I am writing this blog after working with PK for close to a year in his sabbatical at IIIT Hyderabad. This blog tries to recapitulate all my experiences of this period – be it the fun, the learning, the work or the course Big Data and Policing. It essentially conveys the journey of PK becoming my guide and friend, rather than just being a professor.
Initial contact and the first project
The first time I heard about PK was in my 4th semester when I was looking for a summer internship. I remember seeing his profile and showing it to my roommate, to which he said, “Look at his citations! Don’t even think about mailing him, he won’t take you”. I ended up following his advice. I remember telling this to PK once, and he shared similar stories of people hesitating to contact him first. Shortly, I learnt that he would be coming to IIITH for a sabbatical, and I decided to work with him. I sent him a mail expressing my interests and also a project which I would be interested to work on. For a week I did not get his reply, and I kept wondering if I should approach him directly, or just drop in a reminder mail. When I finally got a reply felt relaxed. I walked in for the first meeting with an image of a professor who would ask me to learn a few things or read some research papers. But he instead gave a listening ear to my experiences and ideas. After listening to my interests in machine learning and vision, and the ideas I had in mind, he told me a thing he observed on one of his recent visits and thought if we could solve this problem using vision. This is how I stumbled upon my first project, which was when I understood how to look for problems around us and try to solve them instead of merely running around for publications, which PK insists will come to us if the work is of good quality. He always says, “A very small number of people end up reading a good Ph.D. thesis, but solving a real-world problem would always create a greater impact”. Over the next few months, I got to experience a completely different side of research. The independence we had in the project was something that helped me learn a lot. Whenever we wanted data for the model or resources, PK helped us immediately. I remember having conversations about research, life, etc late in the evenings after our regular project meeting. Apart from this, being sports lovers, we also found ourselves in the badminton court some mornings. In between work I used to have some banter with PK as well.
Precog as a family
We had always heard stories about how precog is more like a family rather than just being a research group. However, I understood the true meaning of this on 4th January. It was precog’s 8th anniversary, and a party was planned in one of the conference rooms on this occasion. People from all over the world joined on the video call. Although it was 7 am in the morning in the US at that time, people still joined the celebrations. I remember people traveling from their workplaces and stopping in the middle to join the call. People physically came from Bangalore specifically for the event. It was amazing to see just how people were connected to precog and how it meant more than just a research group to them.
Big data and policing
Listening to how PSOSM course was conducted the last / Fall 2018 sem, I decided to take the Big Data and Policing course under PK. I experienced an altogether different way of conducting a course. We had no exams, and the biggest component of the course was the project. The content delivered in the course was partly through the guest lectures by a myriad of people, ranging from IAS officers to Police Commissioner to the author of the only book available on Big Data and Policing. It was rather interesting to see how technology is affecting law and order in our country. It changed my perspective towards police and I am sure it would be the same for people who took the course. They were pretty up to date with the latest technologies in our world and they showed how they use it in their daily work. Most of the course was focused on the project and I learned a lot throughout the course – be it the lectures, hackathons or the final project presentation. We were always having discussions related to topics like ISIS on Twitter, Christchurch mosque shootings and the role of social media, etc which were both informative and engaging.
The elections project
I started working on the elections project in January. I was in a dilemma whether to work on this or to go for a more research-focused project. However, PK always says, “Do work which makes an impact”. I thus ended up working on this. Diving into this project was an amazing experience, something that has made its place in my memory. PK shifted his complete focus on this project and his commitment towards the project always kept our motivation high. He sat with us until 11-12 at night for writing blogs or generating results. I never expected so much attention towards a project from a professor, and this act of his contributed to our great experience. Both the size of the team and the scale of the problem gradually increased. I recall, while expanding the team we began looking at academic criteria for selecting people. But PK drilled into us the idea that what matters to him more is the mindset of the person and their vision regarding the work they want to do with him. Our work got featured in newspapers and aired on television as well. The best part about the work was that my parents could easily connect to it and appreciate it when I shared the newspaper articles with them. It was never an issue to walk the extra mile to get something done in this project because of the commitment that PK himself showed towards this. PK’s physical presence at 6 am to generate results during every single election phase was extremely motivating, and I definitely learned a lot during this period.
Dinner at home
Another memorable experience was when he invited the complete research group in IIIT-H for dinner at his home. This took all my friends at surprise, as it is indeed an uncommon thing here. I had an amazing time there. We had a lot of discussion on things like his journey to CMU, life in the US, etc. I remember this discussion about being a small fish in a big pond or being a big fish in a small pond, and listening to everybody’s opinion on it was another learning experience. We conducted exit interviews for people who would be leaving the group, and it was certainly fun.
To sum up the journey
As I mentioned earlier, PK became a friend, a mentor, a father figure to me than just being a professor. Before leaving for Bangalore I shared with him an important moment of my life which I would never expect myself to share with a professor. We tried our best to keep him here at IIIT H but sadly weren’t able to. Thanks, PK for such wonderful experiences during the time you were here.