Permeating Orthodoxies in Michigan: Asit Kumar
Asit Kumar, a student, pursuing his Dual Degree in the Department of Mechanical Engineering recently bagged an internship at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. It is his second foreign internship, following up to one at Ryerson University in the previous year. Team MM caught up with him on an unflustered evening at Hex, to find out about his experience of life, this internship and much more.
MM: How were your childhood and your initial schooling?
Asit Kumar(AK): I am the only child of my parents, and that comes with its pros and cons. My parents were very specific as to what I do in my academics, as they wanted me to do well like anybody else’s parents do. I was very annoyed at that time. I thought they didn't give me the liberty which was available to other students, but it was worth it, in retrospect.
My schooling was in a small town called Baripada, present in the state of Odisha at St. Anne’s Convent School and I went on to become the topper of my school. In spite of being a studious guy I used to take part in co-curricular activities like debating, essay writing, etc. I was very much interested in music, and this comes from my father who was a shoddy flute player. He gifted me a keyboard after seeing my potential in music, and since then I have a knack of listening to music to relax. I was part of my school choir and also participated in music competitions outside. Leadership skills of mine were nurtured from the times when I was made the assistant leader of my school, and I went on to managing teams or groups which aid me in doing the same, till date.
MM: How was your time in 11th and 12th, as everybody who dreams of engineering is in a race to make it to the ultimate pinnacles like NITs or IITs?
AK: I went to Mother’s Public School in Bhubaneswar after my schooling was done. It’s true that I was solemn about the prospects in my future and wanted to do well in my JEE exam. I focussed mainly on my studies during those times. I always wanted to get into Mechanical Engineering department, and when I made it to NIT Rourkela, I was pretty content with the outcome as the Department of Mechanical Engineering here had a very good history.
MM: How has NITR shaped you as a person?
AK: I secured a decent CGPA of 8.93 in my first semester and was determined to keep it around the 9-point mark. In the co-curricular part, in the first year. My first achievement was when I got into SAE in the second year. My seniors saw the zeal in me and asked me to be a part of Black Mamba Racing(BMR) Team- BAJA. I also went on to become a part of Efficycle and the project we had was to build a “Human and Electrical Powered Vehicle” and we took it to Chandigarh where we were ranked 27th All over India for our efforts. Meanwhile while being a part of a brand new team in BMR, we didn’t have any previous knowledge in this field. What usually happens is the seniors pass on the baton to the juniors, but we didn’t have that cushion. We failed to make it in the Virtuals Round that year, and we were disappointed. However, we didn’t lose hope and continued doing the hard work which can be seen from the fact we secured an All India rank of 4th in the recently concluded BAJA SAE India Competition 2016.
I worked under Prof. S. Murugan of the Department of Mechanical Engineering on diesel engines in my second year. Then in my third year, I collaborated with Prof. S.K Sahoo on Welding Simulation, and this was my other project. Instead of sitting idle in my vacations I went to CTTC Bhubaneswar, and eventually, I got my internship at Ryerson University in the third year, and I bagged another one this year.
MM: How did you apply for your internship at the University of Michigan?
AK: After returning from Ryerson University in Toronto I had a very clear mindset that I am going into the core sector and in the field of research. So, I came back and started emailing professors all over the globe about my interests along with my CV. My interest was in three areas namely: Welding, Engines, and Automobiles. I got an internship on ultrasonic spot welding at Waterloo University, Automobile internship in Germany and another one at University of Michigan. The professor concerned with the internship at Germany told me that if I make it through DAAD, it was all well and good. Otherwise, he would look for funds to accommodate me there:
I didn’t get through DAAD as my CGPA wasn’t as high and I missed it by a whisker. CGPA is the most important criterion when applying through DAAD and my CGPA of 9.24 wasn’t good enough with respect to the Mechanical Engineering Branch. The professor was still willing to get me there with some funds but as the University of Michigan ranks 5th in the field of Mechanical Engineering all over the world I decided to go for it.
MM: Were there any pre-requisites for the internship?
AK: In the three internships I had applied for the ones at Germany and Waterloo University were portal based applications. I had to go through the process of getting the required documents from the institute and submit. However, I was selected for the internship at Michigan because of the e-mail I had sent to the professor there which mentioned about my interests and previous work experience. For getting an internship in the United States of America, they check the facts like the validity of the documents you have provided, the existence of your institution, etc. So, it’s not very stringent, but one has to be careful not to fake anything.
MM: What was the topic of your internship?
