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Student Alumni Interaction Cell, (SAIC)

Indian Institute of Technology, IIT (BHU), Varanasi

Shivdeep Singh from the SAIC, IIT (BHU) Varanasi, is in talks with Jaseel Muhammed, currently a 4th
Year (IDD) student in the School of Biomedical Engineering. He has been associated with the Film &
Media Council for the last 4 years, and is currently the General Secretary of the council.

Jaseel recently completed a twelve-week summer research internship at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology (MIT).

Excerpts from his interview:

Hello, Jaseel! Please tell us about your journey, landing this dream internship?

Honestly speaking, it wasn’t exactly a planned thing. I did not plan getting into MIT or any other top
university. Basically, it started with the Khorana Scholarship Program. It’s a platform through which
students from top Indian institutes can intern in the US. My final exams had ended and I was jobless
for the next five days, with the deadline for the Khorana program still open. I really wanted to know
about the process of applying since I’ve seen mostly 4th year students getting selected for this
scholarship. I hadn’t applied to MITACS or DAAD – two other foreign internship programs. So
Khorana was the only thing that was open to me. I applied for it with all those basic things – a
transcript, a statement of purpose and two letters of recommendation. I had done my previous
internship from the Indian Institute of Science in neuroscience and imaging. So I got a decent
recommendation from there, and another from the Head of my Department, here. I sent the
application just for the sake of trying it out, because as far as I had heard, people applying for foreign
internships were far more deserving than I was - most of them had multiple summer internship and
better grade points.

As a student interested in core engineering, I was fascinated about places like MIT, Harvard etc. My
dad had asked me that why I don’t even consider these as options. I immediately laughed stating
people don’t go to such premium institutes, at least as far as I know, from our IIT. But he asked me
what if no one applied. I replied that people must have, those who had better grade points. If he
hadn’t pestered me to apply for such institutes, I would have never even tried.

In January, I was browsing through various MIT professors and their research profiles. I emailed a
number of professors from several top US Universities. There was a negative reply from almost
everyone as they didn’t find me qualified enough for their labs, or they didn’t have ample funding. I
wasn’t even disheartened at that time because that is what I expected as responses from such top
institutes. Then in mid-February, I got a mail from the Khorana Program. I was expecting a similar
rejection (just like all the other programs that I had applied to). But when I read the full mail, it was a
provisional allotment. They would take care of everything – scholarship, airfare, medical insurance
etc. on the condition that I could find a mentor in the US within ten days. Even though I was really
short on time and I continued contacting professors. Then about five days later I got a reply from an
MIT professor, who was an IIT alumnus, to an email I had sent long back in January; which was soon
followed by another professor at MIT itself. I made the choice for my mentor based on how
technically challenging the work would be and how soon would I be able to learn the pre-requisites.
Finally I got the actual letter of acceptance from the professor, and it was smooth sailing after that.
The only person who knew of all this process was my Dad. I had not told anyone else about all this. I
SAIC | IIT (BHU), Varanasi

finally cleared the visa interview and got my air tickets and that’s when I thought it would be the
right time to tell people. That’s when even my mom finally heard the news.

What exactly did you work on in your project at MIT?

In case of neurodegenerative diseases like schizophrenia, people lose contextual information, as in

they lose track of time and place. Our lab at MIT have discovered that in such cases, the reduction of Page | 2
the brain protein Neurogranin occurs in a region of the brain called hippocampus, where memory
acquisition and processing occurs. My research was related to it. My work involved over-expressing
or under-expressing Neurogranin using lenti-viral vectors (genetically programmed viruses), which
are kind of like AIDS virus whose toxicity and multiplying ability is neutralized. They are used because
they can easily infect and take over human cells and modify their functions. We injected it directly
into living animals in-vivo to the hippocampus. So I had to perform survival neurosurgeries in
animals. The animals are allowed to recover after the surgery and I performed logical behaviour and
memory retention tests on them like contextual fear conditioning, which also involves motion
capture and image analysis. We saw some really interesting results were animals had memory
recovery, and in some cases, highly enhanced memory performance. Later, these animals would be
euthanized and more tests would be done on the extracted brain tissue, including confocal
microscopy imaging and protein quantification. Overall it was a challenging project. I was supposed
to take care of everything myself for the first time in a research setting. There are lots of people
around to help, but they don’t spoon-feed you. I was fully responsible for my project. Thankfully at
the end of the twelve weeks, I was able to finish it.

Let’s talk about your arrival in Massachusetts.

Arriving at MIT was a very memorable experience. I had a 20-hour travel till there. The weather was
amazing, around 5-10 degree Celsius. It was summers there, but it’s the perfect cold weather for us.
They have minimum living standards which are luxury for us IIT students.  So, I had a 3 BHK room
there. I had two room-mates. It was all great and then the campus was itself amazing. The labs are
like the ones you see in sci-fi movies. The people are very competitive, but very helpful. Noticeably,
everybody is ready to help you in your work. So you ask some doubts to someone, they can sit for
hours explaining stuff to you. People enjoy having intellectual conversation. They don’t mock you for
talking intellectual stuff. That’s also great!

