internship through the Placement Cell. I was determined much earlier on where my academic interests lay and tried my best to build up a decent core profile. Purdue University has this PURE (Purdue Undergraduate Research Experience) Program in which students from three IITs can participate (Bombay, Madras, and Hyderabad). I discussed extensively with the seniors who got selected in the previous year, and when the IAF opened in November, I had already made up my mind that I needed to make this shot count. Odd enough, they don’t conduct any interviews, rather select the applicants merely based on their resumes and SOP. So I put in efforts to make sure they looked good. Then, on a fine, chilly morning in December, I woke up to find a mail informing me that I had been selected.
The visa dilemma and preparing for taking off :
Acquiring a US visa is a complicated process, and there is always that impending fear of not getting one. All the necessary documents were sent from Purdue within two months. The visa application process started soon afterward, which involved filling a lot of forms and paying the hefty visa fees. I booked all the tickets shortly and arranged an apartment on lease with my Batchmate Ronnie. The appointment date I received for my visa interview was only ten days before my departure date, which was quite a risky scenario. Frankly, I messed it up myself because I misread the rules regarding preponing the appointment.
One has to be cautious about the responses being given in the interviews. As it happened with my batchmate Bhavya and a few others, their applications were sent for further review, and they had to come back a month later. Thankfully I secured my visa in the first attempt and consequently received my passport within a week. I packed lots of clothes, cooking ingredients, some utensils, and other essentials. Finally, when the D-Day arrived, I kept checking whether I had my passport and reached Terminal-2, four hours prior to departure time (ghar se pressure), and braced myself for the amazing experience that awaited me.
Life at Purdue
- Adjusting to the new surroundings.
The weather was freezing cold, and it seemed as if the chill ran down our spines when we first landed at the Chicago airport. We weren’t expecting this bitter weather at that time of the year and had packed our clothes accordingly. We took a shuttle and reached West Lafayette, the hometown of Purdue, close to midnight. Two more Indian students lived in our apartment who were pursuing their Masters from Purdue. They were great guys and helped us settle in smoothly, guiding us about the different aspects of this new city.
West Lafayette is a small picturesque town in Indiana. It is very student-friendly, with all the basic amenities readily available. Shuttles services ran throughout the city, which provided free rides to the students. We had an orientation program on the first day at Purdue, where we were introduced to our respective supervisors, followed by a sumptuous lunch. The workload was minimal in the first week, so we spent our time exploring the entire Purdue campus and other attractions the city had to offer.
Once our group visited a wild park on the outskirts, and, on the way back, we got totally lost in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, a police car picked us up and dropped us home safely. There was another nasty incident that involved cops, but I’m not revealing it here (what happens in the US stays in the US :P). The first few days were also spent dealing with fatigue due to jet lag. I would start feeling sleepy around 8 pm and wake up as early as 6 am. Only if I could maintain that lifestyle in India too. Alas!
- Work Culture
I worked under Prof. P. V. Ramachandran at the Herbert C. Brown Center for Boron Research. H. C. Brown was a pioneer in the development of Boron chemistry and received the Nobel Prize in 1979. PVR was a post-doc student of Brown, and he inherited the lab after Brown retired. He even had an official replica of the Nobel Prize medal, and I got an opportunity to hold it in my hand when I visited his house.
My project work was based on exploring one of the many functions of a particular compound, ammonia borane (NH3BH3). I was using it to directly convert carbonyl compounds into their corresponding bromides or iodides. My primary job was to optimize the reaction conditions in order to maximize the yield. I set up reactions daily varying the different parameters and analyze the results and characterization data on the next day, that was my routine. I am very much grateful to Shivani (also an IITB alumnus) for guiding me throughout and making my life easier in the lab. We were expected to work at least 8-9 hours every day, but the timing was flexible. Working on the weekends was optional. Everybody had a ‘work hard, party harder’ attitude and that made things easier and enjoyable for me. So, whatever little time we spent in the lab, we made sure it was productive to the fullest.
- My daily routine
On a typical weekday, I woke up at 8 and freshened up. I made sure to have a heavy breakfast so that I won’t feel much hungry for lunch :D. On the long walk to the campus, I grabbed a cup of hot coffee and enjoyed the fresh morning breath. Generally, I would come to the lab at 10 and leave by 7, but sometimes I had to stay as late as 11 pm. On most days, I packed lunch from home, while on other days, I visited the nearby eating joints.
A fulfilling meal would cost at least 6 to 7 $, whereas cheaper options were available at McD and Subway. Often, Purdue organized interactive sessions for us, the best thing of which were the unlimited free pizzas. On returning home, I prepared a short dinner and relaxed before hitting the bed mainly by watching a TV series or reading novels.
I really enjoyed cooking too so the weekends were mostly spent experimenting with new dishes. Other than that, I finished the household chores like cleaning, laundry, etc. and visited Walmart for grocery shopping. An Indian store was also there nearby, which sold all sorts of Indian products. I must say, Frozen aloo parathas and ready-to-eat dal makhani (combined with tortillas disguised as Rotis) were lifesavers.
- Travels and activities
Unlike most people in foreign internships, I didn’t travel much. The only other city I’ve been to was Chicago. We visited there twice, once during the 4th of July, the Independence Day of the USA in the hope of seeing the festivities. We stayed at Valay’s apartment, who was interning there at the University of Chicago. The journey was tiring, a 3-hour long uncomfortable bus ride from West Lafayette.
Chicago is the typical American city, an exact resemblance of the image you have in your mind from watching all the Hollywood movies. The Downtown area is the ultimate concrete jungle, with high-rise corporate buildings and posh restaurants. We visited the art galleries, museums, and public parks during the day and watched the fireworks at night, sitting by the banks of Lake Michigan. Feasting on the famous Chicago-style deep-dish pizza was the ultimate treat, I can fly there solely to eat that again. In West Lafayette, we covered almost every tourist place and hiking trails on the weekends. I had a target in my mind to try out all the cuisines and ice-cream parlors around the town and gladly achieved that. Every Friday night, a few of us gathered at a friend’s apartment to have a house-party. We really looked forward to those nights after toiling on our project work throughout the week. There would be beers and pizzas, coupled with music and dancing. Once, we went to a bonfire party where we roasted marshmallows and sausages. A football match was organized against the IITM boys which we sadly lost by a huge margin (sigh). Next time IITM Folks !!
- The takeaway from this experience
It provided me the opportunity to take a glimpse at the graduate life abroad and firmly consolidated my career choice. I have learned how to sustain myself independently in new surroundings and deal with practical problems in life. Cooking is the most important skill one can and should develop. Once you make a meal from scratch, only then can you appreciate the effort that goes behind it. I also got to experience the American culture first-hand. The thing which astounded me the most was the people and their behavior. Most of the people I met were very kind and helpful, very unlike the stories of racial profiling you generally hear (things might be different in other places, I guess). Everybody I met greeted me with a polite smile, be it in the corridors or in the lift, and wished me a good day too. Finally, this journey made me realize the value of the little things in life. You don’t tend to recognize those when they are right in front of you and then miss them majorly once you leave them behind.
Signing off with this picture from the Chicago streets.