MIT: Pulkit Agrawal

In this edition of Insight’s summer blog, Pulkit Agarwal talks about his experience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Getting In
It was November 24th, 2013 and I was fidgeting with my notes in my room, preparing for the next day’s exam while checking my email and the internship blog for the 20th time. This is how I had been for the last 3 months – antsy and irritable. The fifth semester had almost come to an end and I didn’t have an internship yet. Like many others, I too had a dream to go to a foreign land for a summer research experience and none but one of the shortlists for the universities I had applied to was out yet.

Shreyansh Jain, my friend and internship cell co-ordinator, walked into my room and informed me about this new IAF he was about to open. It was the Energy Efficient Integrated Circuits and Systems Group at MIT, headed by Prof. Anantha Chandrakasan and they were looking for undergraduate students to work with the PhD candidates over the summers.

It was the Energy Efficient Integrated Circuits and Systems Group at MIT, headed by Prof. Anantha Chandrakasan and they were looking for undergraduate students to work with the PhD candidates over the summers.

I was really excited because one of the major areas the group works on is energy efficient integration of complex multimedia applications like computational photography on portable devices through algorithm and architecture level optimizations. I anticipated that the work would involve signal processing and hardware design – two areas that I was really interested in and hence this internship opportunity was like a godsend. I quickly signed the IAF as soon as it was opened and started waiting eagerly for the shortlist and interview call.

I did some background research and found out that many IITB graduates were currently PhD candidates at the group and the group had been hosting IIT undergrads as summer interns for many years. In fact, only last year one of my seniors, Shibani Santurkar, had interned with the group. I got in touch with her and she graciously apprised me of her experience and told me what I should expect in the interview, should I get shortlisted.

A few days later, I was shortlisted and the date and time for the Skype interview were fixed. The interview was conducted by Mehul Tikekar, an IITB graduate from 2010 (who is also my guide here) and Rahul Rithe, a graduate from IIT Kharagpur (both are PhD candidates at MIT). They asked me questions about the recent projects I had worked on that were relevant to their work and particularly about a course project on counting the number of vehicles in video frames and how I would go about implementing it in hardware. The interview lasted for about an hour and I wasn’t particularly happy with my performance. I was sure I wouldn’t get selected and sat in my friend’s room at midnight, lamenting about a lost opportunity and how I would fail to excel at everything in life. And that’s when Shreyansh called me and informed that I had in fact cleared the interview and would be spending my summer at MIT, the dream school of every undergraduate student.

That’s when Shreyansh called me and informed that I had cleared the interview and would be spending my summer at MIT, the dream school of every undergraduate student.

Fast-forward a few months, and here I was, at Logan International Airport, Boston loading my luggage in the taxi and telling the cab driver about my destination. He looked for directions on Google Maps and off we went.

Cambridge, Boston and MIT

Boston and Cambridge are cities where the modern meets the historic, both being among the oldest cities of America that have been at the forefront of American history and are the cultural, economic and educational hubs of the New England area. There are skyscrapers and colonial homes, federal buildings and Victorian churches, quiet neighborhoods and commercial centers, MIT and Harvard and high-tech businesses (the area is sometimes called Silicon Fen, an allusion to Silicon Valley), driveways and river esplanades, sea-ports, harbors and beaches, ducks and squirrels and there are trees, trees that explode with flowers (particularly during April and May).

The one thing that I particularly like about Boston and Cambridge are their planned network of bicycle lanes and paths, making them a safe haven for bicyclists. There is also a Hubway Bike sharing system where you can rent a bike from one stand and leave it at any of the other stands across the city. The public transportation system (locally known as the ‘T’) is extensive, accessible and convenient, comprising of subway, bus, commuter rail, trolley cars and boat service. With a monthly pass of about $45 (with MIT discount) that works for all modes of transport, one can go from anywhere to anywhere. Walking is also a popular option and cars are generous to the walkers, stopping at crossings to let you pass.

The people, in general, are polite and helpful; accent is not a barrier at all.

MIT is not a walled campus but it has a lot of department buildings, research centers and residences in the same area. The architecture is unique with each building having its own distinct look. There is an Infinite Corridor (akin to the one at IITB) linking some of the major buildings together. There are plenty of gym and sports facilities (People here are particularly fitness conscious), which can be availed with the MIT ID Card. Besides, the student community at MIT is culturally diverse with a lot of Asians and Indians.

