My story starts on June 13, 2018. I was on my way to Hyderabad to join as a Research Intern in the CVIT lab. On the train, I was browsing through Facebook lazily, while my mind was wandering elsewhere, wondering what kind of project I would work on at IIIT. As I was scrolling through a few memes in my Facebook feed, I thought it would be absolutely hilarious if I end up working on memes in my research. The very next day, Prof. Jawahar told me that I would be working on a project related to “memes for blind” with Prof. Ponnurangam Kumaraguru.
Thus, I began my wonderful journey with PK. The first time I met him, on the following Saturday, in his cabin, I was a tad nervous. But, as I would experience it several times later, PK was very good at calming his students and cheering them up whenever the need arises. As we got to know each other in our first informal chat, I learned that he is from Chennai, and is on a sabbatical for a year. It was a brief, enjoyable conversation, and it made me feel excited about working with him.
My first introduction to my fellow Precog-ers at the regular weekly group meeting was definitely unique. I was pleasantly surprised at the rich diversity of attractive problems being tackled at Precog. For instance, I witnessed an analysis of the kind of tweets that would help the police connect better with the public. Or how social media engagement affects the election outcome (this was on a grand scale). There was another project on the dark web and another on chatbots in gaming streams.
The range of attractive problems did not stop with just the researchers, though. Through the project presentation events (which I am really glad PK regularly invited me to) by PK’s course students, I encountered countless more. The room was filled with everyone excited about what they did and their interesting new findings. To be honest, the last time I was in such a lively place was probably in a school science fair. It was very refreshing to experience something similar, but this time with big data, GANs, cool visualizations, and other countless machine learning terms thrown in for good measure.
A majority of the credit for bringing the best out of all the students and researchers working WITH him must go to PK. What I admire the most about PK is how he balances his involvement in the projects. He allows his students the freedom to explore and learn, and at the same time, steers the larger direction of the project along the right path. He also ensures that his students always get any help whenever they need it (so, Precog is like Hogwarts? If so, we are wizards (witches), and PK is…). I also love how he takes constant effort to bond with his students, by either taking us out for dinner or celebrating his birthday with us or simply engaging in fun activities, like the one time me, Kanay, and PK played badminton together.
Frequently spending time together can lead to a positive attitude within the group, like spontaneously being there for someone even if they have not actively sought a helping hand. Such gestures really enhance the experience of a Precog-er, and I have been a lucky recipient of a few such gestures. Dheeraj promptly helped me with a pilot study for the data collection. Sai Vivek helped me a lot in collecting the dataset for my project. Neha accompanied me to a blind school to conduct a user study for my first paper. There are many more such instances, but what makes them even more memorable is that for most of them, I did not need to ask for help. For example, Neha volunteered to accompany me to interact with the visually impaired social media users at the blind school. I am pretty sure that the excursion (and buying a cake for the Precog anniversary on the way back 😃) would not be half as productive if it were not for her company.
All of this selfless support from fellow Precog-ers also comes with a fantastic guide who can also cheer you up and keep you motivated. I still vividly remember the instances when PK motivated me when my project was moving slowly, and I was struggling to make tangible progress. He kept my spirits up, either by talking with me regularly in his cabin or as he walked back to his scooter, and appreciating any efforts that I had made. It spurred me on to explore a vast set of topics related to my project and sketch out fruitful directions. Even today, when I look back, it is probably my most significant period of learning. It indeed provides a sense of comfort to have a guide to whom you can approach anytime despite his packed schedule, and talk about your problems. Thank you, PK and Precog, for all the memories!