May 5, 2012

Memories of my internships at General Motors India Science Lab

I just came across this blog post by Prof. Giri that says that General Motors is shutting down its Research lab based in Bangalore. Reading it made me a bit sad. If I was not coming to France, I would have joined this lab. In fact I was very serious about joining GM-ISL before the crisis hit GM in 2007-2008. I had done two intern-ships in this lab because my advisor at IIT Delhi had joined as a researcher in this lab. The faculty at Delhi, especially Prof Saran and Prof. Maheshwari were very kind to let me continue working with my advisor and letting me spend close to 8 months of my two years here.Well my 8 months  in Bangalore (as two intern-ships from May-July 2007 and Jan-April 2008) taught me many things.

One important lesson I learned here was the lesson of life which I learned while staying in Kundanahalli as a paying guest. It was in a house with 12 people and I got a bed in a room; the room was shared with three other guys and  I paid around Rs 3000 (EUR. 50) per month for the place to sleep and the food. Wifi was not that common India in 2007-2008, and I did not have a laptop with me, so after coming back from work I used to have dinner and go to sleep. Some times I used to  watch a movie in the television  and talk with the other guys living in the apartment. It is hard to imagine that I never thought about hanging out with friends or going to the cinemas. It was here that I actually felt how completely unrealistic is India's growth story. Kundanahalli was full of engineers who lived in a house like I did, and who despite earning a modest salary (around Rs 15000) did not have room for themselves. Water was a big problem and we used to wait in the morning for the tanker to come to answer the call of nature and have a shower. If you wanted hot water, then you had to take water out in a bucket and use a coil to heat it. It might be hard to imagine 12 guys (at times 15) waiting in line to use one of the two toilets in the house. Luckily all of the guys I shared the apartment were good so time scheduling worked perfectly.  The biggest lesson learned here was humility and simplicity. Despite my parents urge I did not want an expensive room and I wanted manage in my stipend which was Rs 15000 (yes I was receiving a stipend more than some of my engineer colleagues). On weekends I used to move to my aunts house who lived in the other corner of Bangalore (Vijaynagar). The bus ride to my aunts house would at times take more than 2 hours. Well I saved a lot of money thanks to living this kind of a life and bought my first digital camera with the money I saved.

My other lesson was on approach to research. This was very important as my previous work experience was in the engineering division of a start-up. Working in a start up had its own challenges as a concept of a 5 or 10 year vision is at times wrong unrealistic. In research labs the lab head and the team head must have a vision of 5 to 10 years. The work done was expected to reach the assembly lines may be 5-6 years after the first prototype was built. People would debate and come up with new ideas and validate the feasibility of some these ideas.  It was here that I saw the actual use of mathematics as language and the pressures on the research teams from their engineering divisions who needed results and directions. At times in the coffee room I could see debates on which shade of gray is best suited to meet the required fire-resistance and so on. I got my first publications, one workshops, one conference, and a co-author for a journal, while working for this lab. What I disliked the most was the formal attire that was mandatory while working in this lab. I simply could not understand its need.

I am a bit sad on hearing this closure but honestly speaking I knew it was a matter of time for this lab to close. The financial mess of General Motors in 2007-09 was the reason as to why I decided not to join this lab. My focus was on continuing to do research and I wanted to find a PhD position soon but I was in a dilemma as my degree was delayed by the administrative procedures of IIT Delhi. In the end, after my internships at GM, I joined a start-up which later shut down and I came to France for a PhD.

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