Number of days it took for me to become a Master of Science in Astronautical Engineering from University of Southern California.
This post is intended to act as snapshot of my thought process at USC. Just felt obligated to follow up on my last such post after graduating from IIIT Hyderabad. I must first Thank my parents primarily because they ensured that I have bare minimum obligations to them which gave me the necessary peace of mind to pursue whatever I am pursuing.
The only thing I considered while coming to USC is the astronautical engineering program. I vividly remember my friends extensively researching about US universities way back in 2007 about features like urban or isolated campus, department rating, professor rating and many other factors that I frankly didn’t understand. Doing nothing of what they did, in 2013 January, I just applied to two universities which hinted at training person with any engineering background in astronautics: Purdue and USC. I got an admit only at USC. So I came.
Little did I realize that I would really like the campus setup. Being an urbanist, I would like to live in places where there are lot of people, nice buildings, walking friendly areas etc. It takes me no more than 30 minutes to walk from one end of the campus to the other. Within this cozy campus, there exists every engineering department, music, cinema, business, public policy, law schools and many more. This was a jackpot that I didn’t realize that I was getting into.
Suddenly I had access to all these libraries. True to my character of trying to be jack of all trades, master of some, I read the first chapters of lot of books. I did finish about 10% of the books I started. The rest of them were not interesting to me. So, I no longer consider books to be any different from online articles, videos or audio podcasts. Most of them are not at all worth our time. We, unfortunately, have to go through a lot of junk to find the gems.
About Los Angeles
I can never be a fan of any city which doesn’t have high rises and is not walkable. That being said, I love LA for two reasons:
1) Mount Wilson, the place where Edwin Hubble gathered the data that suggested the possibility of other galaxies in our universe which are moving away from each other. It is my favorite place in all of Greater Los Angeles Metro Area.
2) LA is home to many industries. The diversity is amazing. It has something for every mood of every person. If only, LA didn’t screw up its public transportation, I would have ranked it as one of the perfect cities to live in.
About my life at USC.
I fell into a constitutional amendment trap unknowingly within the first two weeks of being at USC. Amateurs were discussing the constitution of Association of Indian Students, so I had to jump in😀 . Thus AIS became the center of my extra curricular activities. AIS is predominantly a cultural organisation but I am a culture-less fellow, i.e a person who is not fond of cultural programs😛 . So I was a bit hesitant in the beginning but I knew I had to volunteer even if I am not interested.
Let me try to articulate why: No individual is just a product of their own hard work. The accidental identity baggage every individual carry around matters very much. No individual chooses to be an Indian or Pakistani. Being Canadian is not their fault😛 .The harsh reality of the world is that people will judge. Judging is the only way to take any action. People will judge without complete information thus creating what we call stereotypes. They are a predominant factor in everyone’s lives. But how are stereotypes formed? If an Indian, an Andhra (yes! Andhra and Telugu are synonymous, deal with it) or a Sikh in USA did good things, the people around would associate positive image to the identity as well. Same goes for bad things. One of the reasons, why it is super easy for Indians now-a-days to live in United States is the hard work of thousands of Indians before us. As George Carlin would put it: I was incredibly lucky to be born in India. I am forever indebted to all our predecessors. The only way to feel good is to help those who come after me even if there is no personal gain and especially even if it is uncomfortable for me. In this process, I was privileged to know and work alongside a few amazing people who think this way in AIS. (Since we are on that subject, I would like you to give a big shout out to Martin Luther King Jr led Civil Rights movement without which it would have been impossible to achieve a free and comfortable lifestyle for all non-whites that live the states).
Ah. The primary reason for my arrival at USC. It is terrific. I got exactly what i expected. A couple of suggestions at the right time by a few seniors helped me a lot. I have a much better picture about humanity’s space exploration status now. As suspected, even the best science journalism was wrought with sensationalism and dumbed down explanations. I filled in the lot of gaps in my knowledge map that were bugging me all these years about space exploration. With many professors from JPL, it was interesting to know many real incidents of how a particular problem was solved. Towards the end, I got an opportunity to work on a research project which genuinely interests me. At this point of my life, I believe I can confidently say I have adequate knowledge about orbital mechanics and wireless communications. I am not sure how to use them yet, I will figure out🙂
About education in US
A couple of California state congressmen came to a meeting to discuss the minimum wage issues in one of the political club meetings at USC. Over the course, the discussion veered off to education and skilled workforce. They were genuinely worried about kids not showing interest in ScienceTechnologyEngineeringMaths while economy is moving very rapidly towards STEM. So I said this “From what I noticed, Indian education system is very good at training skilled workforce that can do mundane but skillful tasks. However, US education system is very good at training innovative and entrepreneurial workforce. So most innovations and disruptions come from people who went through US education system but to maintain or scale up an established company or product, you need skilled people who are ready to do mundane tasks without complaining much. So if you really need to secure jobs to your future generations, try to understand Indian education system and implement the best practices in US”
That was about school system. In college, the culture is the same. Even in US, there is an industry thriving on doing assignments and projects for students. There are all types of professors. Just like in India, the best colleges are those which ensure that cheating doesn’t happen during exams or assignments. And just like in India, the best colleges are those which emphasize more on practical training either with industrial collaboration or department’s internal labs. The only difference is: size of government grants to do research. The quality of labs and professors are definitely proportional to the money pumped into universities. All the differences we notice are definitely not genetic or cultural. They are circumstantial.
I noticed this first in anecdotal stories from my friends. Just because laypeople don’t know web design and development, many web designers used to charge ridiculous amounts to build silliest of web pages. Not enough supply of web designers, was/is their justification. This clearly made me furious. However, that was not the only field where I saw the phenomenon. I noticed it among engineers. Mostly hardware and software engineers bamboozling each other with incomprehensible vocabulary to make the others believe that doing a particular task is much more difficult than it really is.
I definitely noticed this in US as well. This is a worrying trend because subconsciously all engineers would now do not want to make things simple. It would be in every engineer’s interest to make things more complex to save his/her own job. I really hope I am wrong on this observation, I just want to put it out.
I want to work on deep space exploration. USA and specifically JPL is the epicenter of deep space exploration. However, I am not a permanent resident of United States, so it is a bit tricky to stay close to space industry. Also as a secondary mission, I intend to understand the design philosophies of Bret Victor, Alan Kay, Papert Seymour et al and if possible contribute to their quest.
As of this write up, I am still figuring out how to do, what I have to do. Hopefully I can find a solution within a month or two.