I have been Precog-ed (for life): Part 4

Holà! It’s the first day of 2017. All of us just got done with looking back at the past year, trying to fathom how time flies and life metamorphosizes. My life has taken a leap too and this is my last blog as a part of the ‘I have been Precog-ed’ series. Earlier, I have written about my first stint at research (Part 1), a wonderful summer at the Information Sciences Institute at Marina Delray, Los Angeles (Part 2), my first paper presentation at ICWSM 2016 in Germany (Part 3), and my time at Precog. This post is about the last 6 months of my journey and an attempt to express what being a Precog-er is all about (for more on this, please read the first three parts too). Being a Precog-er for more than 3 years, I have more thoughts than I can ever pen down; from being an undergrad who joined Precog as a noob to a grad student at Carnegie Mellon University, my path has always been illuminated by the light of learning and hope.

April 2016 – I was struggling with end-sem preparations, document processing and Visa applications for my trip to ICWSM and my masters in the States, and the humdrum undergrad life when an unexpected email got an unexpected reaction from me –

“Dear Megha,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected as an one of the 40 CERN Openlab Summer Students 2016 (out of 1461 applicants)! For nine weeks, CERN will be your host for what we hope is going to be an interesting, fun and active summer…”

I have been an amateur astronomer for 9 years, and getting to work at the ‘Mecca of Particle Physics’ would have been a dream come true. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it. I was applying for my Schengen Visa for Germany (which would take another 2 weeks), and then I had to start my application for the US visa. I needed another Schengen Visa for Switzerland in a span of one week. On top of that, the only dates I could select for the internship were overlapping with my initial orientation schedule at CMU. I almost disrupted a meeting in PK’s office to break the news to him. I was sad. Pillars (Ph.D. students at Precog) and PK were convinced that I should try and if it doesn’t work out, so be it. That’s a Precog trait – not giving up until you have given your best shot! After cutting short the duration of my summer at CERN, pushing CMU to allow me to skip the orientations (convincing them that I’ll manage when I wasn’t sure myself I’ll), and getting my Schegen for Switzerland in a day (thanks to CERN’s administrative staff who made a special request for me to the embassy), I was ready for a summer at CERN.

I worked for 2 months at CERN’s data center on a storage system of ~125PB (one of the largest in the world). CERN openlab program includes a lecture series to helps CS students understand the Physics needed for some of the projects, trips to ETH Zürich and EPFL Lausanne, hackathons, and several means to help the students gain insights about the revolutionary projects spanning across 100 hectares in Switzerland and more than 450 hectares in France! It was a humbling experience, which entailed learning something new every day. Europeans have nailed the work-life balance too. Along with finishing my project on time, I managed to check Geneva, Lausanne, Lyon, Zürich, Paris, Montreux, Bern, Engelberg, Chamonix and many more off my list!

Delhi for 2 days, and Pittsburgh was my next destination, my home for the next 16 months. I am an MSCS student at CMU now. Last to arrive and one of the youngest of the lot, thanks to PK I had ample of background knowledge about life as a student here and the city of Pittsburgh. The experience I have gained at Precog comes in handy when I have to identify research gaps and solve hard problems. I feel more equipped and confident to take up the challenges that come along with grad life at a school like CMU.

Throughout these 6 months (Jul – Dec 2016), I have been working with a few Precog-ers on what we now call the Killfie project. It has turned out to be one of the most exciting projects I have worked on as a part of the group. It is the inclination to work on interesting problems with some brilliant people, which gives me the motivation to find time for this amongst courses and projects at CMU.

