The Prompt and Pragmatic: Om Smaran Mohapatra
Adding another silver feather on the Institute’s glory crown, Om Smaran Mohapatra, an Electrical final year undergraduate ushered his own way to France. On a cloudy evening, in the midst of Mokshaa Restaurant, Team Monday Morning caught up with him and chatted with his lively self to get all the highlights of his journey and achievements.
Monday Morning (MM): Walk us through your early days before coming to NIT Rourkela.
Om Smaran Mohapatra (OSM): I was born in Sambalpur. Formerly we used to stay at our ancestor’s house before moving to the Netherlands as my father was pursuing his Master's degree there. We stayed in the Netherlands for about 8-9 months where I happened to celebrate my first birthday. We then returned to Puri, Orissa where I did my schooling from kindergarten to 4th standard. Owing to my father’s transferrable job, we moved to Bhubaneshwar where I further carried on my studies in DAV Pokhariput. Since my school time, I was involved in extracurricular activities and always had things like drama, sports (especially badminton) on my table.
Harking back to the old memories has always been peaceful to me, I really miss those days of my life.
MM: Why did you choose NIT Rourkela?
OSM: Like every other student in India, I also had two options on my plate, either engineering or medical. Except for my mother, no one else went for medical science in my family. My father is an NIT Rourkela alumnus himself and my sister is also an engineer which pushed my interest in engineering. On account of my JEE rank and my fascination with electricity, I planned to go for it.
MM: Who would you call as your support system during all your ups and downs?
OSM: I would never forget to mention some of my seniors who propped me up during all times be it cheerful or a mess. Soumya Ranjan Panda, Prabhu Chandan Das, Roshni Biswas, and Pratik PriyaRanjan Pradhan are the ones who I look up to in times of burdensomeness no matter what the problem is about. They have helped me even with the internship process.
But where I am today is because of my parents, grandparents, and sister who have always stood by my side throughout all phases of life and prepared me to face them with all the mettle and spirit.
MM: Tell us something about your experience working in team ZON, ASME.
OSM: I joined team ZON because of my friend, Nishchay. Once returning from class, he mentioned about a solar vehicle event that was going to happen in Coimbatore where they were going to participate. Getting curious about the event, I asked him about the details which was when he told me about ASME and team ZON. It seemed quite interesting and was related to my branch so I decided to join it and prepared for the inductions. Abhishek Nanda took my viva which went really well. After getting inducted, we were put into the Solar Panel Fabrication Team where we had to invite tenders for panels, design and fabricate them so that our vehicle meets all the energy requirements. Until last year I was an active member, but for now, I am the mentor for the new Electrical Team.
MM: Tell us something about your Vocational Training at NALCO. What was your trade there?
OSM: This training was during the winter break and I did it as I really did not want to waste that 1 month sitting idle. One of my father’s friend is an official there from whom I came to know about it. During the training, we had to go and only study the types of equipment as we were just in our second year then. Our foremost motive was to experience the industrial environment as much as possible which could be beneficial during the placements but I was much more fascinated about learning new things rather than learning to be prepared during the placement season. I used to go there everyday unlike most people who came just on the first and last days of the training.
I was more into Power Electronics at NALCO. At the end of my Internship, I submitted a report on what I learned and what I expect to learn further on.
MM: How was your research intern at IIT Patna? Shed some light over the area of your research and how did you bag it?
OSM: After the NALCO Training, one thing which was clear into my mind was, Industries though real and good, are strenuous so I decided to pursue something research-oriented. When I read Monday Morning interviews of Prabhuchandan and Siddharth Pujari, I deduced that in order to bag a nice research internship I have to have some prior experience in which IITs or NITs could definitely help. I mailed Professors of selected IITs after which I got a few replies including a reply from Dr Ranjan Kumar Behera who happened to be a 1998 graduate of NIT Rourkela, Electrical Engineering Department. He asked me to submit a proper proposal on what I actually plan to work on. I told him about my interests in IoT and Cyber-Physical Systems. He seemed impressed knowing my interests in cross-disciplinary subjects. I submitted my proposal to him and parallelly submitted one proposal to the official IIT Patna Summer Internship Portal. I had to go through another round of Interview taken by an Associate Professor.
