As we leave…- Lavanya Taneja

Disclaimer: The views presented below are the author’s own and are not in any manner representative of the views of Vox Populi as a body or IIT Kanpur in general.

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

27/08/14: The mild cool breeze swishes by my face. My eyes automatically start brimming … That beloved landscape, that beautiful weather and those wonderful people back home … I realise I’m homesick.

09/14: I haven’t felt as disillusioned with my life as I am doing now. And I was the one supposed to be going to college with a crystal clear goal, right? Ironical. What do I want from my life? Do I know? … Leave alone life… What do I want from the four years waiting stealthily down the line? …

date unknown: Just returned from the lab, it’s almost 2 AM… I can’t get over the image of that cascade of white dots on the photon detector when the door creaked [open] a little.., I feel confident of my decision now!…

————————————————————————————————————————————–

Hi everyone, I am Lavanya Taneja. I would be graduating from IITK this year with a Bachelors in Physics, along with minors in Artificial Intelligence and (probably) Literature. After that, I would pursue my PhD from the University of Chicago. While on my CV my IITK trajectory appears to be neat and fairly decent, I would straight away go ahead to call it an absolute mess – which is why it became extremely difficult to put down this article! My own diary entries helped a bit and I shall take a detour off and on to delve into them, so please bear with me!

My relationship with academics saw an interesting transformation over the four years. In the first year, I would go to all classes but mostly end up playing 2048/Asphalt or dozing off (especially on afternoons after lunch). Doing the assignments and practising some questions made things work well. With an initial disposition towards theoretical Physics, I despised the lab courses. I remember how I sometimes read the manual after performing PHY101 experiments. A reading project during the summers introduced me to some aspects of physics research – how to understand publications and give presentations. The second year, now with a few departmental courses, worked with the same techniques of preparation. But there was a discomforting feeling – that overwhelming feeling that I would feel on understanding something had disappeared. Physics just became a subject I had to live with.

What was I doing?

For the summers, I wished to give experimental Physics a final chance before eliminating it. I worked in the Quantum Optics & Entanglement laboratory with Dr Anand Kr Jha under the SURGE program. The entire experience of being in a research group and working on experiments with all those advanced (and functional) equipment was so exciting that at times, I would return from the lab even after midnight. I switched sides – experimental physics was what I was going to do!

——————————————————————————————————————————-

17/01/16: Had made a plan with P and Q yesterday night. Lessons learnt: never drink on an empty stomach, never drink when you’re sad, never mix neat, try nimbu paani for a hangover. And, never ever leave an assignment for the next day. My head is aching like hell..

——————————————————————————————————————————–

I started enjoying my Physics courses in the next semester. We had a lab course, and the experience was totally different this time. I would try to understand the (ill-framed) manual before the lab. Even a bad apparatus with poor results would give opportunities to question and discuss stuff. I realised that the more effort I put in a course, the more enjoyable and simple it became. At times the pressure of maintaining a CPI would creep in, but giving appropriate time to all the courses made it work somehow. This semester was also the one with everyone preparing for a summer internship. The option of continuing work at IITK seemed to balance the charm of a foreign internship and that happy-for-the-friend-who-got-an-internship-but-sad-for-self feeling. However, my professors recommended that a non-IITK experience would give a nice exposure to physics and academia. Some block stopped me from sending more than a couple of emails (and it didn’t work out). I also applied for three internship programs, but wasn’t selected.

Back at the lab, the work got more focussed this time. There were the usual ups and downs of research, but as always, the happy disposition of our supervisor helped me take those in my stride. Towards the end, however, it seemed that we’d reached a deadlock (in retrospect, even that’s a usual part of research!). Alongside, the grad-school application process brought in heights of self-doubt, anxiety and uncertainty about Physics and my university choices. This was the first time I was supposed to take such a big decision about the next 6 years of my life and be solely responsible for it. But the support of my friends, parents and professors (and myself) helped me steer through it. This process was the time that gave me one of the most important lessons of these four years – it is okay to go wrong on decisions, no matter how big or small; and that I can stay happy independent of the circumstances I am in.

——————————————————————————————————————————–

date unknown: Spent the afternoon at the CS office and got to talk to mothers of two students… Felt ashamed of crying at my “problems”. Is it silly to compare this way?… Talking helps? Hell, it doesn’t! I talk and end up at the same place, wasting the time of the other person too.

