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The Center for the Advanced Study of India provides funding and support to graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct independent research and volunteer internships in India during the summer months.
Updated: 15 hours 47 min ago

Billion Dollar Ideas (for Rural India)

Wed, 04/23/2014 - 08:41

I recently read a Slate article on billion dollar problems. It gave 10 problems and suggested finding a solution to any one of these problems would make you a billionaire. But the problems given are not for Silicon Valley. They’re not even for Bangalore. They’re for rural India.

For nearly all of the problems on their list, rural India is the perfect testing ground to find a solution to these global challenges. Here is the Slate list:

  1. Wireless power
  2. Rural, remote internet
  3. Cheap, scalable solar
  4. Clean coal
  5. Super low-cost international payments
  6. A pill that really makes you lose weight
  7. Cheap desalination
  8. Detecting or predicting major weather or natural events
  9. Unhackable passwords
  10. Death

Let’s take a look at a few.

1. Wireless power: When designing solutions, why not have in mind the country where an estimated 300 million people are not connected to the national electrical grid?

2. Rural, remote internet: Why not start in a country where those who do have internet access are leading the world in online learning and collaboration?

3. Cheap, scalable solar: Plenty of sun in India. And the country’s existing solar power capacity is growing.

4. Clean Coal: India has the world’s fifth largest coal reserves.

5. Low-cost international payments: Who sends more money home than the Indian diaspora? Nobody. India topped the global chart of remittances in 2013, receiving $71 billion. Moreover, as India continues to move up the world’s back office chain, more and more people who know the most about international payments will be in India.

7. Cheap desalination: India has got plenty of seawater coastline. It is after all shaped like an “aircraft carrier jutting out into the Indian Ocean”, as it has been described to me.

8. Predicting major weather events: Try naming a country where more people are affected by weather. In addition to being able to predict natural disasters like typhoons with greater accuracy, how many people’s lives in India would be dramatically improved with greater ability to predict monsoon patterns?

9: Unhackable passwords: Why not India? India does have the third most internet users of any country in the world despite penetration rates of only 11.4%.

What’s most surprising to me is that rural India is never seen and discussed in these terms. Instead it’s almost distasteful in polite circles to discuss rural India in terms of a business opportunity. It’s a place that needs our help, but not serious investment or business interest.

Just from living in Delhi I know of many NGOs doing tremendous work across rural India. And the idea of social entrepreneurship has started to fill this space somewhat. But I think for the most part it’s fair to say that rural India is not anywhere near the minds of the world’s top innovators: scientists, engineers, business executives, entrepreneurs, etc.

But why not?

India’s challenges are global challenges. If you can find a solution to a challenging problem that works in rural India, not only have you affected the lives of millions of people in India, but I bet you’ve got something that can translate to the rest of the world—both poor and rich countries.

If you’re a scientist for example, why study water pollution in the Schuylkill River when you could study water pollution in the Ganges? I’m from Philly and would like to see a cleaner Schuylkill as much as anyone. But think about the scale of impact a solution found for pollution in the Ganges—how many more lives would that change? Most importantly, I bet the solution for India could be applied to the US (and the rest of the world) much more easily than a solution for the US could be applied to India.

Or to use an example from this list, if you’re designing the next generation of solar panel, why not think about one that will work for rural India? If a farmer in Rajasthan can buy it, I bet one in Arizona could too.

And I haven’t forgotten the last point on the list: Death. The article was trying to be cheeky, but India has already solved that one– reincarnation!

2014 CASI Student Programs: Internships and Travel Fund Winners!

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 20:01

CASI 2014 Internship and Travel Fund Winners

We are delighted to announce the 2014 CASI Student Programs Interns and Travel Funds for Research Winners! The 2014 internship class includes fifteen undergraduates studying in three of Penn’s undergraduate schools, the College of Arts and Sciences, School of Engineering, and the Wharton School, and one graduate student from the School of Veterinary Medicine. Our five Travel Funds Winners include one undergraduate and four graduate students from three of Penn’s schools, School of Arts and Sciences, the Wharton School, and School of Design.

We are thankful for the unwavering support and commitment from our Student Programs Alumni who spent countless hours speaking with prospective applicants on campus during “Chai Chats,” via Skype, and through Adobe Connect information sessions. After internship selections were finalized, our students were busy connecting with the new class, answering questions, and volunteering to be “CASI Buddies” for this year’s 2014 interns. Hectic schedules and long work hours aside, CASI students always make time.

A summer in India is not just another experience tacked onto the resume. The white board in my office is packed with student quotes and the most reflective ones usually come out during internship interviews. It is clear that the meaning and relevance of a summer experience in India continues to evolve during our students’ time at Penn and as they start their careers.

Reflections: CASI Interns

While we are waiting for some new blog posts, I wanted to share some reflections from our CASI students that I jotted down during the internship interviews.

