Meet two of our 2021 International Junior Research Associate Students
By: Louise Duthie
Last updated: Wednesday, 1 September 2021
We have had the pleasure of hosting 17 International Junior Research Associate Students virtually this summer. Louise Duthie our Global Partnerships Administrator took some time to talk to Anisha from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Laura from Universidad de los Andes about their experiences of taking part in the programme and their plans for the future.
Louise: Please can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
Anisha: My name is Anisha Debbarman, and I’m an urban researcher. My family hails from Tripura, a state situated in northeast India. However, I spent a large chunk of my teenage years outside the state, studying in Chennai. Being raised in a state with a different set of belief and value systems from Tripura, I’d say that this was a silver lining which inspired me to look towards academia as a potential career.
In 2015, I graduated with an Integrated Masters of Arts degree in Development Studies from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. It was viewed as a jack-of-all-trades discipline, allowing me to dip my feet into several interdisciplinary subjects. Yet, the course which quite literally caught me spellbound, was Urban Studies. Studying about cities allowed me to delve deeper into problems beyond infrastructural and policy briefs. As a discipline I wanted to understand how people are impacted by arbitrary and unplanned policy. Especially, among minorities and outsiders to metropolitan cities. So, in 2016, I joined the School of Urban Policy and Governance at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, examining the intersections of identity, infrastructure, and representation.
Laura: My name is Laura Isabella Forero Camacho, I am 21 years old, and I live in Bogotá, Colombia. I study systems engineering and industrial engineering at the University of the Andes.
Louise: Thanks Anisha and Laura, what was your research project about and why were you interested in taking part in the IJRA scheme?
Laura: The research project I worked on is called GeNN, it is a library for the management of spiking neural networks. The project consisted of the implementation of common architectures of artificial neural networks into spiking neural networks. In addition, we had to create tutorials for the conversion of these networks, and changes to the library. I became interested in the project because I like to learn about artificial intelligence, especially deep learning, and this was an opportunity to investigate a very new topic in the area.
Anisha: I joined the Consortium of Practices on Wellbeing and Resilience in BAME Families and Communities (CoPOWeR) under the supervision of Professor Raminder Kaur at the School of Global Studies. I was drawn to this project since it approached the question of representation of minority communities, such as the Black and South Asian communities in the UK. My part of the study examined misinfodemics and misinformation, and its impact on vulnerable communities. Although there are innumerable differences between UK and India, I think a parallel can be drawn in how well-being and resilience is understood among minority communities. The need to feel heard and represented matters. The realization that a project like CoPOWeR takes cognizance of unmet needs among minority communities is one of the primary reasons I wanted to be a part of this discussion and collaborate with academics and practitioners who understand the above intersections.
Apart from sharing interests with the above project, I’m glad to have been selected for the International Junior Research Associate (IJRA) scheme at the University of Sussex. Although I could not physically visit the campus for the program, I think it is a wonderful opportunity for researchers who are looking for a space to discuss ideas, concepts, and explore potential research themes. Personally, I don’t think such spaces are truly available to postgraduates, and can often lead to the assumption that “research” is a lonely process. It’s a misconception to believe that ideas can only be made by “gifted” students. Just like the saying “Rome was not built in a day”, I truly believe that the IJRA scheme showed me a different side to academia, where there are collaborative written drafts, you can freely share your ideas with your supervisor, and get meaningful feedback on how to become a better researcher.
Louise: Did you achieve anything that you wouldn’t have been able to do at your home institution?
Anisha: Quite honestly, I believe that the IJRA scheme and the rapport I held with my supervisor, Professor Kaur, made me feel at ease and confident about pursuing research. I’ve mentioned this during the IJRA workshops on Zoom that I find the faculty at the University of Sussex approachable and down-to-earth. It is a humbling experience.
Laura: Yes. First, I had the opportunity to investigate such a recent and little studied topic that is spiking neural networks. This is difficult at my home institution where deep learning research is focused on applying existing technologies to solve specific problems. On the contrary, the experience in the project allowed me to investigate this new topic and its applications. Similarly, the infrastructure and tools provided by the University of Sussex were very helpful, something important is that this type of network requires great computational capacity to run, in my home university it would have been difficult because there is no specialized infrastructure for this.
Louise: That’s great to hear, what would you say the highlights of your IJRA experience have been?
Laura: Participation in this research project allowed me to improve my knowledge in the area and to learn from my mentors and the team about their experiences in deep learning, code development, collaborative work and the research process. The internship helped me improve my communication and writing skills in English through JRA workshops for project planning and writing academic papers such as articles and posters. Likewise, I was able to meet new people from the research group where I worked, which gave me offers and opportunities in the area, that I hope will guide my professional future, and improve my resume.
Anisha: A major takeaway/highlight from my experience as an IJRA was to meet the co-investigators of the CoPOWeR Project. Since many of the researchers hailed from diverse disciplines, such as medicine, economics, and development research, their projects gave me insight on how gaps in research are understood and resolved in the UK. Furthermore, I was pleased to meet several Black and South Asian practitioners, whose community-centred initiatives created a much needed space for young BAME men and women to meet and help each other out. In India, there are similar initiatives, however, they do not get highlighted easily due to the stigma associated with minority identities in India. It was truly quite delightful to meet and interact with everyone on the team and I hope there are chances to individually collaborate with them in the future.
Louise: The Scheme has been held online for the second time this year; please can you tell us how you have found this experience?
Anisha: There are a few obvious demerits of working on an online platform. The opportunities of in-person meets and networking with people from diverse backgrounds is limited. However, I found an invaluable silver lining to this format of the program. The design of the program and feedback provided by my guide made it feel tailor-made and customised to each student’s requirements. With the kind of problems caused by living in an uncertain pandemic age, I’d like to point out that the online IJRA program has been welcoming to change and questioned my outlook towards online programs. While in-person meetings can be a memorable experience, I’m delighted to confess that the design, feedback, and approachability of the entire IJRA team made me feel welcomed and confident about my research capacity. It is a suitable format for someone looking for a bespoke program.
Laura: Although the program was online, I liked the general initiatives and meetings of the program to meet other participants and to learn about their experiences, and different backgrounds. In my project, the online mode allowed me to be more organized with the tasks and planning of the project, specifically because the meetings were weekly and we had specific tasks so we had to distribute the work well in the periods of time. I worked very well with my project partner, he was a great help to solve doubts and support us virtually. Also, I would like to get to know the UK in the future.
Louise: That’s really interesting and you’ve both shown great resilience by adapting to the online format. It’s been wonderful hearing about your experiences this summer, what are your plans following the IJRA?
Laura: I would like to specialize in machine learning and deep learning, finish my undergraduate degrees and do a master’s degree in this area. Likewise, in the future I would like to carry out studies and research in this area.
Anisha: Haha, that is a question to which I do not have a singular answer. I’m someone guided by curiosity and have chosen my opportunities based on this drive. Yet, I’ve a few plans to look forward to after my experience as an IJRA. I’m quite interested in pursuing doctoral research on community engagement, and intend to become a consultant to aid in the development and representation of Tripura, both nationally and globally. At a personal level, I’m keen on writing non-fictional literature about life in Tripura as a local