Student Reflection: Nieky Wang

Please state your name, class level at MIT, and course/major.

Nieky Wang, Sophomore, Course 2-A

Please provide a brief description of your host organization/supervisor.

Professor Athale is an associate professor and leads the Cytoskeleton and Cell Shape (CyCelS) Lab at IISER Pune.

What was the purpose/goal of the lab you worked in? What was your part in it?

CyCelS is a computational biology lab focused on using simulations to better understand cell shape and cell division. Throughout this summer, I developed a python program to analyze images of bacterial cells to determine the number of colonies within the image. A properly developed and trained program has the potential to eliminate the time needed to count cell colonies by sight and increases the accuracy of each count.

How did you use your MIT skills and education?

I applied a lot of problem-solving skills from my classes and contributed new perspectives and different approaches to the problem. Especially relevant this summer, the experience I had with remote instruction throughout the spring semester enabled me to work more efficiently online and better able to communicate despite the distance and time difference.

What kind of feedback did you get from your supervisor?

I had weekly meetings with my supervisor, during which we talked through my work from the preceding week. My supervisor asked fundamental questions about what each part of my code did and how it worked, which forced me to critically assess and understand the logic behind each line of code I wrote and about the image processing process. These conversations were extremely active with questions going to and from each of us and was probably where I learned the most through this internship. In the following week, I would apply the feedbacks I had received and the process starts anew.

What did you learn by working/researching within a different country/culture? In what specific way was the work/academic culture different from what you have experienced before?

I only interacted with one lab at one institution, so I won't extrapolate my experience to a general experience of what it's like to work in India, especially since this interaction happened from afar. Due to time zone challenges, I also interacted only with the professor on all but one occasion, when I met other members of his lab. During this meeting when we discussed a scientific article, I found the PI-student relationship at CyCelS to be a little more formal than it is at labs I've worked with at MIT, with the other students less responsive to non-directed questions. But that could also be just general awkwardness from trying something/meeting someone new on Zoom. Video calls have made the direct experience otherwise very similar to every other video call I’ve had. Indirectly, the way that our nations have responded to COVID revealed many more differences between our cultures.

How did you impact your host organization and the project?

I hope that my code can serve as a solid foundation for other work to be built on, or at least inspire further investigation into automating various aspects of data analysis. From the project, I definitely learned a lot about image processing and effective communication. This was probably also the first time I've had to make code for more than myself, which forced me to improve my coding practices by commenting code and generally making code more pythonic and professional.

What lasting impact did this experience have on your professional goals? How might this impact your academic life and career goals at MIT or in the future?

I really enjoyed learning about this intersection between computer science and biology and am looking forward to exploring more areas of intersection between various fields at MIT and beyond.

How did this internship meet the goals you outlined at the beginning?

I intended for this internship to serve as a way of learning about one of my fields of interest. I think that goal was accomplished as well as it could have given that all interactions had to happen from afar, and I definitely found what I learned to be interesting enough that I'm continuing to take classes to explore this intersection between biology and engineering.

Describe any challenges you encountered during the internship related to your work/research. How did you handle the situation? What did you learn from the experience and how did it help you grow professionally?

There were times when I got stuck on a problem just minutes into my workday, which was hours until my professor would even wake up. This forced me to be creative. If it was an error in my code I couldn't find, I would use this opportunity to think of alternative implementation of an algorithm. If it was a technical question, I turned to Google and over time became better at knowing what kind of questions I needed to Google. This ability to independently identify and solve problems is undoubtedly valuable to any profession.

Describe any challenges you encountered with cross-cultural communications. How did you handle the situation? What did you learn from the experience and how did it help you grow professionally?

Less due to culture and more due to distance, often having to wait hours between emails means that I had to be thorough in each of my emails, or a simple issue may take two days of back-and-forth to solve. Knowing this helped me to communicate more concisely and comprehensively in writing. In addition, we would sometimes have internet issues that disrupted our meetings, with the combinations of these events combining to teach me how to be flexible.

How are you now able to demonstrate your ability to interact respectfully with all people and understand individual differences?

Be compassionate, flexible, and aware of my own advantages in order to not project any such advantages on anyone else. Be mindful of and avoid Anglo-centric views to be more accommodating towards all.

How did you navigate working within a different business and social culture virtually? Were there any lessons you learned?

Logistically, having this as a virtual internship meant that I had full control over my time, which taught me to be more responsible with budgeting my time. This has translated pretty well into this semester, and I find myself to be much more productive now than I was in the spring.

What did you learn about yourself professionally?

I learned that I preferred to have blocked-off times to work each day which enabled me to work the most efficiently. I also found that I am someone who is willing to spend hours trying to debug a problem, that sometimes it's better to step aside for a bit or shift to something else to allow my mind to reset rather than continue to beat a dead horse.

What advice would you have for future interns?

To future remote interns: even if things are remote, you only have a finite number of hours in a day, so don’t kill yourself with commitments. You’ll get the most out of a project if your full attention is on one project. REACH OUT. Don’t suffer alone. If you have any questions about your assignment, let your supervisor know. The fact that they were willing to take you on as a student means that they want to help. You don’t have to wait until check in meetings to have a discussion!