How did the food at MIT treat you?

MIT has a lot of international students, lots of Asians, Europeans, Indians, lots of people. So on
campus you do get Indian, Mexican, Italian, and Arabic - all kinds of food. Since I was also a part of
the program called as MIT Summer Research Program, there were regular lectures and interactive
sessions three times a week and outings, fun and social events on weekends. So, I used to get a lot of
free food all the time. 

What did you enjoy the most at MIT? What others were you not very comfortable with?

The best thing I enjoyed in my three months was the climate. It never went above 20 degrees
Celsius. It was very pleasant and comfortable. Moreover, I enjoyed the openness and interactive
behaviour of the professors. It doesn’t matter whether the professor had won a Nobel Prize or a
junior faculty; everyone interacts as a friend. We had interactive sessions with Nobel laureates about
anything and everything. I have not seen that happening with most professors here in IITs. And as
students, you can just ring your professors up for any kind of help at MIT. They will be there to
support you. You can be sure of that. These are the smartest people I have ever seen. The intern

Internship Experiences | Jaseel Muhammed

SAIC | IIT (BHU), Varanasi

group (MSRP 2016) that I was a part of very supportive. They were all Americans, had their own
culture. I hailed from a very different background. In one week however, I was fitting in with them
very well. The stereotypes that we have in India about Americans are not at all true. They are very
helpful people who value hard work and honesty very highly. We also had a lot of fun when we
weren’t working. It was a gala time there.
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There are things I didn’t enjoy there as well. The work really stresses you out at times. I find that we
are all a bunch of lazy people. We don’t even put in four hours of work per day. And there I had to
put in 10-12 hours of work per day. It was really stressful and challenging to me as I am not really
used to it. And also in research, you always come across failures. It’s almost 98% failure and just 2%
success or even worse. So in my initial one or two months, most of my many experiments were
failing and I was troubleshooting them, finding ways to make them work. This is what anyone is
expected to do out of research. You have to put in plenty of hours and deal with a lot of failures. I
used to take off on weekends on solo-trips across the US to counter all these with a dose of travel
and photography.

What tips would you like to give to people who wish to apply for similar internships?

I wouldn’t be the perfect person to contact for this. I don’t have an exceptional grade point. I didn’t
plan for all this, but things just worked around. I have learnt however, that three things which are
the most valuable in your application are your previous research experiences, your letters of
recommendation and your statement of purpose – the essay that you submit. The MIT Admissions
Committee actually puts tremendous value on these three things. You need to know how to write a
SOP well. Typical stuff like boasting of oneself and one’s abilities must be avoided. You actually need
to write on how you got into research, what makes you choose a hard and challenging career path
like research when loads of easier alternatives are available, and what drives you to continue doing
science despite knowing you’ll face a lot of failures. Recommendations should be from people with
whom you have worked with. It’s not about the fame of the professor who is signing the LoR, but
about the gravity of your work and the feedback by your mentors about the project.

Any other fundae for our current students?

Grade points are very important (chuckles). I have realised it. You need to keep up your grade points.
Second thing is that you need to explore a lot. There are a lot of interesting things going around. You
can check out universities and see what all projects they are working on. Some people simply aren’t
aware enough. Since I was at MIT, the best opportunity that I had was to look around so many
radical technologies being created around me. It is a place where most of the modern technology
evolved and is still evolving. So when you see all those things coming into life and people working
with such passion and enthusiasm, you understand what it takes to change the world. But as long as
you don’t explore what all options are available for you, research would just seem like a mundane
task of repetitive experiments where you just fail and fail. But that’s not research. It’s much more
than that. So explore it even if you are not interested in it. It’s a very fulfilling and exciting career

How has your creative side helped you in your internship?

I do graphic design. So despite all the adamant advice, I went on to make a graphically designed CV
instead of the typical black & white text format ones. And that really helped me because people
were impressed with that. I had couple of emails from professors who wanted to use my CV as a
specimen to show it to their students even though they didn’t hire me. So I would suggest that
whatever skills you have, put it into use. All kinds of extracurricular skill that you have will prove to

Internship Experiences | Jaseel Muhammed

SAIC | IIT (BHU), Varanasi

be useful at some point or the other. For example, after I joined my lab, I designed the poster for our
lab’s summer social party which impressed my professor. That doesn’t contribute to my working
relationship with my professor but, you know, it helps in creating that personal impression. These
tiny things do have some impact. I also made some great friends working together on our internship
group’s t-shirts, videos and slideshows. It didn’t help me in my actual research though. (chuckles)
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So, where do you see yourself going from here?

Most people think that since I have been to MIT, I have my life figured out, which is not true. I am
still figuring out where I should go for my 4th year summers. I still don’t know whether I should be
doing a job after my graduation, or going for a Masters or a Ph.D. A Ph.D., by the way, is a huge
commitment. I am yet to figure it out and will let you know in a few years.

Thanks a lot and all the very best for your future.

Internship Experiences | Jaseel Muhammed