Interview: Haresh Karnan (ICE-2016)

Please state your current major and explain the area of research you are currently involved in.

I’m pursuing my masters in Dynamic Systems and Controls at the Aerospace Engineering Department. My research group here at Texas A&M works on design and control of Tensegrity Structures.

In the 1900s, Buckminster Fuller (The man behind carbon C-60 geodesic structure) introduced the concept of ‘Tensegrity’ to the engineering world and it found its way to designing interesting, unconventional engineering structures.

Mathematically, it was proved by my advisor Dr.Robert Skelton that there exist tensegrity configurations involving rigid rods and tensile strings, which when placed in a particular 2D/3D topological order, can be more efficient in saving mass and control energy compared to traditional ways of building robots. Currently, NASA is funding studies on tensegrity based robots that have theoretically been proven to be effective landers for payload delivery in extra terrestrial environments. For my master’s thesis, I designed an experimental prototype of a novel Tensegrity based manipulator, that replaces the traditional Canfield joint used for attitude control of spacecrafts. This new tensegrity based design reduces the number of joints in the pointing control manipulator, also reducing its overall structural mass and energy needed for the pointing control action. It is an interesting topic that is also multidisciplinary in a way. Research on tensegrity involves using a convolution of tools like mathematical optimization, multibody dynamics and control, interfacing actuators and sensors, state estimation theory and programming robots using ROS.


Why did you choose to do a Master of Science in Aerospace engineering, instead of a Master of Engineering degree? What were the pros and cons that you considered before reaching your decision? (also what are the pros and cons that students should know about?)

My internship at NUS (which I pursued at the end of 3rd year of UG) was inadequate to decide if I wanted to pursue a PhD. A PhD is a longer commitment, involving 4-7 years of work, and your relationship with the advisor plays a major role. I wanted another chance, a second taste at research, for an extended period of time, working under a professor, taking courses recommended by him/her for which a Master of Science by Thesis was the go to option. Aerospace engineering is a discipline that is a blend of Material Science, Fluid mechanics and ‘Dynamics and Controls’. I was interested in Dynamics and Control. There are 6 departments at Texas A&M that work on applications of Control theory: Aerospace Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science, Petroleum Engineering, Industrial Engineering and Electrical engineering, out of which Aerospace and Computer Science work on applications of control theory to robotics. Aero department focuses more on experimental robotics research, compared to computer science where the work is mostly theoretical. I was more inclined towards the experimental aspects of robotics and hence chose Aerospace. (This may not be true with other universities, so I would suggest checking out the labs and talking to students from respective universities). At Texas A&M, a master of engineering degree is sought by students who are inclining their profile towards the industry. The course load will be more (since there is no research credits) and there will be no exposure to research/ work under an advisor. The two points I considered was, if I realized research was not my cup of tea, can I always switch to a non thesis option and exit with a MS degree ? The answer is yes, Texas A&M Aero allows a student to do that. If I really like my research and want to extend into a PhD program, do I need to reapply ? No. At Texas A&M all it takes is approval from your advisor and one signature to convert your program from an MS-THO to a PhD.

What I want students to know is this: DO NOT rush into a PhD unless you are very sure you are inclined towards research. Go for internships, try working under a professor in a research environment. If still unsure, go for an MS thesis option to have a second opinion. Most of the universities in USA let you convert from an MS thesis option to a PhD but not otherwise. PhD takes dedication, persistence and hard-work for an extended period which one needs to be mentally capable of enduring. So, be sure you have a strong answer to ‘Why do I want a PhD ?’


Why are research internships important? How do students hone their skills through these internships? Can you describe your experience in getting an internship?

Research internships are important to explore problems that the academic world is currently trying to solve. Apart from that, internships give you the opportunity to explore and learn different tools that you might need in your career (Programming, CAD Design, generating plots in matlab, etc ). Internships usually last not more than 3 months. Use this time wisely to answer these questions: “Do I really enjoy doing academic research ?”,  “I like doing research, how can I do better, what are the skills I lack that I need to hone in the future ?”. A research internship also exposes you to the art of paper writing. Once you begin with graduate research, you will publish your research results in conferences/journals for which you must know how to articulate your results and thoughts in words, diagrams and plots. Spend time honing these skills.

