Experiences,  IIITH,  Students

My journey with the Ponguru

I know it is common for Precog students to write this blog, but although not officially a part of Precog Lab, I feel connected to this family of PK and his students. I met PK during his one year sabbatical at IIIT-H during my final year. The first time I met PK is something I can never forget. I had only seen pictures of him or videos of his TED talks, and so I walked in expecting to see the same senior faculty member and was prepared to give a formal introduction of myself. The man I met, however, was much more vivacious and energetic than I expected. After greeting me with an enthusiastic “Hello!” and “What can I do for you, Soumya?”, he immediately asked me to stop referring to him as “Sir” or “Professor” and just call him “PK” instead. I was a little taken aback, but I carried on with my prepared speech of what my research interests were, what I wanted to work on and why I wanted to collaborate with him. After patiently listening to me ramble on for about 5 minutes, he asked me, “So, higher studies or job?” I told him that I wanted to study further and we spoke for another half hour at least. We had a very candid discussion about my internships, taking the GRE, writing SOPS, getting LORs etcetera etcetera. I was very surprised to see a professor take so much interest in the student’s application process and tried to soak in every bit of advice he could give me. Finally, he said, “Actually, you should start by writing an SOP right now. Why don’t you write me a Statement of Purpose on why you want to work with me and we shall see? Oh and also send me a request on Facebook”. I remember leaving his cabin extremely excited and calling my dad to narrate the entire conversation minute by minute. I had never been friends with a professor on Facebook before!

PSOSM Poster Presentation

Over the next few months, I interacted with PK in a multitude of ways. I took his class on Privacy and Security in Online Social Media (PSOSM) and also worked on a project analysing video content. Through the classes and the weekly meetings, I got to know PK and his philosophy much better. Whether it was making us present papers in class every week or replacing exams with a hackathon or having meetings outside the lab, “to get some fresh air”, he seemed to do everything differently. He seemed to be able to create a very comfortable space for his students to speak out, leading to long discussions in his classes and meetings with inputs even from the quietest of students. It was great fun to be able to talk to a professor like he was a peer. It is a unique experience no doubt, but more importantly, it gives you perspective. It helps you see issues from the other side of the table. PK always went out of his way to conduct events on campus, arranging for several sessions on grad school admissions, sometimes even allowing students to meet him one on one. Even outside of these events, I would often go to him for advice or reassurance every time I felt lost or confused and he never seemed to mind. I went on to work with PK for about six months. I helped him organize a workshop on PSOSM in BVRIT and was a Teaching Assistant for his course PSOSM on NPTEL. He was one of my main recommenders in my applications to grad school and a huge support through my application process.

PSOSM session in BVRIT
At PK’s for dinner

As a person who would rather always get lost in a book or a TV show than make an effort to know someone, my interaction with PK has been very eye-opening. He always seems to make sure to make “strong edges” whenever he interacts with someone, be it a colleague or a student. It is perhaps always the small things that matter the most. I am not sure if it was wishing me on my father’s birthday or calling his students home for dinner or taking the famous “Walk of Gyaan” with me on my first college admit. Maybe it was the fact that he took out time out to talk to me when I barged into his room in the middle of his project evaluations with my news of getting into CMU. I am not sure I can pin it down to one precise moment, but somewhere through this short one year journey, a professor turned into a guide, a mentor, a friend and a father figure. My interaction with PK although shorter than that of most others has been a defining part of my college life and is a memory I will always cherish.

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