Experiences,  StudentGiri,  Students

Ode to PK (and Precog)

My name is Dheeraj, and I’ve just completed my third year at IIIT-H. I had the opportunity to work with PK on his sabbatical here at IIIT-H. As I sit down to write this, it seems kind of an injustice to sum up all of my experiences with PK in a few words. I’m not great with putting emotions into words, but I will try my best. I’m also aware that most people write this blog after they’ve completed their journey with PK, but I hope that isn’t the case with me. I hope this blog signifies a beginning, not an end. I’ve absolutely enjoyed my time working with (not under) PK. I hope I can continue working with him for as long as I can, and hopefully, he feels the same way. 

On July 17, 2018, I received an unusual email. In my two years at IIIT, I’ve more or less become accustomed to the constant stream of emails being sent out on all the lists. So it’s always a bit surprising when a new name pops up in my inbox. This email was sent by a particularly unusual name – Ponnurangam Kumaraguru. The content of the email was also rather surprising since it began with a “TL;DR” description of the email. Amidst all the formally formatted emails, this one was extraordinarily informal. Little did I know that this email would mark the beginning of an amazing and eventful experience for me. 

Taken right after the final poster presentation of Privacy and Security in Online Social Media

As it turns out, the email was describing his course Privacy and Security in Online Social Media to the IIIT Hyderabad audience that had never heard of it before. The course sounded very interesting, so I decided to take it. In my first class, it became apparent that this wasn’t a usual course and PK wasn’t your typical college professor that waddled into class, read through his set of slides, and left. From the first class itself, PK emphasized on the importance of class participation and coming up with our own, unique ideas for the projects. This may not seem extraordinary, but I’ve always viewed courses as an entirely mechanical process, almost like it was a conveyor belt pushing through students. PK broke that mental image I formed and insisted on displaying creativity and self-expression throughout the course, not just technical skills. 

Taken at the Farewell of IIIT’s batch of UG2k15

At this point, I knew nothing else about PK except that he came to IIIT-Hyderabad for a sabbatical and that he seemed pretty cool in my first class for PSOSM. I looked him up online and found his projects quite interesting, with several of them having the potential to either solve or raise awareness about real-life problems. This was pretty uncommon for IIIT-Hyderabad, and such projects didn’t exist anywhere across the multitude of research labs operating here. I decided that I wanted to pursue such a project, and sent out an email to him outlining my areas of interest and experience. By this point, the semester had already begun and PK was reluctant to take on more students under his wing since he had taken quite a few students already. I didn’t have the most convincing profile either – I was still a newbie to the research life, and my statement of purpose was lacking imagination and lousy at best. To this day I’m unable to figure out why he decided to take a punt on me, but I’m grateful that he did. Ten months on since that day, I hope I have repaid the faith he put in me.

I have learnt a lot over the last year working under, sorry I meant WITH PK. For those of you who don’t know it yet, PK absolutely despises it when a student says that they’re working ‘under’ him. In a university setting, students work ‘under’ profs, so this statement is factually accurate. But PK hates it for a different reason. In his research environment, we’re all equal. We’re all gifted and talented in our own unique ways. We have all had different experiences in our lives, with varying levels of success, but the moment we step into the Precog environment, we’re all equal. That holds true not just for the students in the lab, but PK himself. 

I had the opportunity to TA PK’s Big Data & Policing course. This was taken at the final poster presentation of the course.

I have noticed that PK takes great pride in telling everyone that he’s done his PhD from Carnegie Mellon University – and he ought to be proud of himself, it’s only the number 1 ranked university in the world for Computer Science! I’ve taken 2 courses and been a part of a number of talks where he’s repeatedly stated this. But the best part about him is that he’s never let his pride get in the way of his research work. Once he steps into a meeting, he’s always led me to believe that he and I are equals. This sounds absurd because I’m just some barely average kid and he already has legends written for him (as is evident from all the Precog blogs and testimonials). But that’s exactly what PK gives you – a sense of confidence and belief that you can do good research work. Above all, he is extremely humble and is always open to learning something new. 

In my short research life, I’ve observed a lot of things. In any research setting, everyone will tell you the importance of research, and how it is important to do good research, from both an academic and a humanitarian point of view. But very few (if any) talk about the importance of setting a good environment to accelerate good research work. At the end of the day, students aren’t machines who are going to churn out quality A* conference level papers every year. There is a process and there are going to be several failures along that process. In fact, there are always going to be more failures than successes in any successful venture. But to eventually be successful, you need a forgiving, caring and an empathetic environment around you – someone to guide you at every failure. This is exactly what I’ve found in PK – not just a professor that demands excellence, but a friend that knows it’s okay to fail. 

Just as PK takes great pride in stating that he’s done his PhD from Carnegie Mellon University, I take equal pride (if not more) in stating that I’ve had the opportunity to work with PK. Thank you for everything!