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Journey of two years, learnings of a lifetime – My Precog Experience

I remember first hearing about Precog and PK back in 2015 when I was seeking admission to IIIT Delhi. For a freshman in an institute with most of its faculty being graduates from the most prestigious universities around the world, Precog seemed to be one of its crown jewels: headed by a CMU graduate, doing socially relevant work, having several laurels to its name, its members at top places around the world, and as expected being super competitive to get into. As overwhelming as this seemed to me then, I always wanted to work hard, do projects and build my profile so that I can later try and make an impression on PK and join his group. Though I was rejected by Precog when I applied in my 3rd semester, I sent an email with my CV to PK in Summer 2017 asking if I could do my BTP with him and fortunately, one meeting with him later, he took me in.

Little did I know that what followed next would be one of the most amazing things I would ever experience. Two years from that meeting with him and endless learning experiences later, I’m now set to graduate from Precog and IIIT-Delhi, and shall be joining the University of California, Davis for a Masters in Computer Science. And I can safely say this: if looking at the group from outside seemed overwhelming, being a part of it was even more so. I shall thus separately talk about the three things that made my Precog experience so worth it: the work, the fun, and most importantly, the people.

The work

Since I joined Precog in my 5th semester, and I was new to both Social Computing and research in general, my hope was not only to be part of a great project, but also to work with experienced people. This was so that I could contribute well, as well as learn off the best, not only in terms of knowledge in social computing and OSM but also how to think differently and do better research. I was thus extremely fortunate when PK asked me to do my BTP work with Anupama Aggarwal, the most experienced ‘pillar’ (PhD student) at that time, Indira Sen, who was wrapping up her Masters (both are now at GESIS), and Siddharth Singh (a final year BTech student, now at Microsoft).

Our project (dubbed ‘InstaFake’) was in collaboration with NTU Singapore, and was broadly based on detecting fake likes on Instagram and studying the underground fake likes market. There were several challenges in the project, especially in data collection (which I was initially involved with), and this really helped me because I had to work with many frameworks and technologies I had never used before (PHP, mobile automation and the like). This helped me contribute to many different parts of the project. I also learnt to take ownership of what I did, and now that I look back, this was one of the most useful lessons I acquired.

Apart from our own projects, we also learned off others’ work. We had weekly WhatsUp sessions (status updates), Brainstorm and Deep Dive sessions (for in-depth discussions on papers / topics), and many Precog alumni gave talks on their work through the year. These were great opportunities for me to discuss our work with other members (as well as track my progress), and learn about new things and the other projects going on. This was helpful later on as well: knowing about others’ work gave everyone an idea of not just what research they were doing but also what tools, frameworks etc they were working with, so I could approach specific people personally whenever I was stuck or just to know more.

After two semesters, our work eventually led to a paper at WebSci’18 – my first research paper, which was the icing on the cake, and I was really happy to make my own small mark on the field. More importantly though, the challenges we faced in the project and the various group-level discussions we had, personally helped me a lot in being versatile and broadening my horizons, and this helped me massively later on in everything I did.

Indira’s Masters Thesis Defence, where she presented our Instafake work

The fun

In my first two years at IIIT Delhi, many of the labs I visited usually had PhDs working in complete silence in their cubicles, totally consumed in their work. Though I knew the work itself must be fun and amazing to contribute to, I thought many of these research groups had a somewhat boring environment. Precog in comparison was extremely lively, to say the least. I joined the group a little late in the middle of August since I had been away for an internship, but I remember being made to feel welcome in the (old) lab straight away. The environment seemed extremely chill, people discussing ideas freely, some lazing on the bean bags – something I really did not expect, especially from the most competitive research group to get into in the institute. This really helped me feel very comfortable and at home. We had regular cake celebrations (during birthdays and Precog anniversaries), hangouts (Precog Socials), potluck lunches and the like. These also really acted as great stressbusters, and helped forged strong bonds with others in the group. Many former members have written about how Precog was a family for them, and I can testify that it is.

A #PrecogSocial at Pratapgarh – one of several outings we had

The people

‘I am because we are’ – the meaning of the word Ubuntu (yes, the OS)

Most of whatever I did was possible only because of the amazing support system I had. I had regular interactions with Indira and Anupama, who helped me out whenever I was stuck, but also made me think on my feet. As I mentioned, it was always my intention not just to treat my work and time with Precog as a way to contribute to Social Computing research, but also to grow as a researcher. I remember a particular frank interaction I had with Anupama in my first semester of the BTP, she told me then that even though I was new, I should improve my ‘figure-it-out attitude’ – this was another lesson I kept with me. The BTP eventually led to the WebSci paper, which was a very satisfactory two-semester outcome, but these lessons have stayed with me since then and helped me massively in whatever else I did – from my work with CMU, to today as I jet off to Davis for my MS and (probably) a PhD career next.

I also had great interactions with other people in the group, who not only helped me out but also shared their experiences. All the discussions, hangouts, celebrations – all helped us bond together, and I have made amazing friends during my time here.

Teacher’s day celebration 2017 – my first celebration (read: cake) as a Precog member

Perhaps the most credit for my development here goes to PK, as any member can testify for themselves. PK as a person is one of the most easy-going, approachable, extroverted and fun people you will meet – there are several instances where he pretty much seems like another friend or lab member, rather than the typical professor. But along with keeping the Precog environment fun and friendly, he also pushes us to achieve things beyond what we are capable of and keep our feet on the ground. I also really appreciated how he’d take time to engage with each of us individually during one-on-one’s and ask us about our lives overall – something which I think is a bit under-appreciated. I’m extremely thankful to him for providing me with this opportunity, for giving me such amazing peers, and for all his advice in everything – for the project, for research in general during out one-on-one’s (he was really, really particular with all of us about the ‘ownership’ part), and also for my applications.

Precog has given me amazing memories to cherish, and I leave a much better person from when I joined. I shall be forever thankful to everyone here who made the last two years of my college life so worth it and for giving me the best research experience here I could have wished for. To any person reading this, especially juniors: join Precog as soon as you can, and work with them on a project. In the end, you’ll be extremely glad that you did. 🙂

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