Boarding The Rocket of Success: Roshni Biswas at NASA
Roshni Biswas, a final year student from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering bagged a coveted internship at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA.Team MM caught up with her on a serene Saturday evening to know more about her journey and to gain an insight into her past and future endeavors. Read on:
MM: Tell us about your childhood days, the days that you spent at school before NITR happened to you.
RB: I was born in California and lived in the Bay Area. I moved to India at the age of eight. Being raised by Indian parents, I was always connected to Indian culture and heritage and we lived in a thriving Indian community. I returned from California and joined Mahadevi Birla Girls’ Higher Secondary School at Kolkata in my 4th standard and continued there till my Intermediate. I was very active in extra-curricular activities and represented my school in music, gymnastics, and chess.
MM: How did NITR and your branch Computer Science and Engineering happen to you?
RB: After my 10th standard, I had to choose between Biology and Computer Science and it was a difficult decision for me, as I was inclined towards both these subjects. I took Biology in my Intermediate and later, I developed an interest in a new domain, which was the intersection of both these subjects. After my 12th standard, I applied through DASA and was eligible to pursue B.Tech in CSE at NITR. I decided to pursue it owing to my interest in Computational Biology. However, the decision of taking Biology for my intermediate studies, paved my way towards using my knowledge in Computer Science in the field of Biological Sciences. Knowing basics of Biology and then pursuing Computer Science gave me an edge in my research over students who had pursued Biological Sciences only.
MM: How was your life in the first year of engineering? Did you join any club?
RB: The coursework in the Institute was definitely a bit strenuous. We had a huge number of credits during our freshman year. I made sure that I had diversion and refreshment when the strain of academics made me saturated. I joined two clubs within the first month of my admission; I joined Microsoft Campus club and Leo Club and actively took part in their activities and projects. This gave me space to breathe amidst the tremendous workload.
MM: It’s a general notion that students admitted through DASA face difficulties while getting used to the hectic academic curriculum of NITR. Was the case same with you? If yes, how did you succeed in emerging out of it?
RB: The syllabus of SAT (the entrance exam for DASA students) is a bit different from the syllabus of JEE Mains and even the system of education varies a lot abroad. Moreover, we had a huge number of credits in our 1st year, which created a tremendous pressure. We had five theory subjects, four lab courses along with jogging, NSS or Physical Education. I was very determined to balance my extra-curricular activities along with my academic interests, so I worked very hard to balance everything simultaneously.
MM: You worked as a summer intern in NIT Surathkal after your second year. What was the procedure and criteria for selection?
RB: In my second year, I was determined to get a good internship for my summer break. I mailed many professors of IITs and NITs and expressed my desire to work for a research project under them in the field of Computational Biology or Bioinformatics. In my application emails, I mentioned about my realm of interest and the various online courses that I had taken to support it.
But, the problem with most of the IITs and NITs is that the sophomores are not eligible for the official internship programs offered by the Institutes. I faced a huge challenge while mailing and convincing professors to accept me because I had a low CGPA. Finally, I was selected by Dr. Shashidhar G. Koolagudi and he accepted me for an 8-week internship period in CSE department at NIT, Surathkal.
MM: Tell us about your experience while working at NIT, Surathkal. Was it a paid internship?
RB: I interned at the end of my sophomore year and hence I couldn’t get registered through the official summer internship program of NIT Surathkal. My assignment was to develop a system to assess and visualize the accuracy in pitch of a singer and it was titled as “Objective accuracy of vocal pitch in equal-tempered vocal music”. The research environment of NIT Surathkal is very good and everyone in the lab was very cooperative, which made sure that I learned a lot while enjoying my stay there. The publication of the paper pertaining to the aforementioned project is currently in progress.
MM: You bagged a prestigious internship at NASA Jet propulsion lab. From where did you get to know about this internship? What was the procedure of selection?
RB: By the end of 5th semester, I started applying for internships by mailing more than 100 professors all around the world for research positions. I also applied for off campus industrial internships through online portals, as my GPA restricted me while appearing for most of the on campus interviews. I had also mailed to a few professors of California Institute of Technology, USA whose work profile matched with my domain of Interest. Fortunately, I got a response from Dr. Kasthuri J Venkateswaran. After an Interview through Skype, he shortlisted me and I developed a Research Proposal under his guidance. Simultaneously, he instructed me to apply through the official portal of Caltech Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship. Browsing through their Abstract Book, I came to know that around 400 students were accepted in the previous year, and this provided a huge boost to my aspirations.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is operated by the California Institute of Technology for NASA and is a federally funded Research & Development Centre (FFRDC). A handful number of students shortlisted for the SURF program get the opportunity to be recruited for the JPL as a part of the internship. The competition for a stint at JPL is definitely huge because U.S. citizens might be preferred during the selection process. However, It is not impossible for an International Student to make the cut. Summarizing the formal procedure of being selected for the Caltech SURF:
- Find a potential mentor and contact him/her
- After being shortlisted by a mentor, develop a Research Proposal with him/her.
