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University of Calgary, Alberta | Intern Experience

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Siddharth Basu, SE, Class of 2020, shares his experience of interning at University of Calgary, Alberta through the Mitacs Globalink Research Internship (GRI) Program.

It was the long and weary internship season at the start of the fifth semester, everyone dressed in their blue shirts and conversations mostly restricted to discussing how many tests cases they passed the previous day, when I heard a friend talking very highly about a few foreign internship programs like DAAD and MITACS. I was completely in dark about them and knew absolutely nothing at all.

I went home and did my research and thought of applying, just for the sake of applying as it was in my head at that point in time, not even a distant possibility was there to secure the scholarship. Now contrary to most students wanting to do these internships to strengthen their CV by bagging some research experience before they start off with their postgraduate college applications, my sole driving force at the start was an opportunity to stay abroad for an extended run of two and a half months and spending time with the best minds from across the globe. However, by the end fortunately that did change.

After securing an on-campus offer, I started my DAAD and MITACS process. I started mailing professors in German Universities expecting that none would revert. To my surprise by the end of September, I had three letters of invitation from Germany. But I knew DAAD usually prefers students with a GPA over 9.4 and I was an early 9 so I concentrated most of my time in the MITACS Globalink Research Internship Programme for Canada. The application deadline was late September for it and I clearly remember procrastinating the application till just two hours before the deadline.

I hardly knew that it will turn out to be an immaculate experience, and will give me memories to cherish for a long time. It was finally on the 4th of January that I got to know about my selection and that the summers of 2019 won’t be the hot 40-degree summers but rather a summer with sweaters in a country halfway across the world from here.

The Project

My internship in the second year at IIM Bangalore really ignited in me an interest in Big Data and Data Science, and how to utilize the immense data which is generated on a daily basis these days to find insights and to develop a productive application out of it. 
In my project in Canada, I had access to the geo-spatial trajectories of the taxi drivers of three huge Chinese cities (Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen) and I developed a route predicting algorithm which incorporates the aspect of human spatial and temporal memory in the prediction part, and not just rely on the shortest distance or time as is the case with Google Maps and other applications. I also learnt many new things in order to proceed like managing data on clusters and parallel processing using Spark and Hadoop which go much beyond what we learn in college academics. 

I believe the biggest takeaway I had in these two different internships is that the best way to learn something is through doing a project in that domain as it helps way more than taking even a dozen courses on that topic.

The Experience

My experience so far in the internship has been phenomenal. I had the opportunity to attend meetings and have one-on-one conversations with few of the best professors in the field of Computer Science. In addition to the project I was selected for, I also had the opportunity to work with a corporate client of our laboratory thus giving me access to both the dimensions. The infrastructure I had access to and the level of trust they put in ordinary undergraduate students cannot be matched by any corporate internship in my opinion.

Also, the experience of living abroad for a good couple and half months and learning how to cook and do daily chores on your own has been quite some fun. The stipend paid by MITACS also allows you quite some savings which enabled me to go to different cities like Edmonton, Banff, Canmore, Japser, and Yoho National Park. 

My city, Calgary, had the easiest access to the Rockies which I believe is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Spotting Bears and wildlife especially Grizzlies by the streams while hiking in the Rockies, walking on glaciers and failing at that miserably, watching glacial fed lakes bearing the most brilliant shades of emerald blue, exploring the canyons with walkways by the mountainous rivers with icy cold water and experiencing a snowfall in the month of June has been something I can never forget. The environment you get in Canada where everyone is so supportive and helpful makes you not want to leave this country at the end of your internship. You will also make some really great friends from different countries, and learn a lot from them beyond work and academics.


Application Process and Chances of Selection

  • The first and foremost step an individual need to take in order to be eligible for foreign internship programs is having a very good GPA, preferably over 9. Most of the famous programs like MITACS and DAAD have a GPA barrier set at 8.5 while applying, but due to the very high volume of good applications they receive it is very tough to get through with a GPA below 9. 
  • Along with a good GPA it’s very important to have some good showing in the form of projects, papers or internships in your domain of interest as most of the internships require you to give an interview to the professors under whom you will possibly work, and these are people who've seen and done a lot in their careers so it’s imperative to be a standout in order to work under their tutelage. 
  • Also, I feel having patience and endurance is also very important as these programs tend to have a very thorough application procedure and usually have very long waiting periods between the application phase and the result declaration phase. In some internships like DAAD you need to first find professors on your own who are willing to take you in their lab for the summers and this process is usually very tiring as most don't reply, and the others send automated rejection mails which can be disheartening at times. 
  • In my case, contrary to that, MITACS had a very efficient online portal system and is very easy to figure out once you start your application in September. Also, if you back your GPA with some practical projects and skills in your field, it all will boil down to the interview you give to your professor who in almost all cases will be the best person to gauge your potential. 
  • I would suggest to make a list of available internships along with the application deadline so as to apply in a timely and organized manner. 

Living Abroad

MITACS was paying us a fixed stipend for our accommodation but it’s up to you whether you want to live in University premises or outside the campus. Before leaving for Canada, I coordinated with three students from three different BITS campuses and we booked an Airbnb for our duration there. This allowed us savings closed to a 1000$ a month just in accommodation which we used in our travels. I also bought a new bicycle to travel to university and other places nearby, and in no time, we were cycling 15 kilometers a day regularly mostly because of the good weather and nice roads.


Now coming to food, in the first few days I was surviving mostly on buying food and boiling Maggi. Soon my Maggi stock I carried from India diminished and I had to look elsewhere. There was a group of four girls from India who stayed together and knew how to cook. So, I was mostly found there for dinner every alternate day. Then somehow, I too developed the confidence to go grocery shopping and break eggs. By the end, I was cooking salmon fillets so I think I managed well and now know survival cooking. Although I could buy food everyday with my stipend but then that way, I wouldn’t have any cooking chronicles to tell and it wouldn’t have been as memorable. Prior to leaving I had memorized all the Walmart alleys and that is an achievement given how huge these superstores are. 

Difference in Research Environment in India

I picked a research internship over the on-campus corporate offer I had.

I think the research environment abroad is a completely different prospect altogether majorly because funding isn't an issue at all, hence making it a very lucrative option without fretting much about the quick pay-off outlook. The kind of projects that students are working on, with access to state-of-art facilities, is unparalleled and in this sense most of the research institutions in India have a long way to go. I picked a research internship over the on-campus corporate offer I had, majorly because of the depth of project I was assigned to do here in Canada and the independence I had in choosing the workflow and deciding the proceedings. 

I don't think any corporate internship could have given me the opportunity to interact and stay with probably the best minds of eleven different countries and not just working with them but to also learn about different cultures and ways of living. 

Also the notion of research being a trying path is true in the sense of discipline people maintain towards the work but that doesn't interfere with the work life balance they have, which was true even for my internship as it had no fixed timings or days and mostly depended on my dedication towards the work. The system depends more on trust and less on rules in this part of the world I reckon. 

I think what our college majorly lacks in terms of research is the students who are willing to take this path. The culture mostly revolves around grabbing a good placement which makes people align their interests with the placements in mind. But I believe it’s really easy to balance both the ships and devote time to explore the practical applications of our usually theoretical courses in order to tread on both the roads.

Also, after spending time in Canada I have realized that there is a stark difference in the resources we have even in the good and prominent colleges of our country and the facilities in the western nations. The ease of access and the simplicity of the administrative procedures to avail them is better on many levels. 

The applications for MITACS GRI is open for the summers of 2020. Go and apply now!

Posted by Parangat Mittal

@thesciencestudent