A system was set up for me and my project was ‘Design and Development of ZigBee based Smart Home monitoring system’ which is about developing smart homes that run on sensors. I worked there for 9 weeks along with my co-intern who was from IIT Palakkad. We together wrote the research paper which is currently under observation. I was very happy by this internship as we worked in a systematic research environment and it was clearly an added advantage for further internships and projects.
MM: Apart from ASME, which other clubs were you a part of?
OSM: ASME was the only technical club I was a part of, but other than it in my sophomore year I used to play Badminton and Cricket which I left due to strenuous coursework of my department.
MM: How did you apply for an internship at Universite de Lorraine, France? Is there any special reason for selecting that institute and place?
OSM: I started with the application procedure towards the end of August. Writing the application so early, of course, gives you an edge over others. Owing to the fame of this university in France, people from all over the world apply for it so if you apply late, it would in every case leave you nowhere in front of people from MIT and other premier institutes.
One specific reason for applying in France was because the campus in France has a bilateral agreement with the Indian Government and NIT Rourkela is a partner Institute with them which facilitates student mobility exchange in Masters, PhDs, research interns etc.
I did not apply through Charpak Programme as in the previous years when students apply through Charpak their profile, work and thesis doesn't get equal treatment if they do not have proper funding. Moreover, the seats reserved for Charpak Internships are way too less and I even do not boast of a very high CGPA, so I applied independently to professors.
One more reason for applying in France was their policy to pay a minimum stipend of around 30 Euros enough to meet the daily needs.
I applied to 13 universities as a whole out of which I got 7 replies. Further, I did not get a response from 2 of them and the other three did not have any funding for the programme I applied to, which eliminated those choices. Finally, I was left with 2 choices among which I chose Universite de Lorraine.
I was given four fields, Medical Robotics, cyber-physical systems and Networks, Autonomous Systems and Blockchains. Since I had previous experience in IoT and Cyber-physical Systems, I wanted to work on something related to Artificial Intelligence that had societal benefits. I went through a Skype interview where they asked me about my previous experiences and how I plan to work in the laboratory. After a month I got an acceptance letter. I was inducted into the ‘Simulating and Building IoT’ (SIMBIOT) team under Professor Laurent Ciarletta (head of SIMBIOT). I got the topic of my research long before my internship, so I got time to prepare on it.
MM: Was the internship a funded one? If so how much stipend did you get?
OSM: The ministry of labour in France paid me a stipend of 35 Euros every month to cover my basic necessities, but it changes every year. For the entire duration of 11 weeks, the stipend was 1600 Euro which translates into 1,35,000 INR.
For those who are applying to foreign universities, it will stand them in good stead to apply only to those programs which offer a stipend, because when you go without a stipend, you will be treated as someone who just wanted to visit a foreign country and you won't be having the status of intern or employee of that particular company or university. So stipend is very important when applying to foreign universities.
MM: How many other programs had you applied to, apart from this?
OSM: Apart from this I had applied to the NTHU (National Tsing Hua University) exchange program but in 2019 they didn't have any openings in the Electrical Engineering domain, still I had sent personal emails to professors of NTHU but I didn't get any reply from them. I had also applied to the NTU( Nanyang Technological University) India connect program, prior to my application I had also mailed my interests to a professor there. Apart from these two programs, I had sent a couple of independent applications to universities in China and France.
MM: Tell us something about IoT and its future potential?
OSM: IoT stands for Internet of things, as the name suggests, it's a technology that envisions a future where all the devices and appliances are connected. It actually targets the senior citizens, people who want comfort and luxury in their lives and similar sections of the society. Imagine having control over all of your house’s doors and windows, security systems, lights, etc by sitting at one place and having a remote in your hand. That’s the future IoT offers. As a broad term, IoT also encapsulates Machine Learning, Deep Learning and other features of artificial intelligence. Industry 4.0 also revolves around the effective use of such technologies. IoT is also used in the Health-care domain, in industrial robotics, in smart-home development, etc. So IoT comes into that picture where everything will be automated and there will be very little labour and people can enjoy their newfound freedom from routine work.
MM: Is the syllabus of the electrical branch here in-sync with the latest developments in the field? On a scale of 1-10, how relevant is the syllabus according to you?
