Experiences,  StudentGiri,  Students

From Observer to Contributor: My Evolution with Precog

I had the privilege of being associated with Precog for a good one and a half years, which I can honestly say was one of my fondest memories in college. As I craft this blog, I’m pursuing my graduate studies at the University of Toronto.

When I joined IIIT Hyderabad in 2019, my primary goal was to explore and try out different things as much as possible. Throughout my undergraduate journey, I am happy to say that I was able to fulfill that goal to my satisfaction. Though I had heard about PK and Precog briefly during my freshman year, it was mainly in December 2020 when Precog caught my eye with the #PrecogTurns10 campaign. I was captivated by PK’s series of posts about his students located in some of the world’s top universities and companies. I learned that some of the smartest students of every batch had been associated with Precog in some way or another. As I delved into their website and explored the alumni and past members who were part of Precog, I was amazed to see the number of people pursuing higher studies in the world’s top universities and their impressive accomplishments. As someone interested in graduate school, this left a strong impression on me and further exploration of the website introduced me to the world of Computational Social Science, which was something I hadn’t heard much about, as it is often overshadowed by the other CS and Electronics research domains that IIIT is well known for.

The first project that caught my attention was Precog’s work on the Lok Sabha Elections, which I found fascinating. It was fascinating to know that many of the poll results and estimates released by news channels and papers were actually done by students like us. Despite having prior commitments with another lab for Honors, I always found Precog’s work intriguing and hoped for an opportunity to contribute during my undergraduate journey.

Fast-forward to December 2021, I was searching for independent study opportunities when applications for Precog opened up at just the right time. I knew I had to seize that chance and get exposed to different topics that had piqued my interest in my first year. Precog stood out as a unique research group at IIITH, starting from the application process itself. We were asked to present a research paper from different perspectives, which opened up a whole new dimension of reading papers. During the interview, PK not only tests our technical knowledge, which most IIIT students possess but also aims to identify whether we would be a good fit for the Precog research group. This aspect sets Precog apart from other labs because it emphasizes the importance of fitting well within the Precog community that supports and helps one another. I deeply appreciate PK’s dedication to maintaining the lab’s strong culture over the past 13 years.

Upon joining the lab, I experienced a different way of working from the get-go. I participated in an industrial project with Hitkul Jangid, a Ph.D. student in the Precog lab, for a few months, which provided me with valuable insights into how industrial collaborative projects function. Although certain industrial limitations prevented me from continuing with that project, my initial fascination with Precog’s work on elections motivated me to volunteer when a team of seniors working on the Uttar Pradesh elections requested help with data cleaning and analysis. Expressing my interest in further contributing to election analysis, PK connected me with Prof. Joyojeet Pal from the University of Michigan, leading to an enriching 8-month journey of learning alongside a fellow student from IIITD, Tushar Mohan. This collaborative project was entirely different from any I had done before due to the high level of involvement from stakeholders. The highlight was the last two nights before the paper submission deadline, during which Prof. Joyojeet Pal and Prof. PK were actively engaged in the final draft preparation. I gained a front-row view of how to weave a set of results into a compelling story, and I believe this experience will be invaluable in my future endeavors. The countless Google Meets sessions in which Tushar and I brainstormed ideas and motivated each other are moments I will never forget. The paper writing sessions taught us a great deal, and we made changes up until 2 minutes before the submission deadline! After completing it, I remember Prof. Joyojeet jokingly asking, “Now that the paper is complete, do you still want to do research?” Despite working tirelessly on it, our response was a resounding YES! We genuinely enjoyed the work, except for the manual annotations, of course :P. Although the paper was rejected, we chose to view the experience positively, considering how much we learned throughout the project.

As my two initially planned semesters at Precog with an independent study came to an end, I initially didn’t think I would continue beyond that point. However, as time passed, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to work with Precog and therefore continued to do so. Additionally, I was given the chance to work with an e-commerce startup that wanted to enhance its user experience. Together, we pitched an idea for a 3D reconstruction pipeline that could convert their product images into a 3D form to potentially improve the UI experience. Although we couldn’t complete the work before my graduation, the experience taught me a great deal as we attempted various iterations and conducted multiple tests to determine the most effective approach. I had the privilege of working closely with Mehul Mathur, Aryamann Tomar, and our Ph.D. mentor Nidhi Goyal, who provided valuable insights and wisdom while navigating the challenges of industrial research.

Besides working on projects, being part of Precog and working with PK isn’t just a mechanical process; it provides an ecosystem where students help each other in various aspects. If someone has a query, they can post it on Slack, and we often see even alumni actively replying. As PK always says, students are what makes a research group strong in its foundation, and I felt this sense of strength when I reached out to Precog Alumni for guidance on masters applications, SOP reviews, and more.

PK cares deeply about ensuring that students of different age groups in the lab can work together seamlessly without worrying about a hierarchy. He encourages us to voice our opinions on the weekly updates (WUs) and welcomes suggestions and constructive criticisms. PK takes small yet impactful steps to foster a sense of community, such as arranging for people from different batches to sit together during the yearly Precog Dinner to encourage conversations and mutual understanding. I also had the opportunity to join PK in playing tennis on a Sunday, an experience I was eagerly excited about. Despite not sleeping the previous night due to excitement, I attended the game and was amazed by PK’s enthusiasm and fitness. It made me reflect on my own energy levels, despite being 21 years old πŸ˜….

Precog Dinners
Summarizes the fun side of Precog 😜

Even on my last day at IIIT, as I was leaving the campus, PK spent a few minutes talking about our journey. It felt extremely gratifying to leave the campus on a positive note, having worked with a professor to whom I owe a lot. When I look back on my time at IIIT, I can confidently say that Precog has made a significant contribution to my personal development, collaborative abilities, and technical knowledge, which will undoubtedly help me throughout my life. 

I am eternally grateful to PK for giving me the opportunity to work with some of the best minds in their respective domains, and for being a well-wisher who desires nothing but the best for his students. To my fellow Precoggers, I extend my heartfelt gratitude for creating an environment that fosters mutual growth and success. To any juniors possibly reading this blog to gain an insight into Precog, I believe you may have understood the kind of impact it has had on students like me. Therefore, I highly recommend giving Precog a shot, and I guarantee that it will not disappoint you.

Precog Batch of 2019!
PK joining us virtually for the convocation
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