“You won’t see the inequality as much as you might think, because it is equal in its poverty.”
– Aashna Desai, W’16, CASI 2013 Intern, Samaj Pragati Sahayog, Madhya Pradesh

“I became comfortable in my own skin and being who I am. And if I can work in rural India, I can do anything.”
– Alex Iqbal, W’15, CASI 2013 Intern, Chirag, Uttarakhand

“One of my most important takeaways was that change is really slow.”
– Jason Maccabee, C’14, CASI 2013 Intern, Chirag, Uttarkhand

“I saw myself changing. I learned what I am capable of, which was not at all what I expected.”
“One of the important qualities to have is humility and an interest in learning, so much you don’t understand and you learn to admit what you don’t know.”
– Eliana Machefsky, C’14, CASI 2012 Intern, Educate Girls, Rajasthan

“It was a pivotal time for me to become more reflective.”
“They told me that people come and go in this clinic, but Christina, we are really going to miss you.’”
– Christina Wu, C’14, CASI 2012 Intern, Aravind Eye Care Systems, Tamil Nadu

CASI 2014 Student Programs

Now in its eighth year, we are excited to announce the largest class to date. For the internship program, CASI is collaborating with six partner organizations in India: Aravind Eye Care Systems, Central Himalayan Rural Action Group (Chirag), Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI), Leap Skills Academy, IMFR Rural Channels and Services, and Samaj Pragati Sahayog (SPS). For the Travel Funds for Research, we encourage proposals from both Penn undergraduates, preferably juniors writing a thesis related to contemporary India, and graduate students focused on contemporary India or India in a comparative context. Funds for the CASI Student Programs are made possible through the support of Penn’s Office of the Vice Provost for Global Initiatives in conjunction with Penn Abroad and Penn’s International Internship Program (IIP) and through the generous support of CASI donors, many of whom are Penn Alumni.

2014 CASI Summer Interns

Aravind Eye Care Systems, Madurai, Tamil Nadu
Jane Chen, C W’16, Biochemistry, Operations and Information Management (OPIM)
Zach Chen, C W’16, Vagelos Program in Life Sciences and Management: Biology, Finance, Statistics
Abhinay Ramachandran, SEAS’16, Bioengineering

Central Himalayan Rural Action Group (Chirag), Sitla, Uttarakhand
Caroline Kee, C’15, Heath and Societies
Aardra Rajendran, SEAS’16, Bioengineering
Mary Stachofsky, C’15, Economics, Visual Studies
Eileen Wang, C’16, Health and Societies

Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce (DICCI), Pune, Maharashtra
Sarah Kho, W’16, Finance,
Shreya Zaveri, W’16, Operations and Information Management (OPIM), Management

IMFR Rural Channels and Services, Chennai, Tamil Nadu
Leah Davidson, W’16, Finance and Management
Nikhil Devnani, W’16, Finance and Accounting

Leap Skills Academy, Yamuna Nagar, Harayana
Sofia Bernier, C’15, Politics, Philosophy, and Economics
William Cao, C’17, Biological Basis of Behavior, Economics
Kristi Littleton, C’15, Biology

Samaj Pragati Sahayog, Dewas, Madhya Pradesh
Daniela Castillo de Luna, C’15, Urban Studies, Architecture
Carrie Childs, V’16, Penn Veterinary School

2014 Summer Travel Funds for Research Winners

Emma Boswell, Ph.D. Candidate, Wharton School, Healthcare Management and Economics
The Radiating Effects of Quality Uncertainty of Pharmaceuticals in India

Alexandra Hughes-Caley, MFA Candidate, School of Design, Interdisciplinary Art
Exploring the Social Landscape of Contemporary Rape Cultures in India: Engaging Art

Tanvi Mittal, C’15, Anthropology, College of Arts and Sciences
Ethnography of Karen Tribe in the Andaman Islands

Prakirti Nangia, Ph.D. Candidate, School of Arts and Sciences, Political Science
Social Assistance: The New Silver Bullet in Development Policy

Sudev Sheth, Ph.D. Candidate, School of Arts and Sciences, South Asia Studies
People, princes, and paramountcy in India: A social history of statecraft and governance in Baroda, 1721-1949

Election Day in New Delhi!

Wed, 04/09/2014 - 21:00

Nearly a year and a half of observing Delhi politics as a resident reaches a peak today as the city heads to the polls in the national election. Having listened to dozens of different theories on what the outcome will be in India’s fractious parliamentary system, soon enough it will all be clear. <Or not?>

While the international media has just kicked off its coverage of the latest installment of the greatest democratic event in history, the political situation in Delhi always seems near the center of life here. It has certainly ramped up in recent weeks though.