OSM: The curriculum of electrical engineering is not up to proper research standards. The labs are also not state of the art. Talking about my interests like IoT and artificial intelligence, they are nowhere in the scope and syllabus of electrical engineering in NIT Rourkela. They are actually cross-disciplinary subjects between Computer Science and Electrical Engineering departments. I strongly believe that all the departments concerned with the Electrical Sciences should focus more on interdisciplinary topics and subject areas which will ignite a student's mind to take up collaborative research in other universities. So we should focus more on Electrical Sciences as a whole rather than just Electrical Engineering and we should have more research tie-ups with institutes across the nation and abroad as well. In terms of laboratories, more freedom and flexibility should be allowed to students interested in pursuing research activities and they should not be limited by the particular sequence of experiments designed for that particular semester. In France, people are very passionate about the work they do in labs since they choose their own projects. Here, on the other hand, we are being forced to complete a certain number of lab projects in a stipulated amount of time. That's a very big difference which I noticed during my stay in France. In France, you are like an independent researcher working for the team and for the society at large. In NIT Rourkela people apply for one thesis project and get another instead. At least they should have the liberty to choose their project, their mentor and their team.
MM: Have you ever thought of having a start-up based on IoT?
OSM: A start-up in IoT is a great idea, but it needs a lot of funding and a team of skilled professionals to bring the idea into realization. I could get the opportunity to develop a smart home system because the professor had ordered all the necessary pieces of equipment like sensors, IC’s and motors within a few days but around here the procurement takes time, and funding is also a big issue. So a start-up will be useful for someone wanting to work in a particular domain of IoT but I don’t want that. I want to take up as many use-cases of IoT as possible so that I can work in different fields and branches of IoT and diversify my knowledge base.
MM: Any personal stories in France which you would like to share?
OSM: Even in summer there, the temperature never really crosses 20-25 degrees celsius so summer is welcomed in France. There is a huge festival known as Fete de la musique in summer( a well-known music festival in France). They were many team outings too. I went to Amsterdam, Luxembourg, Germany, and Belgium with my research team. Since we were students of a French University there, we got waivers for almost everything ranging from transportation to eat-outs. We also played the Petanque ( a French Sport) and bagged the 3rd prize in a Petanque competition. Every two weeks there was a bi-weekly meeting of all the teams from INRIA and LORIA to track their progress and after the meeting, they would take us to bars, pubs or restaurants and ask us to showcase our talents in any extra-curricular field in which we were good at. This ensured a perfect work-life balance there.
MM: Any future dreams which don’t let you sleep?
OSM: As of now I am working on my masters' application and my dream is to work for the advancement of the society and take forward the Human civilization. I see that in European countries, everything is automated and systematic. I want to see that kind of union between man and machine here in India. I want to work on cross-disciplinary issues comprising of medical science, computer science, and electrical engineering. Another dream of mine is to maintain a balance between my academics, my thesis, and my research work and also focus on grabbing an opportunity for my master degree abroad.
MM: There has always been an enthusiasm among people to study abroad while we have Universities offering amazing courses here in India. What do you prefer?
OSM: Yes, there are universities offering amazing courses in India but what makes foreign universities better choices is collaborative research. The research ecosystem in France was very advanced, people were passionate about their fields of research and the funding was also no hurdle to the realization of their genius. But here funds are a big issue. I had once asked my department to fund my visit to a conference but they turned me down citing a lack of funds, so that was very disappointing for me. In abroad the research labs are state of the art and the research output is also very high making it conducive for others to follow suit as well. Here in NIT Rourkela, we work to earn a grade but there we worked to earn our results.
MM: Any message for our readers?
OSM: Be passionate and never be afraid of doing something different, because if you are passionate about what you are doing then you will always find a way to serve the society. Take calculated risks and connect with your seniors who have had such experiences, they can help you a lot and guide you through the ordeals. Keep your eyes, ears, and mind open to opportunities and never settle for something you have. For example, if you are a good pointer and you relax thinking that you will land a decent job, then that may be a bad approach, you should always think ahead and try to take different perspectives of a situation. So being open to all opportunities which come along your way is crucial.