Farhad Nawaz University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign MS in Aerospace Engineering with specialization in Robotics & Control

farhad-nawaz-universityWhile pursuing my undergraduate degree at the National Institute of Technology (NIT-Trichy), little did I know that I would be pursuing a Master's degree, let alone in the U.S.

I can vividly remember orientation week from fall 2019 at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) where I am pursuing my MS in Aerospace Engineering with a specialization in Robotics & Control. The university welcomed us with a lot of fun events like ice skating and bowling which helped reduce the feeling of homesickness. It was so gratifying to see the Dean, Harry Dankowicz, himself distributing water and food to the newly admitted students.

Set in a small city surrounded by huge cornfields in the Midwestern United States, UIUC is home to a vibrant campus town with affordable living. The rich engineering history of UIUC, which is the birthplace of inventions like LED, transistor and superconductivity were just some of the reasons that made me apply to the university for the graduate research program.

My previous research experience at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru was pivotal in helping me not just join a Professor's research group at UIUC but also instrumental in helping me receive full tuition fee waiver and a monthly stipend adequate to meet my living expenses.

I am working in the area of Modern Control Engineering and am affiliated with the Coordinated Sciences Laboratory (CSL). My research focusses on combining control theory with machine learning to develop safe and efficient algorithms for autonomous decision-making in dynamic systems. Our work addresses problems for a wide variety of applications, ranging from underwater vehicles to mars rovers. My research experience at UIUC inspires me to work on novel research problems, develop rigorous mathematical theories for them, and be mindful of the societal impacts of my findings. I presented my research work at the CSL student conference, which was a truly enriching experience, where I was lucky enough to get valuable feedback from eminent personalities from academia and the industry fraternity. The conference provided us with hands on robotic demonstrations, an interesting one being, a robotic nursing agent tele-operated using virtual reality.

The continuous learning and assessment prevalent in the U.S. academic curriculum was a welcome change. Thought it was demanding initially, the Professors and Teaching Assistants provided guidance to make my transition smooth. The university gave us freedom to completely tailor the coursework according to our interests and career goals. In addition to providing us with a strong theoretical foundation, the courses also incorporated practical elements of applying such concepts to real world problems. In my first semester, I had to do experiments with a ground robot and a quad-copter on an agricultural field to collect and process data concerning crop growth, which gave me new perspectives in designing a complete autonomous system.

Amidst the busy schedule involving assignments and research work, my gym and swimming sessions at the campus recreation center keep me active and rejuvenated. The Indian Graduate Students Association (IGSA) organizes events promoting Indian culture - Diwali celebration being the trademark, which tries to compensate for family and friends that we miss. IGSA also provides a lot of voluntary help for incoming students to settle down in the city.

My stay here in the U.S. has given me a wholesome experience of living independently, managing expenses, cooking decent Indian food, and doing the primary academic work. Slowly and steadily, my U.S. experience has helped me grow up, pushing me to dream big and explore career opportunities which I had never thought of, a year back.

The current COVID'19 situation created a lot of panic among the students regarding virtual academic work. The universities efforts to create a strong online infrastructure helped in mitigating this condition with Professors doing their best to make the course interactive and engaging. It has taken some adjusting to and though we miss the peer interaction and lab work, the experience has also been a good learning ground.

There has been no turning back since August 2018, when I started my U.S. university application preparations. The EducationUSA Advising Center in Chennai guided me through the admission process, from shortlisting universities to providing constructive feedback for my statement of purpose all the way to the pre-departure phase.

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