I remember spamming professors with emails, asking them for an opportunity to work under their guidance for the summer. It is a daunting process that takes a lot of time and skill. A tip I would give to students is, try tracking the emails you send to professors with some email tracker extension for your browser. Be mindful of the time at the receiver’s location. Preferably send in the morning, when your email would be at the top of their inbox list.


What other skills do you think students need to learn before/while pursuing higher education in your field?

Time management, because when you begin graduate school, you will be dumped with a lot of responsibilities, reading and assignments. Make sure you practice managing time for your hobbies and passions because that can take a big hit when you begin grad school. Reading scientific publications is another skill that needs to be picked up preferably before grad school.


Where do you think, the research scenario in NIT Trichy needs improvement, and how can it be improved?

I’ve seen in many labs outside our university that undergrads are the powerhouse of experimental progress. Undergraduate students are a part of projects that involve graduate students, professor and other research associates. It would be great if the Mtech/PhD scholars pursuing research oriented careers in their respective departments hire/include undergraduates in their work.

The first step any institution can take is to provide its students with educational resources. During my time, it was not possible for a student to pursue a semester abroad/ in another institution. This restricted some students from getting to know about careers outside of what was taught in the university. It would be great if the administration could relax this rule and permit students to pursue at least one semester from a different university/ research lab/ industry of their choice.


What are some things about your career path you wish you knew in college, in retrospect?

I wish I knew it was okay to not run behind publishing papers to create a better research profile. It is about the quality of a paper that matters. As an undergrad, I felt bad when my first paper got rejected at a conference, but later I realized it was completely okay. Publishing a half cooked research article causes more harm than not publishing at all.


How useful is having work experience before applying for higher education? If useful, what is the ideal duration one must have for work experience?

Work experience matters when you’re seeking full time /internship opportunities in the industry. If you are research centric and want to be a part of academia (research associate/professorship), then it doesn’t matter much, but the experience you gain and the tools you learn will discipline you when pursuing research.


You now are pursuing a Masters in Aerospace Engineering. What kind of employment opportunities can one look forward to in this field?

There are 3 subdivisions in Aero:- Dynamics and Controls, Material Science and Fluid Dynamics.  I can speak for Dynamics and Controls. There are plenty of robotics industries scattered around bay area (California) and Boston that are actively seeking planning and controls engineers. If your interest is in programming, then there are companies like Mathworks that do actively hire control and dynamic systems engineers to build their several toolboxes.


How much did being in a tech club like RMI help you later in your Master’s degree major? What advice do you have for students who are not in tech clubs and yet are interested in pursuing a career in this field?

Being a part of RMI helped me a lot. RMI provided me with the tools and funding to work on projects that I was interested in. Most of the software tools that I know, were learnt by me out of necessity to get my project working at RMI. Being a part of a robotics club exposed me to several possibilities in robotics, the kind of problems that need to be solved and the aproach to be taken. During my MS degree, I was tasked with building a tensegrity robot from scratch. The skills that I picked up at RMI came in handy in ordering the right components, designing and interfacing the electronics and actuators to build the robot. If you are not a part of RMI, 3D Aero or Spider, go for internships. Work under a professor at an IIT or IISc where you will be given a project and a timeframe to complete it. Talk to people in these tech clubs and explore topics that they’re working on. Follow websites like reddit (\robotics handle) to know what people outside your university are working on.


How important is publishing research papers while in college? What are some of the top publications/ conferences in your field of research?

Like I mentioned earlier, it is not a necessity to publish papers while pursuing an undergraduate degree. However, if you do have publications, that can strengthen your profile. You can substitute for no research papers with a stellar GPA, strong recommendations from professors and decent GRE TOEFL scores. My field of research is Robotics. Some top conferences in robotics are IROS, ICRA, ROBIO, RSS.