13/07/17: More than a year has passed, but things still seem the same! … I’ve spent three summers at the same place. I am almost hating my work. PhD application season is to begin soon. My GRE is due in a month. Am I screwed up? I should probably humbly accept myself as I am…also not guess others’ opinion about me. If they will have a problem, they will let me know. Btw, some gossip! X texted that…

——————————————————————————————————————————–

The US grad-school application process generally has the following major components – GRE, subject GRE (for some disciplines), TOEFL, 3 letters of recommendation (LoRs) and the Statement of Purpose(SoP). Giving GRE practice tests (there are plenty of free ones available online – Kaplan, ManhattanPrep, PrincetonReview, ETS) in test-time conditions helped me more than anything else, especially for the verbal section. For LoRs, I felt the more the recommender knows you, the better it becomes. While getting different perspectives on the application (especially the SoP) by friends and seniors was necessary, it would get thoroughly confusing most of the times. At that time, it helped me to stay honest and original to what I thought.

Among co-curricular activities, I had been associated with the Counselling Service as a Student Guide, Academic Mentor for PHY103 and a Core Team Academics member. Having been cocooned in my own shell before IITK, the experience gave me a chance to understand others, and in turn, better understand myself. More so, I got to work on my communication, mentoring and teaching, and organizational skills. Working with Prayas and listening to the discussions held by the Community Welfare Cell made me realise that the institute community extends beyond faculty and students, and the apparent perfection on the surface needs to be questioned to find the imperfections lying beneath. My HSS courses in literature and philosophy exposed me to the theoretical sides of such efforts, which was a truly enlightening experience. Besides, these organisations gave me a set of life-long friends with different interests, skills and motivations who inspired, taught and supported me in different aspects of life.

DSC_0097

Core Team Academics, Counselling Service (Y14)

From left to right: Lavanya (that’s me!),  Shubham, Kshiitiz, Abhinandan, Prasang, Suyash, Gaurav, Abhinav

While I was not formally associated with any of Gymkhana clubs or sports, I would find convenient ways to try those things. For instance, during the first summers I would try flight simulation at an Aeromodelling Club friend’s room. Another of my Fine Arts Club friends would give me lessons on charcoal sketching and watercolour paintings. While swimming was a constant for all the three summers, I also got to try some badminton, table-tennis, squash and pool. I also explored a bit of Pranayama and meditation which helped me significantly in maintaining my mental balance.

——————————————————————————————————————————–

23/07/17: Finally got to talk to Profs A and B. A said it was okay if I rejected a group because they had a flashy web-page 😛 What’s important is to stay happy…it is okay if I miss an opportunity, it won’t ever be a great deal in the larger scheme of things…these two points lately seem convincing.. Prof B actually sat with me on the QS rankings-list to review my choices. Felt like I was sitting with Papa!

03/18: While I had promised myself to make the last sem easy, I ended up with a gruesome mix. But it is exciting! Differential Geometry is killing me, but I can almost touch General Relativity now.. Feminist theory is going on as interesting as ever…I wonder if I would’ve ever paid attention to such aspects [in the society] had it not been for [ENG]123 or 437, or if I would’ve accepted such bizarre extreme arguments as ways of deconstructing [social constructs] without Moral Thinking. And Ma’am is helping us articulate them in a coherent manner. I sometimes feel guilty of enjoying HSS courses more than Physics, but can’t really help it!

——————————————————————————————————————————-

One thing about my IITK time that I consider myself really lucky about was the interaction I had with professors. Be it discussing the philosophy of a course, apprehensions about research or moments of self-doubt, they were always an appointment away. Experienced as they are both in academia and in life, I found their advice the most comforting. Discussions also helped us share our perceptions about different issues on campus. I feel such interactions are important to smoothen the apparent disagreements seen nowadays. Furthermore, the chance to visit their homes on Diwali or get-togethers and being pampered with food would recreate a bit of home on campus!

These four years were an exciting journey of exploring myself. No one method seemed to work all the time, one had to “improvise-adapt-overcome”. I learnt to better control myself, and prepare myself for the challenges of the next moment. Apart from all this seriousness, I also take with me some exotic memories – silent stargazing on OAT rooftop with close friends, crazily dancing to tunak-tunak-tun and the likes, cycling to Ganga-barrage, getting hold of seniors for treats, actually feeling like the amma of juniors or just walking alone in campus on a cool October night.. The list wouldn’t stop! I can rest assured IITK would be such an extraordinary journey for all of us.

Edited by Soumyadeep Datta