- Apply through the online portal for SURF along with your resume & three Letters of Recommendation.
For more details, readers can visit the following link:
MM: Did you receive any help from the institute during the application process?
RB: The help that I received from NITR cannot be accounted for much of my selection for Caltech SURF. I received three Letters of Recommendation from Professors of NITR. Despite applying for an International Internship and having got a response, the most difficult part for me was obtaining the letters of recommendation, as most professors in my department are CGPA centric. I somehow managed to procure the letters of recommendation and I am thankful for that. However, discrimination on the basis of CGPA is not prevalent at the California Institute of Technology. In Indian institutes, students are judged on the basis of marks and examinations, rather than being judged on aptitude, interest or capability to work for a project.
The difference I observed between students in India & the USA is that students in U.S.A are very passionate about what they do because they have chosen to do it. Here, we mostly do what is thrown at us and such restrictions hinder us.
MM: How was the work environment at NASA? Tell us about your experience while working at Pasadena, California.
RB: The Internship was for a period of 10 weeks. The experience of working for an agency which resolves global issues is quite disparate from the experience of working for a personal or Institute project. The work environment in JPL campus is finely tuned for optimum productivity. The ten weeks that I spent at NASA were not only the most productive times of my life but were the most enjoyable ones too. Despite working for projects associated with grave issues, the work environment gave us enough time and space to enjoy and bond with teammates. Employee experience is prioritized at JPL. The people are incredibly nice and hard-working. Also, everyone is very open to discuss his/her work and experiences. JPL has some of the smartest people I have ever seen and they were very engaging with the student interns.
I was a part of the Biotechnology and Planetary Protection group, which is responsible for mission implementation, space microbiology research and technology development. This team ensures that the spacecraft for a mission follows all the stringent procedures for sterilization to prevent forward and reverse contamination on a voyage to any celestial body. My job was to develop a metagenomic analysis pipeline to analyze microbes and the samples which I analyzed were from the International Space Station, the JPL spacecraft assembly facility, an underwater research center called NEEMO in Florida and also from Mars Rover 2020 mission.
I was supposed to analyze metagenomic data of these samples in order to obtain information about the diversity, functions and possible threats of the microbes. This is done by keeping in view the manned missions to Mars that NASA is planning in the future.
MM: Did your previous work experience at NIT, Surathkal help you in getting this internship?
RB: The internship at NIT Surathkal didn’t help me directly with the JPL Internship as the field of research was completely different. However, it did help me in indirect ways by giving me exposure to research and technical writing. It also taught me about the nuances of working in a team systematically for research. Having done research work previously and having proof of it through published papers definitely confers some advantages while applying for prestigious Internships.
MM: Was it a paid internship? If yes, what was the amount of stipend?
RB: Yes, it was a paid internship and I received a stipend of 6000 USD.
MM: You are an active member of the Microsoft campus club and Leo Club. In what way have the clubs helped you in improving your skills?
RB: I am currently not an active member of the Microsoft Campus Club but I attended a few workshops in the initial semesters. I served as the Content head and Editor of the Technical Blog of Microsoft Campus Club. But I have consistently been an active member of the LEO Club and currently, I am serving as the President of the Club. I have dedicated several hours to conduct Leo Projects. Leo has helped me to evolve as a person and improved my speaking, networking, managerial and leadership skills. It has given me a lot of beautiful experiences and I am attached to the club emotionally.
MM: What are your plans after graduation?
RB: I wish to work for a couple of years for a company pioneering in my domain of interest i.e. Computational Biology, Data Science, and Bioinformatics & Biotechnology. I wish to save money through a job so that I can fund my further education in a reputed University in India or abroad. The Research Papers that are in the process of publication will also assist me in securing a seat in a University of greater repute. In my final year, I am going to apply for off campus jobs, as companies working on Computational Biology or Biotechnology do not frequently come to campus for recruitment.
MM: What message would you like to convey to the readers?
RB: In this competitive world, don’t be afraid to be different rather be afraid to be the same as everyone else, follow your dreams and don’t let anything come in your way.