Every day for the past few weeks I’ve been greeted by a barrage of YouTube and Facebook ads from both Congress and BJP. Both parties seem pretty savvy when it comes to these ads. Some appear as basic sponsored posts, but others are a bit more clever, where it shows you which of your friends have liked a particular party (without seeming like a sponsored post).

‘Hope’ on the Delhi Metro

An interesting research project for someone is to analyze the difference, if any, between digital versus grassroots electoral campaigns. How does a party’s messaging differ between digitally connected voters and those without access to electricity? It’s also interesting to note that while I get several junk SMS from restaurants and spas (don’t ask me why) every day, I can’t recall too many–if at all– from political parties.

You can’t travel too many places in Delhi without knowing an election is taking place. Posters are everywhere, especially bus stations and billboards. They’re in Hindi, which I need some help with. But I was able to figure out the one for a smiling Rahul Gandhi: “Main nahi, hum (Not I, We)”. On other hand, no translation was needed for a Shepard Fairey-inspired Narendra Modi Hope poster on the Delhi metro.

A few weeks ago I was able to attend an event where Dr. Kapur and others presented the results of their huge survey on election attitudes. It was very interesting. I’ve been conducting less formal polling of all my auto drivers. Definitely less robust, but we’ll see if it’s the same outcome.

I’ve also been learning what, to an American, are some real peculiarities of the Indian parliamentary system. Modi, the CM of Gujarat, is contesting from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh? And he’s contesting from Vadodara at the same time? Very strange to me.

While politics is continuously buzzing in Delhi, it still feels like a short election cycle. I’m actually surprised it’s here so soon. I think that has to be an advantage of the parliamentary system if you can avoid the huge marathon US-style campaigns I’m used to.

This election is obviously a big one for India. A lot will probably change. But I’m sure, whatever the outcome, Arnab Goswami will have something to talk <read shout> about.

The Semester of Births

Thu, 04/03/2014 - 08:28

It’s been a little over 3.5 months since I came back to India to spend my semester off interning with LifeSpring Maternity Hospitals and spending time in Hyderabad. My time here has absolutely flown by; each day has been filled with work, family, fun – and a lot of births.

Workwise, I was able to finish auditing, interviewing nurses, and deriving recommendations across 3 of the 12 hospitals they have in Hyderabad. Throughout this process, I was slightly bummed to have to keep my distance from the actual delivery room after fainting through a C-section, a normal delivery, and an abortion, but I was happy to be constantly surrounded by newborns and young families while at work. After making an hour-long presentation to the CEO at the end of my project, I was excited to have his support and work with a Business Head to begin to see the implementation of my recommendations in one of the hospitals. Throughout my time here, I was lucky that the head office was small and to have spent time interacting most with the CEO, COO, and the majority of the business heads for this chain of hospitals.

Whenever I was not working, I spent my remaining time with family and the Acumen Fellow stationed at LifeSpring, Baheirah. Together, we explored as many places in Hyderabad as we could – Birla Temple, Tank Bund, Lumbini Park, Film City, Jalavihar, the Zoo, Charminar, and craft fairs among others as well as several restaurants and dhabas around the city. Amidst all the births we saw while at work, we also had the pleasure of witnessing the official birth of Telangana state after the bill passed in Parliament during the end of February – and the ensuing celebrations, rioting, and arguments that followed. Due to my large extended family, I also had the pleasure of witnessing two new nieces that were born in February and attending several functions that involve new babies being born: a function to celebrate one of my pregnant cousins, a cradle ceremony gathering hundreds of relatives to celebrate a new baby, and a function at my cousin’s house to welcome a new baby home.

Since I finished the bulk of my project work by the end of February, most of last month I spent visiting family and traveling to different places in India – and, in between, I was able to assist Baheirah a little bit with finding and writing grants for LifeSpring. Since both of us have been gone the last few weeks, we’re headed out now to reunite in Hyderabad, try how Indians do Mediterranean food, and karaoke! :)

Baheirah and I at the Zoo Park – we biked along the park and found this surprise lake at the end of a remote path

Baheirah and I at Charminar, a center for shopping and hotspot for religious tensions

Part of the LifeSpring Team!

Baheirah and I at Film City (an amusement park in Hyderabad where a lot of local films are also shot)

Baheirah and I at Karachi Bakery trying desserts


About Me: I was a CASI intern in the summer of 2012 in Bali, Rajasthan working with Educate Girls. I graduated Penn in December 2013 with a B.S. in Economics and will be in New York starting consulting in May 2014. Feel free to contact me at




3 Years after CASi and still kicking it abroad…

Sat, 03/08/2014 - 03:26


Aparna has been asking me to write a blog about working abroad post graduation and I’ve been putting it off for long enough to write a short book…

So I’m prefacing this post. The first part is about living abroad – challenges, tips, etc.  The second part is about my job – what do I do and my experiences at work.  The third part is about the travel experiences I’ve had on side trips from work conferences.