I cannot finish this blog without revisiting these lines from my first blog – “…PK, the heart and brain of Precog. He is the coolest adviser I have ever met and his skills and dexterity at work are almost mind-boggling. I came to know him as my Probability and Statistics professor, the role changed to being my adviser working at Precog and now I see him as a mentor for life..”. A lot of what I have been able to achieve in the last 3 years, I owe it to PK’s unconditional support. Thank you PK for illuminating my path always and for proving what good mentorship can accomplish!
My time at Precog has taught me how to help people, make friends, eliminate distractions and focus, improve daily, think big, fail often and give nothing short of your very best effort! I have had last minute unscheduled video calls in the middle of the night from the other end of the world with Precog-ers when I needed help. Pillars, interns, RAs – thank you each one of you for this experience. Even though I live in a different time-zone now and my attendance at the 4th floor Ph.D. lab has been at an all-time low, I know my association with the group will last forever.  As has been rightly put – ‘Once a Precog-er, always a Precog-er!’.

PS – Some pictures…

Just another day at Precog…
“It’s all about the people!”
The room where Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web at CERN!
This one doesn’t need a caption… 🙂
The Aiguille du Midi Skywalk, “Step into the Void” at Chamonix (altitude – 3842m)
CERN Openlab Summer Students 2016

 

 

I have been Precog-ed: Part 3

Hi! A big thank you for landing here. I don’t blog often; when I do, it feels great that someone else took out time to read it and hopefully take away a few things from it as well. If you know me already, you might have read Part 1 and 2 of my journey. If not, take out a few more minutes and read them first. You will be able to connect the dots much better, I promise!

From the work I did with Prof. Kristina Lerman at University of Southern California in summer 2015, we ended up writing a research paper. After many hours put in, more than a dozen skype calls and half a dozen blacked out draft reviews from PK, as I sat down with a copy of my first paper, I was pleased. It was due for submission to a big conference. A month and a half later, I sat down heart-broken with my first paper rejection. I had no clue how acceptances at these conferences work out. Pillars (that’s what we call the Ph.D. students at the Precog lab and the metaphor couldn’t be more appropriate) told me it was a close miss. For me, it was as if a part of my world crashed (yes, I can be that dramatic!).

After incorporating some suggestions from the reviewers, we sent it to ICWSM 2016, another great conference (source: Pillars). This time, I decided to be less hopeful and stopped thinking about it. I remember having difficulty sleeping the night before the result was due. The paper got accepted. After a few congratulatory messages and phone calls, I realized that brooding over the previous rejection was an absolute waste of time. I have such revelations when I am extremely sad or happy. The most I had learned from this phase was when I was doing the analysis, which the paper was based on. The acceptance was just going to be a line in Font 12 on my resume and an end to the journey of working on my first paper. That’s about it! But life had something else in store for me.

Kristina wrote to me that she cannot make it to Cologne, Germany, where ICWSM 2016 was going to be held. David, one of the co-authors, was going for the conference and I thought he would present our paper. After a few weeks, I found out – PK is going to attend the conference and so am I. From that moment began the journey of my first paper presentation. I had never attended one. So I was miles away from knowing what a good paper presentation is like. I got a few slide decks for reference from the Pillars and after a few iterations on my deck, it was time for my first practice talk in the Precog lab. Now, these adorable people in the lab have the potential to thrash you in and out if your work doesn’t meet the ‘Precog’ standard. They DID NOT like my presentation, and that’s me putting it politely. PK was going to join in the next practice talk from Germany over Skype (yes, he always goes the extra mile for his students). I had worked on the suggestions that came after the first practice talk. However, I still felt a little clueless and the reviews I got reflected that I was nowhere close to the mark. I am not that bad with presentations but presenting a paper is not the same. This time, I was upset. Determined to deliver a good presentation, I boarded my flight to Cologne.

I reached Cologne a few days early as I had planned to explore the city before the conference. PK was going to come in another 2 days. I spent time listening to recorded versions of my presentation and practicing with my friends over Skype and Hangout. I did take occasional breaks to cruise off the coast of river Rhine, try some German delicacies and explore the Roman cathedrals all over the city. Europe is as beautiful as they say it is! I also attended the ICWSM slam, which was organized by David. ICWSM is the only conference that has this sort of a creative event.

Cruising off the coast of river Rhine..
Cruising off the coast of river Rhine..

