Erica Chwalik

Departure Date:
Return Date:
Local Institution:
West Virginia University
Local Advisor:
Maura McLaughlin
Foreign Institution:
The Institute of Mathematical Sciences
Foreign Advisor:
Manjari Bagchi
Student Status:
  • Q. What country were you staying in?
    • India
  • Q. Where were you doing research?
    • The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai
  • Q. How long were you there?
    • Two Months
  • Q. What sort of research were you doing?
    • My IRES partner, Elizabeth Rigby, and I worked together on simulating an evolutionary route for double neutron star systems. Neutron stars are super dense collapsed cores left over from giant stars that died in supernova explosions; because of how compact they are, they serve as great tests of general relativity, so finding more of them can help further our understanding of the physics governing the universe. By exploring a potential way in which binary systems of these stars can be formed, we can narrow down future surveys trying to locate them.
  • Q. Did being abroad influence the kind of research you’re doing?
    • Definitely! Before this project I hadn’t done any research with neutron stars at all, so this was a new experience for me. Manjari was a great mentor and answered all our questions really well, which made it super fun delving into this new research topic. Besides just the fact that I was working on something new, I also got to work really closely with Elizabeth since we were collaborating on a single project together. This was my first time getting to really work with someone to this extent on anything, so we both got good practice in collaborative research.
  • Q. What’s the coolest thing about being abroad?
    • One of the best things about Chennai was how readily available public transport was, so even though we couldn’t drive there, getting around wasn’t a problem at all once we figured out the logistics of catching a bus and calling an Uber or rickshaw. We made a few interesting trips this way, including a day long excursion to Mahabalipuram, a set of temples on the beach about an hour and a half from Chennai, and a weekend long stay in Pondicherry, an ex-French colony about four hours down the coast. As someone who hasn’t had a car until this year on campus, I know how difficult finding reliable public transport can be in the U.S., and how costly even short trips can be, so being able to go out and explore India as easily as we did was very cool.
  • Q. What’s your favorite new phrase from the language?
    • If you were to rank countries by the total number of languages spoken there, India would come in fourth! Over 400 different languages are spoken within its borders, so even though many people we met spoke English as their second language, the local language wherever we were varied greatly. This made it difficult to pick up on any particular phrases, but one thing I did pick up on was the names of some local foods. Very early on we were informed that Chennai is known as the brunch capital of India, and we soon found out why! The breakfast there was amazing, I ended up growing really fond of it. My favorite food we ate was Uttapam, a savory rice pancake that typically came with tomatoes and onions cooked into it.
  • Q. What’s the hardest thing about being abroad?
    • It can be really difficult being away from everyone you know for two months, especially when you’re somewhere that’s on such a different timezone than wherever you’re from. While I was there I was nine and a half hours ahead of everyone back home, so I only really got to talk to my family and friends during my evenings for a few hours while they were getting up and heading to work. Needless to say I had some really happy reunions as soon as I was back in the states!
  • Q. What did you do in your free time?
    • One of our favorite things to do when we weren’t working was just exploring the city and finding new restaurants to try. We tried to change up the type of food we’d get each time, so we ended up sampling lots of different cuisines! Even types of food we were familiar with from back in the U.S. would typically have an interesting twist, like burgers sometimes had potato patties and the sauce for our delivery Chinese food came in big metallic bags seperate from the noodles.
  • Q. What’s the coolest thing you’ve done or seen while abroad?
    • India is full of beautifully ornate temples, so it was really cool getting to see all the different deities and cultures represented in each one. One of the main features of Mahabalipuram was a set of seven temples carved into one massive stone, each with their own unique architecture reflecting the style of a different culture from around the world. Seeing something so old with such far reaching influences was really inspiring!
  • Q. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve done or seen while abroad?
    • When I got to Chennai one of the first things I noticed was the rickshaws, which are tiny, yellow, motorized, open-air vehicles that serve as mini taxis around the city. I didn’t take too many of these, as they typically went very short distances, but they were EVERYWHERE! It was crazy seeing something so prevalent there when I had never seen one before in my life.
  • Q. What advice would you offer others thinking of going abroad?
    • Deciding whether or not to go abroad is not easy, being away from the people you love for a year or a semester or even just a few months can be really difficult to deal with. That being said, I’d strongly recommend giving it a go if the opportunity presents itself. Getting to spend two months in India was a once in a lifetime experience for me, and I have amazing memories of the places I went there and the things I got to do that I never would have experienced if I hadn’t taken the plunge and participated IRES. If you end up going abroad, for IRES or any other program, just keep in mind that your experience there is what you make of it! Once you’re there it can be difficult adjusting at first, but if you push yourself to go out and do at least one big thing each week you’ll find that you get used to things much faster, and you’ll develop some great memories along the way!
  • Q. What skills have you learned abroad?
    • Between starting research on a topic I didn’t have much experience with and trying to navigate a completely unfamiliar city, I got really used to asking for help when I needed it. It may seem like an odd thing to learn while abroad, but there’s really nothing quite like being in a foreign country to get you used to asking questions about, well, pretty much everything. I’d really like to thank everyone that helped me out along the way while I was there, including Manjari, Elizabeth, and the countless Uber drivers who parsed through my horribly American accent to help me get where I needed to go.
  • Q. Is there anything you’d do differently or anything you wish you’d have known?
    • While I realized it was going to be hot in Chennai, I guess I didn’t really know just exactly how hot it was going to be. The first several weeks we were there it got up to 100 degrees fahrenheit every day with intense humidity and no rain at all. If I went back I’d pack extremely lightly and just buy all my clothes locally, as when I went I ended up wearing very little of what I brought with me and typically just wore the climate and culture appropriate clothes I was able to purchase in the first few weeks of my trip.