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Cornell in known for cross-departmental collaborations - Adithya Sagar, PhD student at Cornell University

Cornell University, one of the famous US Universities for research studies, has more than 4,000 international students, with nearly 2,350 of them enrolled in its Graduate School. It offers Tata Scholarships for Indian students who wish to pursue undergraduate program in the university. The University offers many other scholarships for international students.

In 2013, Cornell is ranked 15th in the QS World University Rankings and 19th in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. It is ranked fourth in the world in producing the largest number of graduates who goes on to pursue PhDs in engineering or the natural sciences at American institutions.

I am presently perusing my PhD in Chemical and Bimolecular Engineering at Cornell. I did my B.Tech. in Biotechnology from Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati and them MS in Biomedical Engineering from Cornell University.

UG, PG and other studies
As I said, I have completed my undergraduate studies from IIT Guwahati and graduated as the top ranker. As I was interested in a computational approach to biological problems, I majored in Biotechnology with a focus on Mathematics and Computing. The first four semesters of my undergraduate studies provided a rigorous training in basic sciences and computing. These courses were quite instrumental in developing a holistic understanding when I took up advanced interdisciplinary courses such as computational biology and Nano biosciences.

Apart from the rigorous curriculum, I was lucky to be amongst an incredibly smart peer group. Being amongst such a tremendously talented and motivated group was probably a greater learning experience than the conventional form of learning through classes.

I coupled my undergraduate studies with a couple of internships at the University of Toronto And Weizmann Institute of Science. These internships were quite useful in providing a research component to my undergraduate studies. At the end of these internships, in retrospect, I was able to relate my coursework to my research projects that proved to be a very fulfilling and enlightening experience.

From an academically oriented family…
Prior to coming to the United States, I spent my time in various parts of India but primarily in Roorkee and Hyderabad, where I did most of my schooling. I come from an academically- oriented family where both my parents have PhDs. My father completed his PhD in Computer Science from IIT Roorkee and my mother holds a PhD in law from Osmania University. Both parents holding PhDs always made me want to emulate them. More importantly my family always believed in an intrinsic value that good education held that went beyond any materialistic gains it offered. This has been the credo that defined my choices especially those concerning education.

Cornell in known for cross-departmental collaborations
Soon after my undergraduate studies I entered into technology consulting, specializing in healthcare and biotechnology. I worked with Fortune 500 firms analyzing cutting-edge technologies in biologics, medical devices and banking while offering solutions in multi-million dollar patent litigations. This experience was important in making me understand the value of research to society and whetted my desire further to do research that could make an impact.

I was lucky enough to get multiple offers of admissions that included Cornell. There were several things about Cornell that made me choose it over others. Firstly, Cornell is one of the eight Ivy League universities that are amongst the most prestigious in the world. The opportunity of studying in an Ivy League school was a matter of great privilege. Secondly, Cornell has a highly renowned engineering program that is the best amongst the Ivies and is one of the best in the world. Thirdly, Cornell engineering has always been a traditional choice with many IIT students and provided me an incentive of being amongst familiar faces. Also, Cornell in known for cross-departmental collaborations that excited me the most since the nature of my research was highly interdisciplinary. All these factors led me in choosing Cornell University.

Mathematical and computational biology
My work here largely comes under what can be called as mathematical and computational biology. I study large-scale biological networks (like genetic networks, protein networks, metabolic networks etc.) and develop appropriate mathematical models to analyze these networks. Since the networks are very big and highly complex I tend to rely heavily on algorithms used in machine learning and artificial intelligence to analyze and validate these networks. For example, currently I am trying to understand blood coagulation and fibrinolysis (formation of blood clots and their subsequent degradation) using mathematical models. My lab is collaborating with several research groups and doctors who are providing us with experimental data that allows me to validate my model. Model development and analysis is a computationally challenging task that requires deep understanding of biology of coagulation. Translating this understanding to develop an appropriate mathematical formulation that can be solved in finite computational time poses a significant problem. Successfully developing such a model and validating it against experimental data would reveal several interesting aspects about coagulation and related disorders. This will eventually lead to the development of new treatment strategies for coagulation related disorders that includes various cardiovascular problems, brain stroke, Deep Vein Thrombosis etc.