PK arrived on the morning of 18th May, the first day of the conference. I was looking forward to it as I wanted to take away a few things for my presentation, which was scheduled on 19th afternoon. I asked PK to rate each presentation on a scale of 10 so that I could differentiate between good presentations and the ones that were very good. I spent most of my time diligently making notes that could benefit our work at Precog. Another discovery that day made me uncomfortable. I was one of the only two undergrads at ICWSM who were there to present. The other one was from Stanford. I should have felt accomplished belonging to this minute fraction of attendees, but it only made me more nervous.

The evening reception for ICWSM was in the Chocolate Museum (isn’t ICWSM the best conference ever?). I had – fun and intellectual conversations, a couple of drinks, and a lot of chocolate. It was time for my final practice talk with PK. He was ready with a notepad and I didn’t feel nervous at all. The list of suggestions was much smaller this time and he felt I had improved considerably. I couldn’t be more glad, or it would have been another sleepless night with my slide deck.

In front of the Chocolate Museum.
In front of the Chocolate Museum.

It was the day of my presentation. I could feel my stomach rumbling. Breakfast was difficult to swallow. I was sitting in the presentation room, but mentally I was in the Precog lab and my practice talk wasn’t going well…. It was the coffee break before my slot and I went to check if the laptop and the presenter were working smoothly. It was 11:20, 2 spotlights on my face, my slide deck on the projector and in the audience, people who did this for a living (told you I can be dramatic!). 14 minutes later, I was asked two questions. I answered, came downstairs, went to PK and asked – “How much on a scale of 10?”. The number he typed on his phone was way beyond my expectation. I couldn’t talk much then but I knew two things. I didn’t mess it up and PK was just trying to make me feel better as he had gauged how nervous I was.

Presenting my paper at ICWSM 2016
Presenting my paper at ICWSM 2016
Presenting my paper at ICWSM 2016.
Presenting my paper at ICWSM 2016

In the lunch session, everyone I talked to started the conversation saying – “Good/Great talk!” I ignored it thinking that researchers are way too polite anyway. It slowly started sinking in that my presentation went well. Someone told PK that they haven’t even seen Ph.D.’s deliver presentations with such confidence (something along those lines…). The hashtag I use to describe such moments is #happinessUnbound. That evening I spent some quality time with PK. I didn’t know when I was going to meet him again (oh yeah, I missed that detail!). I have completed 4 years of my B.Tech. at IIIT-Delhi and am headed to Carnegie Mellon for an MS in Computer Science.

My take away from my first paper and presenting it – ‘If you only do what you can do, you will never be better than what you are.’ :’) It has been 4 wonderful years working as a Precog-er. There is a lot I can write, but words cannot do justice to describe this time. I am still going to try to sum all of it up in my next blog. Stay tuned!

PS: Link to the paper and slide deck.

I have been Precog-ed: Part 2

As I sit down to pen this blog, some wonderful memories put a smile on my face. To provide context for some of the things I am going to mention, here is the first one I wrote. It has been slightly more than three years since I joined Precog and no amount of words can completely express my utter gratitude.

 

Before my emotions overwhelm the words I am about to write, let me briefly summarise what all I have been doing as a Precog-ger. The work I did during my first year at Precog is neatly compiled here. Starting my second year, I worked on a social media analytics tool. This was my beginning into development and I worked on the tool for a year. Currently, I am passively involved with the team working on the tool. In my third summer, I went to University of Southern California as a part of the Viterbi Scholars program by IUSTF. This was my second stint in research. I worked on ‘Understanding the Impact of Demographics on Sociability’ on a Twitter dataset of geo-tagged tweets. The work is still ongoing and I will share more updates on it in my next blog. I am going to dedicate this blog to my experience at USC and how it feels to be a part of the Precog family.