Part 1: First Year Abroad straight out of college

It has now been almost 2.5 years since my CASI internship ended in New Delhi at the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group in 2011.  After returning from my internship, I spent my senior year at Penn searching for US based jobs and after 9 months of searching relentlessly, as Penn seniors do, I landed a job with the International Water Management Institute….in Sri Lanka!  Not exactly close to home – like I was planning – but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to head back to South Asia (especially considering the scene I made when I left my host family in Delhi at the end of my internship – I almost considered skipping my senior year of Penn to stay with them…).

The first thing on my list to do when I arrived in Sri Lanka was to plan a trip back to Delhi to see my host family.  The family I lived with during my CASI internship has become part of my extended family.  I love them dearly and felt much more comfortable moving to Sri Lanka knowing that they were just a 3 hour flight away.

It didn’t take me long to realize that living and working abroad is much different than having a two month summer internship.

My first slap to reality was getting used to sitting at a desk from 9 to 5 every day and doing all of my work in one place – although I think this must be a similar revelation to those working full-time in the US.  I also had no idea how to assess my performance – no grades, no midterm exams, nothing to mark progress.  My boss was also based in a different country so that didn’t make it much easier.  I realized that this was the first time in 17 years that my performance wasn’t based on an A to F scale.

My second slap to reality was finding housing.  Colombo (the capital of Sri Lanka) is not the easiest place to find a shared house or apartment unless you’ve tapped into the right networks. That took me over 8 weeks and a couple of backstabbing drama filled housing wars…..

And my third slap to reality was making my own network in Sri Lanka.  I must admit, this was the most challenging.  I learned a lot about “ex-pat life” during my time in Sri Lanka and traveling to various conferences, meeting people in their 40s to 60s who have spent their entire adult lives in the “ex-pat world” hopping from one international job to another.

Oh and a fourth – mood swings. This is a common trend I’ve found among friends working abroad.  One day, you’re out having an amazing adventure with a group of international friends hiking, surfing, drinking in little bars, stumbling upon elephants bathing in the river, laughing, and thoroughly enjoying your life abroad and the next minute your horribly depressed, have no idea what you’re doing with your life, convinced nobody wants to hang out with you, and cultural differences that you can normally brush off turn into day ruining events (e.g. being stared at in the most intensely violating way every time I walk anywhere in Colombo and having men make a kissing sound when I walk by – some days, I could brush it off….others it would take every ounce of self restraint to not go screaming over at them…)

At my lowest moments, I found my CASI network waiting with open arms. Some of the interns my year and the year after have talked me through some of my major downs.  Aparna gave me advice that drastically changed my experience in Sri Lanka.  She told me to make a list of 10 things that I could do, in my control (this is an important factor!), to make myself happier.  It took me a while to make that list.  At first, I thought about it but brushed it off.  After a string of “bad” days, I decided to make that list – and take my happiness into my own hands. And things started changing.  I made goals for myself, started recognizing the things that made me happy, and I felt in control of my activities – and therefore more relaxed.

After traveling for work fair amount, I’ve found a couple of fool-proof ways to meet new people.

1. Join the Hash House Harriers

If you like running and drinking and you miss college humor – this is the group to join.  There are Hash House Harrier groups all over the world. Look it up.  You’ll meet a bunch of older folks these days in many cities but it’s a fantastic way to expand your networks, get a good run in once a week, and have some fun!  Don’t worry – you don’t have to be a star runner to join the group.  There is a separate trail for walkers which is equally enjoyable.  I’ve hashed in Colombo, Vientiane (Laos), and Addis Ababa (Ethiopia).

2. Ultimate Frisbee

Another ex-pat staple for some reason….you’re bound to find an Ultimate Frisbee group in any major international city (and even a bunch of smaller ones!).  I played in Colombo and in Vientiane, Laos (where I spent 5 weeks working from in October).  I hate sports that involve flying objects – but for some reason, I don’t mind ultimate too much and the level of skills among players varies greatly.  It’s a great workout, you’ll usually meet a younger crowd of ex-pats, and people are usually good sports about newbies…

Part 2: My job

I work for a global research program on natural resource management for sustainable agricultural development.  The ultimate goal is to achieve food security while protecting and enhancing our ecosystems to sustain the livelihoods of farmers and provide adequate food and nutrition for a growing population.

The program is called the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems and is housed in the International Water Management Institute – which is where I was based in Sri Lanka.

I found this job through the Princeton in Asia fellowship program (recommended by a former CASI intern who was a previous fellow) and joined IWMI in Sri Lanka as a communications intern.  I didn’t necessarily like the idea of communications – but I really liked the sound of the program and I know communications is a skill set that is useful in any position.

I run our program’s blog (Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog)– which has actually become quite a successful project.  The blog was started in order to challenge scientists, researchers, and the development community to think critically about agricultural development – what’s working, what’s not, what are we doing wrong, what issues are we failing to address, why are millions of dollars poured into development with little coming out?