Cornell stresses a lot on inter-disciplinary projects
Like many students before me I was a bit nervous coming to a new place not knowing what to expect. Cornell however did a great job in allaying my anxieties and has given me a wonderful experience so far.

Being arguably the best engineering school in Ivy League, Cornell boasts of world-class research facilities and some of the best faculty in the world in engineering. This naturally attracts the best students around the globe and thus provides you with an amazing peer group. There is a tremendous amount of orientation towards applying the ‘science’ to real world scenarios, which probably is the underlying goal of engineering studies. In addition, one of the unique things at Cornell is the amount of collaborations one can have with other departments.

Cornell stresses a lot on inter-disciplinary projects that allows a student to interact and learn from other disciplines. Though my home department is Chemical Engineering, I have been able to frame research problems in molecular biology, work with faculty from Operations Research and apply methods from Computer Science to solve my problems. All these experience have been quite enriching and have tremendously contributed to my developing new perspectives.

Social Interaction
Being in grad school is sometimes stressful and having a vibrant social life is very important in leading a balanced life. Apart from the friends you make at work and otherwise, Cornell as an institution makes a lot of effort in organizing events that help people get together relax and enjoy. There are also several organizations that conduct different events that allow you to have a lot of fun. Since there are people from different corners of the globe, social life here provides you with a diverse cultural experience. Also there is a vibrant Indian community and Indian community based organizations that hold several cultural events and celebrate various Indian festivals. Being in such diverse yet friendly communities made me miss homeless and made being at Cornell fun.

Living conditions in NY, USA
I reside in Ithaca, New York where the largest campus of Cornell is located. Ithaca is a picturesque little town located on the shores of Cayuga Lake in central NY. People who are fond of outdoors, love nature and like to stay away from the humdrum of a big city will take an immediate liking to this place. It is an excellent place to go hiking, swimming, boating and indulge in various other outdoor activities.

Bavitha Ithaca is primarily what is known as a college-town i.e. most of its population comes from its colleges – Cornell University and Ithaca College. Though a small place, owing to the diverse student population from different corners of globe there is a cosmopolitan feel that is associated with this place.

Since it is located in NY the cost of living is relatively higher as compared to most of other places in United States. Most or nearly all the PhD students are funded by fellowships or assistantships, which is sufficient to maintain a reasonable standard of living. There is generally very little or almost no funding provided to Masters Students especially to international students. So international students who are interested in doing a Masters might have to work on their finances before coming here.

Advice to the prospective science students who aspire to study in USA

United States is the leader in science and technology and continues to act as the ‘innovation engine’ for the world. A plethora of opportunities exist for students who are interested in doing research. At the graduate level a student can primarily exercise two options – he/she can either pursue a Masters degree or a PhD degree. If one is interested in obtaining an advanced skill set or honing their existing skills that cater to a particular industry and is not prepared to devote substantial time to graduate studies, one should consider doing a Masters.

Taking up the other option, which is the PhD, primarily relies on two things. One, there are certain careers which need a PhD such as academia or R&D jobs in a few industries. If you are interested in such a career you definitely need a PhD. The second and probably the more important aspect is a less materialistic one. It concerns with the ‘desire’ to do one. If you are really passionate about acquiring knowledge in a specific discipline, tackling loosely defined problems and would like to extend the boundaries of that discipline, then PhD is your cup of tea.

One should carefully introspect before taking up doctoral studies, as it requires substantial commitment, time (approximately 5-6 years) and patience. In United States success in academia, especially in sciences, is largely measured on the basis of the number of publications, their quality and the number of grants one can procure. This greatly differs from the undergraduate model where you are evaluated based on your GPA and have predefined work load/objectives. So as a PhD student in a lab, there is a certain expectation that you contribute significantly to high impact publications and help the lab in procuring grants. The whole process can sometimes be quite challenging. So it is imperative that you are really passionate about your research and are not solely motivated by the prestige or the career options that a PhD has to offer.

Published date : 31 Oct 2013 04:45PM

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