Embracing the Unfamiliar: Adventures in Academics and Independence

When I realised that after completing a seemingly innocuous entrance test and application I was actually accepted in the Lodha Genius Programme at Ashoka University, it occurred to me that I had unwittingly signed myself up for a month away from home. Of course, I was thrilled to be one of the 100 students from the whole country to be selected for the prestigious one-month scholarship, which would provide us a ringside view of scientific leaps.

I grudgingly prepared myself to take all the school final exams in four days - before missing a substantial chunk of my summer break just to spend a month in a foreign environment. I was also concerned that I would probably be bored out of my mind by the incessant lectures and overachieving, intellectual peers. However, I could not have been more wrong.

The Lodha Genius Programme (LGP) at Ashoka University was an incredible experience: it opened my eyes to multifarious, interdisciplinary topics ranging from congruence in mathematics to the life cycle of celestial bodies to the population dynamics of predator and prey. The programme had three significant academic parts - math problem solving, the Great Ideas Seminar, and science classes - interspersed between meals, laundry and recreation time. Each of these classes, although that is an inadequate description of them, was crucial to our progress over the course of the month.

Like many others in the programme, I found the high school syllabus was not challenging enough and ventured into advanced topics such as multivariable calculus through online learning. However, my self-guided approach left significant gaps in my knowledge as I missed out on various essential topics. I entered the mathematics lecture on the first day at LGP expecting a straightforward, mundane challenge, but I was in for a surprise. As I scanned the problem set, I realised that there was not a number in sight! Elaborate strings of English and Greek alphabets, sprinkled between symbols and walls of text sprawled across the page in a daunting labyrinth of questions. In the first few days, there was no teaching - we were given a brief overview of the topic and were encouraged/instructed to solve the problems ourselves. Of course, the supportive professors and teaching assistants (TAs) were always ready to provide assistance. This unusual method of learning forced us to think for ourselves - we had no formulae to memorise and work out solutions or copy solutions from the board. Over the course of the sessions, as we explored topics from induction to congruence, divisibility to similarity, circle theorem to binomial expansion, we were compelled to think creatively, an uncommon experience in mathematics to find novel methods to solve problems we had never seen before. The professors would eventually solve the problems on the board, showing us various methods along the way, but only after we had been given sufficient time to truly struggle. Overall, these math sessions not only revealed what I didn’t know but also gave me a unique opportunity to apply myself in different ways at them.

Following a lunch break during which we justified choosing buying burgers and ice cream over free cafeteria food every day, we entered the Great Ideas Seminar. We crowded into the massive auditorium, almost like an amphitheatre, to witness the incredible spectacle and exhibitions at the cutting edge of scientific discovery, across varied fields. Dr. Somak Raychaudhary and Dr. Sushmita Mohanty took us on a voyage through the lonely tenebrosity of deep space and its exploration - from black holes and gravitational waves to rocket design. We built our own affordable telescopes and spent an evening just gazing into the night sky as our lenses wandered from Venus to Sirius. On the other hand, Professor Manu Prakash and Nobel Laureate Dr. Jack Szostak sent us hurtling in the opposite direction to an entirely contrasting microscopic universe. We collected and observed insect and microbial specimens with our own FoldScopes (Dr Prakash’s neat invention of an inexpensive microscope made of paper) as he taught us about the heavenly geometries that shape the bacteria which perpetually surround us. Professor Devasher broke the continuity of heavy scientific lectures by showing us panels of art and photographs capturing entrancing visuals from viruses to biomolecules. What truly made these GIS sessions incredible was captured impeccably over the course of various lectures - science was about retaining a sense of wonder about the world, questioning everything and adopting a wider, interdisciplinary approach towards tackling modern problems. As children, this wonder is our constant companion - yet many of us lose it far too soon as we get pulled in many directions. I felt it diminishing over the past year as I focused too hard on bridge, school and fitness but this month gave me a chance to rekindle this feeling of wonder - for science and beyond.

Despite these rigorous academic endeavours, this programme gave me my first ever opportunity to live independently. This had its trials and tribulations, such as struggling with wet laundry for three days after a failed dryer experiment or facing 3 AM hunger pangs without any food in the fridge after staying up with my friends. My original expectation of boring, unidimensional geeks was eradicated soon after arriving as I made friends from across the country of various backgrounds and interests - a squash player from Ludhiana, a drummer from Bangalore, a guitarist from Noida. We played every possible sport we could, challenging the undergrad TA students and teens attending other summer programmes on campus. We explored the airy rooftops and dingy, unnerving basements and stayed up beyond midnight watching movies, playing video games or simply talking. We moved our beds around to have sleepovers, pranked gullible slumberers who left their doors unlocked, ran to the girls’ residential halls to buy Maggi and had a lot of fun.

This month has been a period of profound personal growth, during which I have gained invaluable insights on living independently, cultivating friendships with unfamiliar faces, engaging in late-night snack acquisitions, and indulging in the melodic strumming of guitar at 3 am. Additionally, I have learned the significance of asking thought-provoking questions, simplifying intricate concepts, and, perhaps most significantly, acknowledging the vast extent of my own ignorance, all the while nurturing an enduring sense of wonderment.

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