What courses helped you most in your area of research? Did any form of self-learning, like online courses, help you further your knowledge in that field?

Surprisingly, the courses I had taken in first year of undergrad seemed more useful during graduate school. Courses like Linear Algebra, Numerical methods and analysis, Engineering drawing are very important in robotics research. Computer science courses like C++, Data structures and Algorithms prove to be useful when programming robots. ICE department had courses on analog electronics, digital circuits in which we were taught how to program microcontrollers. Though nobody uses 8081 to program robots, the topics I learn gave me exposure to how things work internally. I switched to arduino from AVR microcontrollers to build my robots thereafter. It is fairly easy to learn to program an arduino. I also took an online course on CAD designing in SolidWorks that helped in rapid prototyping of my designs. Most of my learning was out of necessity to implement a working solution to a problem, so I would suggest picking a good problem to solve first and then ponder about the implementation.


Would you recommend branching out and experimenting by learning skills from various fields while in college? If so, how useful is it?

I highly recommend doing so. Branch out. Learn something new. Become multidisciplinary. Look at the problems that other departments are trying to solve. Learn something different. Often when working in teams, I notice each individual member is an expert in his/her field but appears naive when communicating with other engineers from different fields.
Also, I would highly recommend students to participate in events conducted by clubs like ECell, Nakshatra, Balls etc.

I attended one of ECell’s event during my 3rd year of college and I was struck at how little I knew about entrepreneurship. My closest friends Hari and Keshav were curious about entrepreneurship and spending time with them taught me one or two. It opened a new channel of thought in my brain and I now see research in a new light.


How can one arrange funds for higher studies, especially those who are going abroad? Are there any notable scholarships or educational loans that one can avail?

There’s a bunch of banks/ loaning agencies that provide educational loans on the basis of GRE/ TOEFL scores. I have also heard about the JN Tata endowment scholarship, but I have no experience applying. Graduate students in USA can apply for 20 hr Teaching Assistant/Research Assistant positions. TAs usually teach undergraduates a UG version of a graduate class that they’ve previously taken and aced with grades. Research Assistants are funded by a professor under whom they pursue graduate research. The professors usually write grants and secure funding. Both the TA and RA positions cover complete tuition for one semester and pay $2000 (depends on the state, university and department) per month. Some universities have grader positions where the student assists a TA with grading assignments and exams. They get paid on a per hour rate. Half TAs get paid $1000 per month and work 10hrs/week (tuition coverage % depends on the university). Students typically mail professors/ meet them at their office personally to ask about open TA / RA positions.


Would you be willing to share with us as to how you handled your finances while studying? If yes, What would be the typical monthly expenses and inflows (if any, from Stipends, Interns, Research Assistantships etc.)

I was lucky to get a Full RA position that covered full tuition and paid 2000$ per month for my 2 years of masters thesis program. Taxes and Insurance take away 180$ every month. I lived in a shared apartment (2 bed 1.5 bath, shared by 3 people) in Bryan, TX. Bryan is the cheapest place to live in college station. The rent was 300$ including utilities (Internet, water, gas). Groceries cost $200 per month. One can pass a month with $500 on average for food and accommodation. Eating outside is a big rip off. Finding vegetarian Indian food is difficult. I would suggest learning how to cook and eating your own food. That would help save your money and health.


What must one do after getting admitted into college? I.e How do you feel time must be utilised post-admission?

Relax. Spend time with parents, grandparents and other family members. You’re going to miss them a lot and the home food once you leave home.

I used to go home to Chennai twice a year when studying in NIT. When I left the country, it was a different experience.

I spent my summer before leaving for the USA, learning to cook from my favourite cook – my grandmother. She taught me how to cook basic south Indian meals.

Also, I would suggest creating a good bond with your future roommates. Talk to them, ask them about their hobbies, what they like, what they don’t like, that should make the transition to grad life smoother.

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