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Summer 2019

Summer Diaries: Bold and Beautiful

July 18, 2019
- Nikunj Gupta

For a person who has never been abroad, a foreign research internship provides an inexplicable opportunity to get his feet outside of India and gain some insights as an intern while travelling places you like. And that’s exactly why I ended up applying for a foreign research internship.

Getting There:

My journey starts last year in August post-GSoC (Google Summer of Code) completion results. I wanted to do a foreign internship taking inspiration from the articles I read and the people I met. But I was skeptical about applying to STE||AR GROUP, Center for Computation Technology (CCT), LSU which happened to be my GSoC mentor’s university. The primary reason being my backward thinking, that a lower ranked university might not provide me with enough research opportunities. Or that I might end up wasting my time working on something I’m not interested in. In hindsight, I had forgotten all the interesting topics I learned thanks to the project (which was tagged as “hard”, and my mentor had almost no faith in the project completion). So, I started looking for universities like every friend of mine did and throwing random emails, showing interest in their work and how I could help with my prior experience, to professors expecting replies. I got replies from IST Austria and MIT (I applied seriously to 4 universities, so I was glad by getting a reply from 2). Unfortunately, the prof at MIT was going out for a 2-year vacation and decided not to take me in. The prof at IST Austria showed interest in my work. I had applied to IST Austria for a winter internship, so the professor demanded more time. I had to obviate from taking IST as my summer preference, again due to the same thinking. Finally, I applied to LSU for the winter internship to which my mentor happily agreed. Unfortunately, the USA visa takes 3+ months and I was simply out of time. I had to, therefore, settle for a research internship at IITR during winters. By the time winter vacation hit, I met a few people who got me rid of my plagued thinking, and I finally threw in a casual email asking if there’s an internship opportunity available at LSU. This time my mentor made sure that all the paperwork was done on time. And that’s how I ended up at LSU.

The Work:

My research internship lies in a niche subdomain of Parallel and Distributed Computing, a paradigm of distributed computing also known as Asynchronous Many Task (AMT) systems. My advisor was the same person who mentored me during my GSoC project. Prof. Hartmut Kaiser is a well known person within the AMT community for his work on HPX. He is also a voting member of the ISO C++ committee. One of the best parts about the internship was my power to choose any project to work on. I chose to work on the project “Resiliency in HPX” (HPX being an AMT runtime system). It was to add fault tolerance to the HPX runtime system for supercomputers that would appear in the next decade with exaflops range (or as we like to call it, the extreme scale computing domain), the details of which are mundane to the generic audience. My advisor gave me complete responsibility for the project and therefore, I was supposed to write code for the complete architecture and formulate the final report as well. Working hours were flexible. As long as I could show progress and get results, my advisor had no issues with me taking a leave or leaving early. This charade was soon taken over when I started working and realized that I will have to work late hours to get the work done. Initially, I remember working on weekends to complete the work that I had to do. But soon, the project became relevant and work eased out. This is when I started exploring places on the weekends. I made friends and did trips outside of Baton Rouge.

The Cultural Shocks:

Being from Delhi, I had lived a metropolitan life and I did not expect any cultural shocks. I did face a few shocks, one of which being over friendly strangers. If you’re in India and you randomly say “Hi” or nod your head as a gesture, the other person will probably think that you’re in your correct state. It’s completely different in the states, where I had random conversations with strangers based on what was written on their t-shirt! Next shock was what we people tend to call out as 1st World Problems. I always thought of it as jokes, never did I know it was literally the case here. What came as a surprise was the rising vegan culture. Finding vegetarian food is not difficult provided you decide to go vegan and drop the dairy contents as well. The food itself was also not as bland as I expected. It was actually good and I appreciated a lot of the dishes I ate.

Another key difference that I found here was how people treat each other within the group. People here call others on a first name basis. That meant that I was calling people doing their PhDs or Post Docs or even professors by their first name which is next to impossible to observe in India. Also, I was never treated as an undergraduate trying his hands on research. I was treated with the utmost respect and my work was valued.


Home and Office:

I got a whole office room to myself which is something that I did not expect as an intern. I was given access to the STE||AR GROUP’s home brewed cluster “Rostam”. I was given a workstation grade computer to work with. The workstation I worked on was the fastest personal computer that I had worked on. It was a dual socket machine and had 2 Xeon CPUs with 64 GB RAM and a powerful Nvidia RTX 2080 graphics card. Apparently, the specs were considered old by my advisor who constantly advised me to work on the cluster!

I rented a fully furnished studio apartment from the recommendation of my advisor. This meant that I had to take care of the food, laundry, and cleaning by myself. With no experience of cooking whatsoever, I tried making the simplest of Indian dishes using online recipes or video calling my parents. It was the first time I valued mess food and probably the last time as well. With some practice, I was able to make some simple dishes perfectly and learned French dishes from one of my colleagues.


Visiting places:

If you join the STE||AR GROUP with the intent to visit places in the USA, you will be heartbroken to hear that Louisiana is in the middle of nowhere. All the lovely places you’ve heard of namely New York, Miami, Orlando, Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc. are thousands of miles away. And to add a cherry on the top, Bus services in the USA are horrible. To the extent that I decided to buy flight tickets to places once I experienced the buses. New Orleans was the first city I visited. The city of Jazz so to say will never get you bored if you’re a music enthusiast. Amongst others, I visited Atlanta (Georgia), Houston (Texas), Austin (Texas) and plan to visit New York before I return. Baton Rouge itself is a fun place to live in for a couple of months doing an internship. It’s not the most dynamic city you will come across, but you will be amazed to see what the city has to offer!


Key Takeaways

The most lovely thing about my group is culture and group dynamics. The group is integrated well with the industry so the work carried in the group has a direct impact on the software people use. Contributing to such a group opens up new boundaries all together in terms of research work and industry exposure. Some key takeaways from my experience would be:

  • Apply early if you’re applying to USA without enrolling yourself in a program. Visa times are surprisingly high.

  • Do NOT judge a research group by the rank of the University. If the work they’ve been doing interests you, go ahead and shoot them an email.

  • Do not shoot hundreds of emails. Try to find professors or research group that align with your interest. Writing 3-4 good emails will have more probability of you ending up with an internship than sending hundreds of them with similar content.