On a day to day basis, I edit blog posts, conduct interviews, commission new posts, work with scientists, researchers and professional journalists.  I also manage the blog site – I’ve learned how to use wordpress, social media, and monitoring and evaluation tools for website traffic.

I have had some incredible opportunities to travel with this job.  I have been to Sweden, Ethiopia, India, Philippines, France, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, and Poland all for work related conferences.  If you want to read more about my travel experiences – see my personal blog here.

Working and traveling has been incredible.  Although traveling for work is less glamorous than I thought – it’s a decision I’d weigh more carefully in the future.  I travel mainly to conferences which means I fly into a new exciting place, am trapped in a conference center all week where I work my butt off, then squeeze in an incredible weekend vacation, and then back on a plane.

What I feel like I’ve missed is a true country experience. My work is not specific to the place I live (I could basically do my daily tasks from anywhere in the world with an internet connection).  Living and traveling in Sri Lanka was amazing – but my job had nothing to do with anything going on in Sri Lanka.  So I’d recommend to those looking for an in depth experience where your work and life revolve around the place you’re living in – don’t join a big international organization on a global project!

And I’ve also learned a lot about the “development world”.  I’ve come to the conclusion that it is somewhat of a game – not to be too pessimistic or critical.  But after attending a number of conferences – where sessions have interesting titles, well-renowned researchers with government officials present – but I have seen very little (if anything at all) come out of these conferences and events.

It’s quite a political game – people have been rehashing the same issues for years – with little movement forward.  And I question the usefulness of conferences that take people away from their day jobs and do little in terms of moving ideas forward and creating change.  That said, it is usually in the side conversations, coffee breaks, and hallways discussions where things really do move forward – so perhaps there’s a reason behind all of the hubbub but it still seems like a massive mis-use of money.  I could continue but I won’t….

Part 3: Travel & Fun

I have to be grateful for the incredible travel opportunities I’ve had over the past 15 months.  Sometimes I have to remind myself that it isn’t normal to be traveling every weekend.  But then again, that’s what’s keeping me abroad!

So here are a few highlights:

1. Sri Lanka Surf

After making my list of 10 things to make myself happier, as advised by Aparna, I decided that I wanted to get better at surfing.  I started traveling every weekend (during the season) to the south coast of Sri Lanka to a bay called Weligama – one of the world’s most perfect spots for beginner/intermediate surfers.  Once I decided to start doing this every weekend, I soon found a group interested in joining me.  We’d take the bus down, rent boards, spend the day surfing, grab some vegetable rotis on the way home and head back (about 2 hours each way).  It was totally and completely worth the journey.  Some of my happiest moments in Sri Lanka were sitting out in the ocean, in luke warm water, with the sun beating down on me, smiling friends on the beach drinking beer, and catching waves into the most beautiful sunsets.

2. Lalibella, Ethiopia

In October 2012, I traveled to Ethiopia for a work conference.  One of my co-workers (based in Laos) and I decided to travel to Lalibella after the conference.  Lalibella is a World Heritage Site and I think people have even called it the 8th wonder of the world.  It was unreal.  Ancient churches carved down into solid rock. I have an entire blog post on the experience here.

After touring the churches, my co-worker and I climbed a mountain to a place called Lalibella Hudad.  Some genius decided to build an eco-lodge at the top of this mountain – equip with small huts with mattresses and separate a little kitchen.  The closest village was a 30 minute walk away farther into the mountain which is especially far considering it took 3 hours for us to get to the top of the mountain where we were staying.  And there were no roads so everything we were using, eating, sleeping on was all transported by people or donkeys.

The mountains of Ethiopia are especially incredible because they are so old – the tops are all plateaus in this area.  Imagine looking out from the top of a mountain at a ridgeline of flat topped mountains with the most beautiful landscapes below.  Hands down, one of my favorite life experiences.  We were the only 2 people on the mountain that night.  Surrounded in tall grasses and a tribe of baboons.  I’ll let the pictures explain the rest…

3. India

After 4 months in Sri Lanka (November 2012), I went back to see my host family in Delhi. I’ve never felt more at home – it was such a relief to be in a family setting, surrounded by people who knew me well and cared for me unconditionally.  I ate countless rotis (my favorite), was stuffed full with Indian food like any good Indian family would insist upon, and slept like a baby.  A trip filled with laughter and love.  I attended another Vedanta class with my host mom.  And sat with my host grandma – she was still incredibly witty at age 90 and I was grateful to hear more of her stories about life in Lahore before it became part of Pakistan.  She’s an incredible woman with such an amazing family. (Since then I visited once more in December 2013).

