An Out of This World Experience

At some stage whilst growing up, it is every little boy’s dream to jump into a rocket and propel into space to explore the unknown and swim amongst the stars.

Vaibhav Kumar is on the way to living his universe wide dream. An Australian –Indian who has lived in countries ranging from Hong Kong to Sweden, he is no stranger to adapting to what is foreign and unknown – a contributing factor to his love for everything space. After completing his undergraduate education in Melbourne, Vaibhav is now studying his Masters and PhD in aerospace engineering at one of the world’s top ten ranking universities – Stanford University. Having access to the world’s top organizations in his field including NASA, he is determined to launch his career off the best platform possible. G’day India chats to Vaibhav this month to find out why he’s having an out of this world experience!

G’day: Tell us about your background. You seem to have been quite the jet – setter before finally settling in Australia!

V: Well, my family first moved to Australia when I was about three. Since then, we happened to move around every few years, finally settling down in Melbourne where I completed my high school and undergraduate studies. In all, including an exchange program, my schooling has thus taken place in the diverse places of Australia, India, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Sweden and now the US for my Masters.

G’day: How has growing up in such an international setting benefited or disadvantaged you?

V: When I was growing up, I had to get used to moving home and leaving friends behind initially. Having gotten used to it, now I get all fidgety if I’m in one place for over a few years!

G’day: Have you found it hard to stay grounded and close to your family when you travel so much and live so far away?

V: Not really. Despite so much movement, my parents have always stressed that our family stay together, which I deeply value. I have a younger brother studying biomedicine at Monash and we all remain extremely connected.

G’day: When did you first know you were interested pursuing in some form of engineering as a career?

V: I’ve always had an inquisitive nature that, on the odd occasion, would lead to undesirable situations. I remember once blowing up an old telephone set because I wanted to see what happens if it’s plugged in to the power outlet. Once I nearly had the house burn down. I realized by studying engineering, I would get to try out crazy stuff – get a degree for it and then be paid for it!

G’day: Before heading off to be a highflying academic genius in the US, you completed your undergraduate degree in Melbourne. What did you pursue?

V: I did a double degree in Aerospace engineering and Commerce (Management) from Monash University. I was a little fortunate getting this combination of choice because Monash only introduced a formal aerospace degree the year I started. The non-technical and business side of things forms an important consideration for an engineer and it has always interested me, drawing me to the commerce degree. As I put it sometimes, it kept me ‘sane’ with the engineering alongside!

G’day: What draws you to the field you’re interested in?

V: Like many others, I find Space fascinates me. I think many kids grow up look up at the sky and imagine what it would feel like to be an astronaut and how it would be to travel to another planet and what other kind of life-forms there might be out there, if any. Exploring the unknown and the infinite is what excites me. When I think of our planet’s tiny place in the universe, it puts human life and all activities on it, past, present and future, into perspective and everything then seems so insignificant. When you look at the earth from above, you see no national boundaries and no human differences.

G’day: How does engineering allow you to further this fascination?

V: Well, as an engineer, I get to blend this world of fantasy and philosophy with practical solutions back here on earth. Instant across-the-globe communication and advanced weather forecasting, for example, would not be possible without satellite technology. It is this combination of fantasy, philosophy and technological advancement that continues to drive me.

G’day: You are now completing your postgraduate studies at one of the most sought after and top ranking universities in the world – Stanford University. Why did you decide to apply to Stanford and why the US?

V: The idea was to take my aerospace education further by pursuing a Masters/PhD in the US. I had narrowed down on the US simply because it is, and always has been, the aerospace hub. The breadth of academic expertise, industry experience and vision, investment in R&D and support structure for aerospace offered by the US is currently unmatched and is likely to be for some time. As for Stanford University, it has a strong aerospace department with good connections in the industry and I could see that it offered a pathway to all that mentioned above. With its sound reputation across many fields and being located in the heart of Silicon Valley, it was offering me the opportunity to interact and be inspired by some of the leading innovators, entrepreneurs and experts.

G’day: Stanford is known to be one of the top ten universities in the world. Did the elite surrounding Stanford ever put you off or intimidate you from applying?

V: Oh yes! It wasn’t until I saw a friend two years my senior get accepted for a similar program that I seriously considered it as a possible option. But once the decision was made to apply, I realized any form of fear or worry would only be detrimental. The key was to accept that it’s going to be competitive and maintain appropriate backups that would also keep me happy. It’s the same with any competition, whether applying for a job or sitting the UMAT.

G’day: So what is life at Stanford like?

V: In one word – amazing! Sunny California weather, a spread-out suburban campus, access to some of the top tech companies and doing what you like, it makes it quite a loveable combination. The campus is situated about 45 minutes from both downtown San Francisco and San Jose, giving it a nice suburban feel not too far away from the city! There are also frequent special lectures, conferences, large career fairs and other activities on campus that make it quite fast-paced. Stanford is known for its entrepreneurial spirit, and it is evident in the student body with many opting to start their own companies either during or after graduation. Not to mention President Obama recently paid us a quick visit!

G’day: Having experienced both now, how does American university life vary from Australian university life?

V: Well for starters, most students live on campus (at many institutes), unlike in Australia where most students live at home throughout their degree program. This means that students are together for more time, whether it is work, eat or socialize. As a result, there are many more professional events going on till late in the evening and student organisations are much more active. This also means big parties in the undergraduate dorms – somewhat reminiscent of scenes from the movies. College sports are a big deal! Students are also attuned to a weekly assignment system and the exam period lasts less than a week.

G’day: Similarly, how does undergraduate study vary from postgraduate study? Is there a big leap between them?

V: It is actually much like a jump from school to university between undergraduate to postgraduate. You’ve accepted that you like being a student, narrowed down your area of interest further and decided you would like to stay at university some more with greater independence. If there’s coursework in your postgrad, it will be more advanced material of what you’ve done before, except now you chose to do it. If you’re working towards a PhD research thesis, there is plenty of freedom in what and how you research. It is much like working for a company, not being paid as much, but typically having more flexibility in hours and the work you do. Also, as a postgrad, you’re not only reading and understanding theory, but contributing to the creation of new theory.

G’day: What advice would you give students who have ambitions of applying to universities of Stanford’s level or an Ivy League? Is it out of the average person’s reach?

V: Of course it’s not out of the ‘average’ person’s reach! By all means, I am an average person. When I was young and considered my ambitions out of reach, my parents would tell me that even the astronauts (whom I looked up to) were not born on any other planet nor did they inherit superhuman powers, and with hard work and perseverance anyone is capable of living their dreams. It is not out of your reach if you are passionate and hard working. You have to be proactive. Also, never underestimate the value of networking. Even a brief chat or email goes a long way. If you are applying for Ivy League level universities, it makes practical sense to also apply to some ‘backup’ institutes a few ranks lower. Rank and name should not be the deciding factors as much as your interest in the field. It is important to understand that it is a highly competitive process, and a non-acceptance should not be taken as a reflection of how good or bad you are.

G’day: Having achieved so much already, what are your plans for the future?

V: Hopefully get a job in the US or Europe, where the aerospace industry is big and very active. I’d like to work for a few years and then see from there. There’s so much that will be different in 10 years that it’s hard to set heart on anything right now.

By Rahat Kapur