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A Sky-High Opportunity at NASA—Sitting Down With Siddarth Venkatraman


Working for a space organisation is quite the dream for any student of science. From robotics to biochemistry, this field offers a sweeping vista to satisfy the scientific thirst for knowledge. Recently, Siddarth Venkatraman, a fourth-year student at MIT pursuing his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science Engineering, got the opportunity to intern for the JPL sector at the Mecca of science related to Outer Space, NASA. We, at the MIT Post, had the chance to interview him and talk to him about his experience.

Getting into NASA is a matter of great prestige. How did you go about this internship?

One of Project Manas’ mentors is Shreyansh Daftry, a Manipal alumnus. He did his Masters at CMU and now works at JPL. After Manas won IGVC (Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition) last year, we got in touch with some of our external mentors, including him. He was impressed by my experience with robotics and machine learning, and we spoke about helping mentor us for research back here at Manipal. He passed my resume to the robotics department at JPL, and soon I was interviewed. I ended up making the cut, which meant letting go of the Microsoft Internship I had secured on campus. Of course, I was ready to do that since I want to go into research.

The internship was initially supposed to be in California, and I had tickets and accommodation ready. Unfortunately, COVID-19 played spoilsport, and it seemed like it was not going to happen for a few weeks. Luckily, JPL decided that it would shift every employee to remote work (work from home) and did this with interns too. We were assigned projects that we could work remotely.

What were their expectations from you?

They expected me to have enough prior experience so that I wouldn’t have to waste time learning specific basic and necessary technical skills during the internship. I was also required to know robotics path planning and in general, have a solid robotics background. As far as software skills were concerned, I needed to be comfortable with ROS (Robot Operating System). Coding included a mixture of Python and C++.

What were your expectations for them?

I expected people who conduct research at NASA and Caltech to be immensely brilliant. Almost everyone in my team was from an incredibly impressive background, having been educated from places like Caltech, MIT, CMU, and Stanford, and with research work that made them recognisable names in their fields. I was not disappointed. A pleasant surprise was that even though the team was accomplished, they always treated me as an asset and let me make critical decisions when it came to project direction. This was probably the best thing about the internship.

JPL’s open-source Mars Rover. This simulation can be operated using your own computer and anyone can contribute to help make it better. (Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, CalTech)

As fellow peers from the same college, we are in awe of you already. Is there any moment during the internship that made you go, “Wow”?

If the internship was not remote, I am confident the ‘wow’ moment would have been when I got to experience the humungous JPL campus, and see the many marvels of robotics, beginning with the Mars Rover, in person. Since it was remote, however, the ‘wow’ moments were directly related to my work. While I cannot share details, the essence of my project was improving Mars Rover Navigation algorithms with the help of machine learning. By the end of the internship, we were able actually to get tests done on the new navigation algorithm, and we found that it improved many vital metrics. The team seemed to love the results, so you can imagine how I felt.

Are there any specific experiences or anecdotes that you would like to share with your peers?

The frequent discussions I would have with the team were intellectually stimulating. They never felt like inane corporate meetings; instead, it was a coming together of minds with different perspectives to solve the problem at hand. In many ways, JPL felt like working at Project Manas. Speaking of this, I suggest that juniors who want to work on deep technical areas like robotics should join a student project of their choice in Manipal. For our college, it is the best way to gain access to both great work and brilliant people. I would not have been able to build contacts or gain enough technical expertise to do this project had I not worked in Manas for three years.

Featured Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech photo

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