It was also I think a strike of fate that I went to India for a conference in Gujarat on Water Policy.  I didn’t realize that Vijay Shankar from SPSS was attending the conference as well – until I ran into him at the CASI reunion that just so happened to be taking place one day after the conference.  Who could ask for a better trip to India – filled with CASI joy J

The same week I was in India – was during the CASI reunion. SO I got to see Juliana and Dinesh – which made me feel even more at home to have a piece of Penn with me in Delhi.


I was recently relocated with my job to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  Feel free to get in contact with me if you’re interested in learning about life in Ethiopia!

About Me: I was a CASI intern in 2011 in New Delhi at the Chintan Environmental Action and Research Group.  I graduated Penn in 2012 with a B.A in Environmental Studies and have been living in Sri Lanka and now Ethiopia since graduating. You can contact me at abby.waldorf(at)

CASI Student Programs Information Webinars with past CASI Travel Funds Winners

Thu, 02/20/2014 - 12:34

2012 CASI Travel Funds Winner Utpal Sandesara is speaking right now about CASI Travel Funds for Research and the new post-baccalaureate fellowship, the Sobti Family Fellowship Fund.

Join us online and login as a guest

Additional webinars will be posted on the CASI Facebook Events Page

Learn more about CASI Travel Funds for Research and Sobti Family Fellowship Fund

One Year Later: How CASI, India, and the idea of embracing new experiences continues to shape my thinking

Thu, 01/30/2014 - 16:01

It’s been a year and a half since I was a UPenn junior and CASI summer intern, tucked into the lush foothills of the Himalayas for three months working for an NGO called Chirag. On the record I was there to assess their microfinance self-help groups, but as expected my time at Chirag ended up being about so much more than that. Just two weeks ago, someone I met in the hills suddenly and coincidently popped into my life and everything about that summer came rushing back like the swift faucet-turn of the monsoons.

I’ve spent the past few weeks in Delhi and Calcutta, swinging vines through my family tree and drawing diagrams of everything from neighborhood streets to the different terms assigned to family members (maternal grandmother, paternal elder uncle, etc.). My grandmother still lives in Delhi, and I’ve been literally running to keep up with her as she and her new bionic knee led me through all kinds of markets and fairs.  One warm day in early January we went to the Dilli Haat craft fair, a place where traveling artisans set up their booths boasting handcrafted goods. I perused stall after stall, enjoying the celebration of color reserved only for Indian markets, when I came across a sign that looked very familiar.

K I L M O R A        handcrafted from Uttarakhand

I turned to my grandmother to say, “Kilmora! That’s the brand that Chirag partnered with, selling products made by the local women in the hills! I knew so many- ”

But I barely finished my sentence when I was interrupted by someone calling out my name. A girl emerged from inside the stall, a girl I knew from the Himalayas two years ago who used to run the Kilmora stockhouse. My body ran hot and cold at the sight of her – a familiar face I never imagined I’d see again! We embraced immediately.

I mumbled my half-forgotten Kumaoni, and she laughed along in her broken English, but the shock and delight of that meeting was as palpable as my memories of that summer.

After some time I left her stall, holding her hands and telling her how happy I was to see her. And she responded in English, “See you…soon!”

Sometimes I toy with the idea of returning to Chirag and the hills I fell in love with, to contribute to the ongoing success of this NGO I feel so strongly about. But even if I don’t, I know there are so many other coincidental moments waiting to happen. And sometimes the best coincidences happen when you’ve accumulated a whole variety of experiences, loose ends and adventures and challenges, which end up unexpectedly aligning. 


Take a step toward a new experience. Apply for the CASI internship program.

Field work, hard work and networks

Tue, 01/28/2014 - 17:38

By Sergio Mukherjee

The difficulties of doing research in West Bengal are many:  very high temperatures (if you are there in the summer), poor public transportation outside major cities, general chaos, disregard for punctuality or ‘scheduled’ meetings, excessive verbosity or brevity on the part of interviewees, mosquitoes who work three-shifts a day around your ears and legs   (footnote, literally from the foot:  when I was a kid, the mosquitoes in India only worked at night.  Now, in a post-communist and liberalized West Bengal, they seem to be the only creatures–the only beings– that work day and night, round-the-clock).

At times, feelings of exhaustion and frustration can compete with the exhilaration of discoveries.  One needs to be patient here, and luckily patience is something I have in large supply.  I don’t think I was born with it, but the circumstances in which I grew up (the youngest out of three) taught me that it is in my interest to be patient especially with those who are not.  

Remembering  the reasons why I do what I do and some of the foundational traits that make me attracted to this profession in the first place have also kept me going when the improbable seemed most probable. I am sure every researcher has his/her own ‘pillars’ and ‘reasons’ that keeps he/she thinking at night when much of the world goes to sleep.  It is always useful to remember why you are doing this in anticipation of the sensorial overload that India generally provides.  In my case, I can highlight the following: 

a) Sense of problem b) Big question c) Personal curiosity d) Personal commitment to the issue e) Will of sharing my findings (the premise for me to keep researching and teaching) f) Imagination g) Intuition h) Relevance. 