Travel and Weekends
There are a plenty of things to do around the city. One can explore American history by walking along the Freedom Trail, soak in the sun at one of the beaches like the Carson Beach, indulge in water sports like sailing, wind surfing and kayaking at Charles River, walk and bike along the Charles River Esplanade (your typical weekend view of the city would be a lot of people jogging around along the various walkways) and attend the various festivals that happen around the city throughout the summer (like the Earth Fest I attended). A lot of events also keep happening at MIT like talks and seminars, end of the term barbeque, lunches and dinners (organized by the various international student groups and graduate council), GoT nights, quizzes, etc. to name a few. You need a liquor card to buy alcohol anywhere around the city (I’ve been told the Passport suffices sometimes). Washington D.C. and New York are close by (4-10 hours by bus) and can be easily explored in a weekend if well-planned out.

Food is not a problem at all, for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. There is a sizeable Indian community in Boston and Cambridge and hence there are plenty of Indian grocery stores where one can buy frozen rotis and ready to cook sabzis to make a quick and affordable dinner. There are well-equipped kitchens in all the graduate residences to make cooking your own food an easy option. Besides there are big super markets and grocery stores to meet other breakfast and dinner needs. Lunch can be had for $3 to $7 in the Stratton Student Center Food Court (Subway, Dunkin Donuts, Café Spice, etc.), Stata Center Cafeteria (Pizza, smoothies and salads), Whiteheads, Clover, Cozi, Sebastian’s (Burgers, Sandwiches and Pasta) and Chipotle Mexican Grill (Burritos, Tacos and Nachos). My lab also has a kitchen and coffee machine for the occasional 4 pm coffee. With some planning, one can easily manage food within $500 – $650 for the entire internship period.

There are both off-campus and on-campus options for housing. Off-campus housing is the cheapest option where you can get an apartment sublet for as low as $450 a month, where you share an apartment of 2 bedrooms, hall and a kitchen with around 6 people, mostly Indian students. The graduate residences also have a lot of events, much like the hostel events at IITB, just better attended. A service called XfinityOnCampus provides free online streaming of TV for all members on MIT community on the MIT network.

One should be careful about the neighborhood while booking any of the off-campus listings. I had a crazy experience at my first sublet. It was around 8 pm; I was sitting in my room relaxing, while I heard something like a gunshot right in my backyard. At first I dismissed it as being a car backfire. But then my roommate told me there had been six gunshots right behind our window and a lot of police had arrived in the back alley. To make the situation worse, my roommate went away biking asking me not to go outside and not to tell the police about my sublet (as I was not on the lease legally). Thankfully, no one had died and situation was under control

Thankfully, no one had died and situation was under control

in sometime but I would personally like to avoid having any such experience in the very first week of my visit to a foreign country.

Broadly speaking, my project is about developing architecture for reconstruction of 4D light field from sparse samples. The project is a part of Mehul’s PhD thesis and I am working on designing one block (one part of the entire chip). The project is sort-of in collaboration with CSAIL, as a group at CSAIL has developed the central algorithm and so I get to interact with them as well. The first two weeks of my internship were spent in learning about light fields and light field cameras, the reconstruction algorithm and choosing the part I wanted to design. Currently, I am exploring architecture level optimizations to improve the throughput of the design and reduce computation to make the design energy efficient and developing software level simulations for the design. The remaining time would be spent in writing RTL for the design and testing and verification on FPGA.

I have my own cubicle to work in and there are no restrictions on the timings. I usually got to work at around 10:30 am to 11:00 am in the morning and return home by 9:00 pm, while people are still working in the lab. I have my own lab key so I can access it at anytime of the day. There are a lot of Indian PhD students at my group (3 from IIT Bombay itself) thus occasional Hindi and IITB words like ‘chamka’ are common, making me feel entirely at home.

There are a lot of Indian PhD students at my group (3 from IIT Bombay itself) thus occasional Hindi and IITB words like ‘chamka’ are common, making me feel entirely at home.

The group works in a diverse range of fields from energy harvesting, wireless communications and biomedical instrumentation to multimedia processing, covering almost the entire spectrum of Electrical Engineering and you can hear people having interesting discussions about their work and thus the working environment in the lab is very stimulating. I mostly interact with my guide with regards to my project who is always available to answer any trivial question that I might have and discuss my progress so far. The other PhD students are also very approachable and friendly and ready to help should you have any question.

I have a presentation on the first of July, where I am supposed to discuss my two months’ of work with the entire group including Prof. Anantha Chandrakasan and I am looking forward to making it a success. The internship has given me all that I was hoping for, an interesting project and a stimulating work environment, experience of surviving on my own in a new city all by myself and travelling around, exploring a foreign land and its culture. This is an experience of a lifetime and I’ll always cherish it.

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