 

After a very long phase of preparations which involved Visa formalities, perfunctory program requirements, and doing some background study about Prof. Kristina Lerman’s field of research (yeah, the nerd in me makes me do such things), I finally landed in Los Angeles. I was with a group of 20 undergrads from all over the country and it was impossible to have a conversation with them that would not involve terms and formulations so complex that the post-discussion phase was spent on Google! Some of the brightest students in the country for sure. I settled in my new apartment, went for my first run that very day and got used to calling that place home for the next two months. How things unfolded then is what led to one of my craziest summers!

 

With Prof. Lerman and Luciano, a post-doc with her, I worked on a big dataset of geo-tagged tweets from Los Angeles, using which we studied sociability patterns in Twitter interactions. We also analysed what factors affected how people socialize.  The work is ongoing. I was gleeful about the amount of analysis I could complete and the results we got. While my weekdays went toiling at the Information Sciences Institute at Marina Delray, every weekend was reserved for travelling and exploring the city. Over the summer I went to Las Vegas, San Francisco, Palo Alto and other areas around Los Angeles. I stayed for a long weekend at Stanford; coincidentally, I was there during the graduation ceremony. Vegas was as happening as a place can be. Considering the amazing people I met in these two months, new culinary episodes, backpacking adventures and ultimately half a dozen items off my checklist, I felt accomplished as a traveler. ^_^

 

Now I am back for my last year at IIIT-Delhi. For me, an integral part of IIIT is the Ph.D. lab on the 4th floor right opposite to PK’s room, which is where my Precog journey began. I have learnt so much from my interactions with the Ph.D.s and RAs. I remember having a conversation with Kristina, when she was impressed about my knowledge of the field being a third year undergrad. I owe that moment to these lessons. Every email, every conversation, every What’s Up (weekly update sessions at Precog) has added to my skills. Intellectual heartwarming people are difficult to find, but at Precog there is no dearth.

 

Often students ask me how to be a part of the group and I tell them – all you need to have is a willingness to learn and to work hard, because that is what has made my journey so memorable and rewarding. Here are a few pictures from my summer.

 

During the poster presentation at USC..

At the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles.
While fountain hopping in Stanford University..
At Las Vegas, Nevada!

I have been Precog-ed!

It all began with an interview with two PhD students and I in PK’s office in April’2013. I was being interviewed for the position of a summer intern at Precog, a research group at my institute IIITD. I had no clue of what I was going to do the coming summer being a part of the group. Being  the youngest member, I often had to be guided.  But the best part about working under PK is that you are never told what to do, you are just shown ways which makes your work so much more exciting and challenging.

Having read all the papers published by the PhDs working at Precog  I realized how every aspect of Online Social Media and privacy was being thought over and processed in the minds of my seniors working at the Precog lab. The five LCDs at the lab showing live view of the systems developed at Precog, intense work atmosphere and intellectual minds pepped up to add to the ever increasing achievements of the group, it was almost scary. Yet everyone at the lab is always ready to lend a hand and my learning curve after joining the group has been steep. Working with the group I saw the lighter side of things eventually. After a long hard day at work, everyone had a well-deserved share of fun. I am glad I decided to stay.

The work I was involved in was based on the decay and growth analysis of activity on Online Social Media during events mainly Indian Premier League(IPL’13) and a few short-term events including natural disasters and  terrorist attacks. Research is not easy and research of the quality being done at Precog is a task in itself. Being guided by all these  amazing people who are a part of the group made the task easier than I imagined it to be.

When I look back at the summer of 2013 I cherish the time I have spent at the lab learning and getting inspired, working on Skype with Raghav (a sophomore at CMU whom I worked with),  the  ‘what’s up’ sessions which involved  giving updates of my work and getting everyone’s valuable guidance.  I have had too many amazing experiences to list them all together.

Most importantly, I cannot forget to mention PK, the heart and brain of Precog. He is the coolest adviser I have ever met and his skills and dexterity at work are almost mind-boggling. I came to know him as my Probability and Statistics professor, the role changed to being my adviser working at Precog and now I see him as a mentor for life. Thank you PK!

I have continued my association with the group and I am sure exciting and hard-working times await for summer of 2014. 🙂