Undergrad Memoir

12 July 2019

The following article was written for and published in Physics Depart Newsletter at IIT Bombay. Requested and edited by Toshi Parmar. Co-authored by Sandesh Kalantre

(Ayush is a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs, Bengaluru. Sandesh is a graduate research assistant in condensed matter physics at the University of Maryland, College Park. They both received their undergraduate degree in Engineering Physics (class of 2018) at IIT Bombay. This article is a personal memoir of their beloved department, their life as EP students and everything around it.)

Engineer? Physicist? Err… Engineering Physicist? In hindsight, it would be an understatement to say that the past four years have been more about discovering ourselves than anything else. Given the humdrum reality of scientifically inclined teenagers in India, it was no wonder, we both ended up being at an engineering institution, for us, that being our beloved ‘insti’, IIT Bombay. Nevertheless, it was the Engineering Physics program that got us the best of both worlds, the security of much sought after a degree from an IIT and a way to satiate our curiosity in physics and mathematics.

We were both attracted to this strangely sounding programme at IIT Bombay because of our love for physics and mathematics from high school. For Ayush, it was “partly because Prof. Varun Bhalerao said it’d be a good idea, partly because there was some family pressure to join an IIT rather than IISc which was my next best option, and partly because Sandesh too chose IITB”. It’s probably incorrect to listen to others or do as your friends are doing, but if you’ve chosen the people and the friends well, it’s not as bad as many make it sound.

Education in physics is a strange thing to define. It’s challenging to draw borders in what constitutes physics and what does not. The study of stars, galaxies and black holes does belong to the realm of physics, but so does getting an operational amplifier to work in a lab. Statistical physics of gases is used to analyze the workings of earthly things like metals or superconductors to astronomical objects like white dwarfs. But more crucially so, the same ideas show up in the study of financial markets. The brilliant platter of physics courses at IITB got to us the nitty gritty details of all the above ideas. But more so, it was the wisdom about the interconnections of science and an appreciation of all things, physics or not, that we learned during our stay here stays with us today.

Receiving education as an undergraduate is never a solitary activity. IITB is no exception. The general idea was that IITB would offer a better and varied peer which is important for undergraduate education. We were not just joining to learn Physics. We were joining to learn how to live a life. And the variety along with the intensity of experiences matters a lot for the latter. Did we know all of this going in, or did it come with four years of retrospect? Or something in between like for Ayush - “I don’t know, I have a bad memory but if I were to guess I’d say yes I did know this going in”.

Coming from Pune and Jodhpur to Mumbai meant we were going to away from a homely environment. Though we were no longer at home, a new home itself came to us as we progressed through the years, the department. We recall a department introduction session for freshmen, which involved professors giving short descriptions of their work. We started with the senior most professors first, and as we progressed through the introductions, a happy coincidence occurred. The younger professors were, in fact, students of the older ones. After three or so such generations, came the youngest freshmen in the room, the actual students. The department constituted of a significant fraction of such alumni professors, which made being associated with the place quite rewarding. They had a sense of gratitude towards it and an anchor to their past when they were students. That’s what made them so relatable to us and vice versa. A multitude of interactions with them made us into members of a very ‘homely’ tradition, which we hope to keep up where we go.

Categorizing the physics department as a home is incomplete without talking about the computer lab and the department library. These two places have been fortuitously available for use to all department students during recent years. Open 24x7, they often vacillated between the hustle and bustle of a noisy cafe to a place of necessary solitude for academic work. Well, what makes a college a good college is its collegiality. We spent many weekend mornings there, over coffee and an assorted set of crazy ideas about physics or everything else. Ayush spent many sleepless nights doing hackathons, completing reports and so on. The library also doubled up as a visitor office which meant we could meet other students and professors. These rooms brought people and ideas together and they continue to do so today.

At the end of our stay here, we diverged onto two different paths - as a financial analyst and as a graduate student in physics. For Ayush, he “never understood why people call my job as the ‘non-core’ sector. Broadly speaking, EP has partly applied math and experimental physics. Sure, I don’t use the latter in my job, but I use or see the use for most of the other skills that I learnt in the former. The interesting part of studying nature was the intellectual process. In physics, the fight is against the rules of nature, while in finance it is against the rules of humans. It is this challenge that excites me to work, every day.” As for Sandesh, “it was the same love for physics that brought me at IITB takes me to the lab almost every day as a graduate student. In our respective jobs, we still do the same thing we were taught so well at IITB, we make models and solve problems - either on exotic superconductors or the financial market is a matter of taste and details.”

As we look forward to our jobs for tomorrow - either measure a sample at ultra-low temperatures or use the Black-Scholes pricing model, all of it would be impossible without our education as an Engineer and as a Physicist and as much more during our stay here. Hindsight is always 20/20, and getting an EP degree was the best thing to do. If we could rewind 4 years and could choose a different route, would we? Absolutely for one, and even perhaps do it once more so. Thank You!