Yes, everything in West Bengal is easier said than done.  Just ask any politician.  One of them even confessed: “When everything is said and done, more is always said here than actually done.” 

It could be, but it is my hope that more will be done in the near future for the greater well being of those pursuing literacy and basic education.  In terms of research-related tips, here are a few ‘rules’:

1) be super patient;

2) use whatever ‘connections’ you have starting with members of the family who might know someone

3) learn the local language (a huge advantage in my case)

4) use verbal consents for interviews – written ones will scare them;

5) try to get a local affiliation if possible with a Development Institute;

6) (for political scientists) — You are a political ECONOMIST with emphasis on the ‘ECONOMIST’ part;

7) clearly label the audio files or audio folders – it will make your life much easier after a few months of interviews. 

8) be extra polite even if someone keeps you waiting for 5 hours.  

9) get to know a few journalists early in the process – they tend to be extremely resourceful, dynamic and well-connected.  In my case, I am most grateful to Debeshish Chakraborthy (more on him in a different post)

9) you are a married person in India even if you are not (or else, they will call you back to set you up with the cousin of the neighbor)

Interviewing is an art, which all of us can master with time and experience.  Some interviwees are very talented at going off tangents or taking the conversation to where they are comfortable, but you somehow need to be patient and persistent enough to re-direct it to your set of questions.  Never sound impatient, since some tangential points can be actually quite relevant! And, don’t give them the impression that you are there to do ‘investigative journalism.’  Instead, I always presented my work in terms of “I am a researcher who is trying to understand X, Y and Z…” –which is the case!

Some interviews might be unsatisfying, but so be it.  After all, the learning experience an interview offers goes much beyond the set of answers we get.  Furthermore, keeping track of which questions were consistently ‘dodged’ can also be tremendously valuable. 

While the last thing you might want to do after a long and tiring day in the field is to type your ‘field notes,’ resist the temptation to go to sleep and get that done.  If you don’t want to stare at your computer screen, go back to those good old notebooks and get those daily notes written down, or else they will escape you very soon. Most of my evenings in Bengal were as predictable as the constant unpredictability of its daytime. I would take a refreshing cold shower, apply my Odomos (an advanced mosquito repellant) and write my notes.  As I scratched my head, documented my findings, and chronicled my encounters sitting in my small room, I never felt completely alone.

No matter how skilled and careful I tried to be in applying Odomos, you are always bound to miss a spot — a tiny one— which those little beasts are bound to find.  


(Photo by Sergio Mukherjee — with permission.  Ram Das, a hard-working hero, who lacked the means to gain literacy)

Anything you can rightly say about India…must be right?

Tue, 01/28/2014 - 17:32

“Anything you can rightly say about India, the opposite is equally true.”

It’s certainly a convenient phrase and one I’ve heard often this past year. It’s short, attention-grabbing and draws a smile if not a laugh.

After travelling to India for the first time on a CASI travel research grant, and having graduated from UPenn in May 2011, I’ve now worked the past year in New Delhi with IndoGenius, where one of my roles is managing short-term academic immersion to India programs for foreign university students.

Many of these bright students write blogs following their visit (most often their first), and this convenient quote finds its way into many entries. On one hand, it shows a degree of maturity that what they have experienced does not necessarily represent all of India (though we try to pack in as much of India as we can in 3 weeks!). With the security of some intellectual cover afforded by the phrase, the author now possesses the freedom to be bold. Inviting no argument, they readily acknowledge that no matter what they write, the opposite may also be true.

A quick search for the phrase’s origins weren’t conclusive– some point to a Cambridge economist; others suggest a travel writer, or “a teacher of Amartya Sen”. Nevertheless the phrase has certainly established itself in India’s lexicon, including the op-eds of Shashi Tharoor.

Cleverness aside, the phrase most often used to sum up India as a country of paradoxes—the sadhu on a cellphone, the slums with satellite TV—does trouble me.

Because it can’t be true!

Used in the right context, the phrase may indeed have some merit. But it’s not a big leap to a far worse expression—one of complete resignation. Having spent the past year in Delhi, I’ve had too many more seasoned veterans (and Indians themselves) try to warn me that it was impossible to “understand” India. Trying to understand India, to them, was a fool’s errand. Those with a sunnier disposition take this as an excuse to enjoy the amazing ride that India offers; while others toil away in frustration.

All of this underscores the fact that India is a complicated place. The quintessential Indian head shake embodies this complexity, and ambiguity. It can mean yes, no, both, neither, this and that—sometimes all at the same time. But complexity does not absolve one from critical reasoning. With some effort, you can start to figure out the head bobble (most of the time…). And the same can be said for India’s big questions.