AK: On a broad sense, it was based on the research of engines. I say generally because the field of engines is very vast. I worked on three projects, and as a research assistant, I helped the Ph.D. students there. First of them was “Knock limit Extension of a Petrol Engine” working on Hydrogen and Carbon Monoxide. Alongside this, I was working with diesel engines based on Bio-diesel. I also worked on the cold flow properties of jet fuels. I was there for 12 weeks and was fully engrossed in my venture as the work culture there demands such.
MM: Was it a paid internship?
AK: In technical terms, I was a Research Assistant at the University and was an employee there. So, like any other employee, I was paid $14 an hour, and I got around $6700 for 12 weeks. The on-house expenses, the traveling, the visa plus the taxes were at my own expense. Nevertheless, the amount was sufficing.
MM: Did the previous internship experiences at Ryerson University help you with being a Research Assistant at the University of Michigan?
AK: Whenever a professor is looking for an intern, he looks for two things. First, the amount of research he or she has done and the other being the amount of knowledge one has in the field of interest in which they have applied. The environment at a leading institute like Ryerson University helped with the first factor, and the work I did under Prof. S. Murugan helped me with the field experience factor. So, it was an integration of both.
MM: How are the lab facilities at the University of Michigan different from the ones in NITR?
AK: I am a student of NITR and performing some experiment here in a lab makes me feel like a student. On the contrary, I played a role of an employee there. The labs in which I worked there are not ones which are used by students. So, the work experience was quite different. The equipment is advanced, and they function properly. The facilities are up-to-date. Moreover, if some machine or part of a machine needs to be replaced, they return it immediately.
Obviously, there should be some changes brought in the labs when it comes to equipment. Here if I need some part or some equipment, I need to write an application and submit it to the authorities and get the permission, and it takes around 2-3 weeks to get it which stagnates the work and is quite tedious. Back there, if I need some part or some machine for a project, I just need to fill the page in the portal regarding the part I need, and its cost and one would get the required equipment within it in 2 days. The efficiency of work there is high, whereas a lot of talent goes untapped here as the work process isn’t as efficient as it should be. People there focus mainly on the work process rather than wandering around trying to collect all the required parts for their project to materialize.
Also, I feel that US universities’ lab are so advanced that they get a lot of funding from the government which isn’t the case in Indian Institutes. The privation of funds is very arduous to mitigate and that’s why our labs aren’t sophisticated in terms of apparatus.
MM: Is there a specific change in work culture at the University of Michigan?
AK: Of course, the system of teaching and the method of evaluation is completely different. Here, the meaning of an examination is a written test in an allotted room. It’s pretty different as compared to the system which is prevalent outside; one doesn’t need to go to an examination hall there. Rather, they sit at home in front of the system and undergo an open resource test. In our education system, most of the questions are directly from the book, so the open resource test doesn’t apply, but over there you have a lot of time and the resources to complete the task, but the questions are complicated and require a thorough understanding of the application of a concept. Hence, it’s not easy even though it’s an open book test, but it helps students be prepared and ready for any work experience, which is what really counts in my opinion.
MM: As start-ups are the general trend nowadays, why didn’t you think on those lines and what aspires you to do research?
AK: I never really thought of start-up. The similarity between start-up and research is that one gets to do what he likes. From the beginning itself, I was into all these projects which led me to this research field. When I went to Ryerson University, I started enjoying the work there, and that’s when I realized that research is my forte.
MM: Being from a place like Baripada with a lack of adequate resources and cracking two foreign internships, what message would you like to leave to our readers who are inspiring to do such internships?
AK: I have seen that most of my friends are guided by their parents. Parents are worried about their kids’ future, and they think it is their responsibility to guide them on the right path. But sometimes too much of imposing hinders their growth sometimes and they don’t follow their dreams. I would give a lot of credit to my parents as they never imposed anything on me and never asked me to do only engineering. They ultimately gave me the freedom to do whatever I want. Had I been from Bhubaneshwar or Delhi, my life would have been different. Being from a remote town in the state of Odisha, I learned how to succeed at something with limited resources. I didn’t have Google to let me know about the fundamentals of physics or mathematics; I acquired my knowledge by diving deep into the ocean of knowledge which the books possess. So, it’s like a pretty fundamental law which states that when you lose something, you gain something. What matters is one should be on the lookout to make the most of the opportunity he or she gets.
I would like to tell the readers that the place you come from doesn’t matter at all. As like a stream of water finds its way through obstacles, if you have some difficulty, face it and turn it into an opportunity.