Internship Experience | Ashok Tak | Carnegie Mellon University, Rwanda | Summer Research Internship

At a glance

College – final year undergraduate student pursuing B.Tech. in Electrical Engineering at IIT Roorkee

Place of work – Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Rwanda

Process of application – ECE Internship of Carnegie Mellon University opens for applications in December every year and closes in February first week of the next year

Eligibility – any undergraduate student

Duration of the internship – 3 months

Stipend – it was fully sponsored internship

Research topic – research in smart grid and renewable energy resources

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In detail

InterFeel (IF): Please tell us something about yourself. Where are you studying currently? What are your hobbies and interests?

Ashok Tak (AT): Hi! I’m Ashok Tak, final year undergraduate student pursuing B.Tech. in Electrical Engineering at IIT Roorkee. My interests are based on exploring systems with curiosity. Apart from academics, I play Taekwondo and have recently upgraded to Black Belt. I listen to music and a fan of Selena Gomez, I watch comedy shows: CNWK and Ellen’s Show. I enjoy every adventurous activity including swimming, trekking, rafting, skating, etc.

IF: Tell us something about your internship including stipend, duration and place?

AT: I had been accepted for Summer Research Internship at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Rwanda, one of the international campuses of CMU Pittsburgh, USA. Rwanda is small landlocked country in East Africa, full of African culture and wildlife and growing rapidly with huge foreign investment in technological development. Research internship lasted for around 3 months (10th May – 25th July, 2015) which was fully funded by CMU.

IF: How did you come to know about the internship? To what all sources you kept yourself connected?

AT: Actually I had targeted to apply ECE Internship of CMU and I contacted professors who are working in my research fields. And, I got offer from a professor working in Rwanda which turned out to be a great opportunity for research in smart grid and renewable energy resources, with huge impact on a developing country. 

IF: Tell us about the procedure to apply for the internship. Who all are eligible to apply for this internship?

AT: ECE Internship of Carnegie Mellon University opens for applications in December every year and closes in February first week of the next year. Any undergraduate student (including international student) is eligible but it’s really competitive for international student, because most of CMU undergrads occupy the summer research intern positions.

My application process was quite different since I was going to another campus of CMU, not in Pittsburgh, PA, USA. I didn’t get notified for selection to this program officially. But Pittsburgh campus also accepts international student with really extraordinary research goals.

IF: Any common mistakes which you feel students should avoid while searching and applying for internships?

AT: Yes, I would say most students do make mistakes. I also did while applying to prestigious programs e.g. DAAD, Mitacs, Viterbi-India and few others. I would recommend the following:

  • Don’t make vague application with very broad field of interests. Be very specific about your research project, your aim during internship period, etc. You have to be very sure about your research project, your ultimate goal of the focused internship.
  • Focus on official programs rather than mailing professor individually. Most of students choose latter option which contains less than 1% success rate. Target the program criteria and apply there with excellent application.
  • Start early and relate your application with your previous research experience. It really helps if you have related projects, internship experiences beforehand.

IF: Let’s talk about how competitive the selection process was. Which qualities helped you to have edge in the selection process? According to you, what were the key things that selectors were looking for?

AT: As I said, I was accepted with different criteria and individual supervision but ECE Internship program of CMU is extremely competitive for international students as hardly few students from top institutes make to it. Also, Undergrads at CMU also participate in this program to make it even more challenging for international students.

Regarding my selection, I think my previous internships and good opportunity at Rwanda campus helped me. I had worked on research project on ‘Substation Automation’ which intersected with research interests of my professor. Also, I read his research papers during that internship which helped me. 

Professors mostly look for your interest in area and relevant experience if any. Additionally, they may look at your credentials, relevant courses and academic performance. If you’re good and very close to acceptance, you can be interviewed for final decisions.

IF: What did you do after the results with respect to preparing for the internship?

AT: Yes, this part was really unusual and challenging for me. After I was accepted for the internship with full funding, I had to uplift myself for required research background of the project. For 3 months before the internship started, I read around 80 research papers pertinent to the focused research. This preparation boosted my knowledge of CMU requirements and it helped a lot, considering final output of the research.

IF: Could you please highlight the work/research you carried out during your internship period?

AT: Sure. So, I am highly motivated about power systems and smart grid and project was based on microgrids with high penetration of distributed energy resources. I designed generic microgrid testbed, its controls and protection schemes and bit part of communication infrastructure based on international standard. And for more details, one can click here.

Considering there are 1.3 million people without electricity access, my research will help them to acquire this need using bottom up approaches. Microgrids help inhabitants of remote places to utilize renewable energy resources to create electricity solutions. Additionally, research on control, protection and communication will make our power grid green, clean and sustainable with high penetration of renewable energy.

IF: What was the best thing about the work culture and the internship? What were the things you liked there?

AT: Work culture at CMU is really good and a bit challenging. Being on a small campus with few faculties, I had chance to interact with everyone (yes, including academic staff) which is best part. Regarding work and research, I worked in my small office and had chance to meet graduate students, other interns during lunch breaks. Working hours can be really flexible, if you take care of deadlines. And, everyone is ready to help you even your silly problems. Overall, it was eye-opening and enjoyable experience.

IF: Were there any special events during the internships? (events can be academics related like field trips, conferences, hackathons, meets etc and also non-academic, relating to your hostel life or alike)

AT: During those 3 months, there were few academic events e.g. Talk by IBM researchers, a workshop on ICT in Africa etc. Social events in Kigali city of Rwanda gave a great chance to interact with people from diverse background. We used to attend eclectic events on weekends starting from Arts exhibition to bowling games etc. Safari, visits to lakes and museum were top perks being in Africa.

IF: Let’s now talk about some negatives. What were the glitches and problems that came your way, which you think your juniors would be able to avoid?

AT: I had smooth journey during those 3 months in Kigali due to the support of academic staff and the professor. But there were few challenges e.g. language, culture and weather, which one has to adapt to. Visa problems can be tackled nicely since I had to take two visas (single entry & Working visa). Moreover, Kigali city is rather expensive which is unusual for East Africa.

IF: What impact do you think this internship had on your intellectual capabilities and mindset? In broader terms, what are your gains and takeaways?

AT: Internship in another country and with top US university faculties is obviously awesome in terms of intellectual capabilities but performing that work for in need regions make it very fruitful. Living in African culture with has broadened my horizons and mindsets, which will shape my goals. Visiting the awesome places (urban & rural) with people of diverse backgrounds, adds to the whole experience.

IF: Any word of advice for the juniors that can help them in getting internships in their future college life and also advice for making the best out of it?

AT: For Junior Year students: I think most of you have started progressing in this dream to have foreign internship. I would strongly suggest you to apply for prestigious programs with strong preparation. Don’t just apply; make sure that you present a strong case. Also, focus on previous experience, its relevance with proposed project, etc.

For Sophomore year students: If you have passion towards any field, explore that domain with courses, take up projects under your professors (or independent research). Try to apply for internships in top research institutes, IITs, and IAS fellowship program. And, such experience will surely help in your application during next summer internship (after completing Junior Year).

IF: What are your future plans after this internship and how much impact this internship will have on it?

AT: This is great question. Internship with CMU included really intense research in ‘Smart Grid technologies’. It provided an awesome opportunity to test my research and analytical skills which will help me in further research studies. I’m focused to pursue research in this field leading to masters and PhD from a renowned university. Also, I also intend to have an opportunity to explore the power industry to make my further studies more inclusive and impactful.

We would like to thank Ashok for this detailed and insightful interview and also wish him all the very best for his future endeavors!

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