In addition to all of the great research and data collection being done, we have amazing tools readily at our disposal to allow us to be more authoritative in answering our questions and helping us find things genuinely “rightly true”.

Of course there are few easy answers to any of India’s challenges—or opportunities for that matter. But searching for things that can be rightly said about India (without their opposite being true) is a noble goal. Intellectually challenging and endlessly satisfying.

Back in India!

Fri, 01/24/2014 - 05:08

It’s been a year and a half since I left India doing a CASI internship in Rajasthan, and it feels wonderful to be back again! After just graduating, I’m back in my time off to intern with LifeSpring Maternity Hospitals, a portfolio company within the Acumen Fund ( located in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. LifeSpring Hospitals ( is a joint venture between Hindustan Lifecare Limited and the Acumen Fund, and its mission is to become the leading health care provider delivering high-quality, affordable core maternal health care to low-income mothers across India. Since its inception in 2008, it has since expanded to 12 hospitals across Hyderabad with the aim of building 100 more across India in the next 5 years.

For the next couple of months, my project is to redeploy nurses, which represent the largest cost for LifeSpring’s operations, across 3 of their busiest hospitals located in Bowenpally, Moula Ali, and Chilkalguda. For this, I spent one week getting oriented to hospital practices, the next two weeks observing the morning and evening shifts across the Bowenpally hospital, and last week creating recommendations to increase nurse efficiency. For the next month, I will additionally spend two weeks each at the Moula Ali and Chilkalguda branches to observe and iterate changes to nurse staffing to determine whether or not they are optimally deployed and what/how changes can be administered to ensure that the company is operating efficiently.

I first found out about the internship through the CASI network (endless thanks to Aparna!!!) By speaking with a range of people including a past Acumen fellow who ended up spending 3 years at LifeSpring as well as a couple of CASI alum, I was able to figure out that spending a few months at this organization would be a wonderful way to work with another Indian social enterprise – and also spend time with my family, who is from the area.

As a wonderful surprise, when I got here, I also had the pleasure of working alongside a current Acumen fellow, Baheirah Khusheim, as well as a student intern, Emma Sheldon, pursuing her Master’s in Public Health at Harvard. Because the three of us had varied projects, it was great to get insight not only into the daily operations of a variety of hospitals and experience working with key leaders of the organization, but also to briefly touch on projects related to grant writing to support subsidized births as well as assessing and standardizing customers’ willingness and ability to pay.

In my time off, I’ve also been spending a lot of time back with my family both within and outside of the city and getting to explore various parts of the city with Baheirah and Emma – overall, it’s been a wonderful month back in India!

CASI Student Programs Applications Now Open!

Fri, 01/17/2014 - 18:04

We are  pleased to announce the 2014 CASI Travel Funds Competition is open and accepting applications!

CASI Summer Internships in India
CASI offers 10 week Summer Internships for current Penn undergraduate and graduate students to work with partner organizations in India focused on a range of development issues including affordable healthcare, rural health, rural development, environmental sustainability, education, minority entrepreneurship, and economic policy. Apply through Penn’s Office of International Programs International Internship Program. Watch our videos and see 2011 CASI interns speak about their experiences during their internships at Chintan and SPS. Attend a “Chai Chat” with CASI 2013 interns to learn more about the program. Application Deadline: January 30, 2014 (11:59 p.m. EST).

CASI 2013 Interns will be hosting “Chai Chats” on campus check the event page for updated dates and timings.

Christina Wu, C’14, CASI-Aravind Intern 2012, Student Programs Assistant
Aparna Wilder, C’02, CASI Student Programs and Outreach Manager
CASI Student Programs
Date: Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Time: 3 – 6:00 PM
Location: Houston Hall (near the fireplace)

Jason Maccabee, C’14, CASI 2013 Intern
Rural Health, Livelihoods, and Environmental Sustainability: Chirag
Date: Wednesday, January 22
Time: 5:00 – 6:30 PM
Location: Saxby’s (40th St. & Locust)

Gabriel Borja, SEAS ’16, Diana Blidarescu, C’14, CASI 2013 Interns
Affordable Healthcare: Aravind Eye Care System
Date: Friday, January 24
Time: 6:00 – 8:00 PM
Location: Starbucks 1920 Commons

CASI Summer Travel Funds
CASI offers Summer Research Travel Funds for current Penn undergraduate and graduate students to conduct independent research in India. Past Travel Funds Winners will be holding information sessions online in February.
Check on the CASI Student Programs Web site for dates and times. Application Deadline: Monday, March 17, 2014 (11:59 p.m. EST).

Sobti Family Fellowship Fund
This year CASI is pleased to announce the first post-baccalaureate fellowship, The Sobti Family Fellowship Fund, to support a recent Penn graduate to conduct an independent research project in India. Application Deadline: Friday, March 7, 2014 (11:59 pm EST).

CASI Student Programs Web site: