Evanescent Thoughts

Evanescent Thoughts

My days at Theoretical Comp Sci Lab @ IIT-M (TCS Lab)

with 10 comments

I have been wanting to write this post for a very long time. The reason being simple enough, It changed a  lot in my life. When I joined fresh at NIT Trichy and completed my first year, I was more into programming and algorithms. Used to sit in I-Lab and do some of those SPOJ problems( yeah!! when I was in First year, I-Lab was good and it wasn’t filled with gultis watching videos on you tube and orkuting ). At that point of time, I was more interested into getting a Stud job once I complete my college. But now after 4 years at NIT-Trichy, I am dropping  an offer to join Cisco and heading for Masters at Univ of Wisconsin Madison. I can attribute all of it to Prof Pandurangan and his TCS Lab  🙂 .

Akhil and myself were on the same boat looking for profs to do project work on back in 4th Sem. I was more inclined to do an internship sort of thing at some startup or some small company but was also looking out on the academic sides. One afternoon, when we were busy spamming the inboxes of many such IIT Profs, Akhil mentioned  about Prof Pandurangan and  told me how his papers regularly appear in ACM’s Conf. And thats when I started mailing him and was fortunate enough to get his reply. Later he came down to our college( he was in the Board that certifies the Departments for some approval) for an official visit and said he would talk with all those interested in taking up internships at TCS lab. We were greatly amused by the way his lecture just kept us hooked on to the topic. One year into the department, I never felt like I was actually learning something new and exciting until I was attending his lecture(yes!! Mohan was taking a course in both the sems that year :P).  And thats when I decided to try out the internship and was very happy when he accepted to host a couple of us at IITM :).

So began the wonderful days at IITM TCS lab. The first time , some 8 of us were working under him and unfortunately he could only let us into the lab and not into the IIT M hostels :). So myself and Akhil stayed in the classrooms of KV School. The School was closed for vacations and we had the whole big black board all for us to scribble. Though technically, I should say we stayed at the Lab for 75% of the time in a day :).  TCS Lab was more than what we expected, given the condition of Labs at NITT( the 3rd semester, we didnt even have the labs ready and the next sem, I remember the server crashing most of the time :P) .

This was also when we were being taught what research work is. Until then I had no clue what it was to get a publication, a peer review, do a survey, Proof techniques etc. And a whole new exciting world of things was thrown at me. The  first time, I spent my time mostly reading papers and getting to know my area well. Akhil, myself and Bharathwaj(from IITB, a engg physics Student) were assigned to work on Multi Party Computation and Information Theoretic Security. In Research, you get excited when you know that the stuff you are working on is barely a few years old and there is a lot of scope for Research work.  Also Prof Pandurangan was taking a summer course on Algorithms and it was a Bliss!!. Till date, I havent enjoyed any class as much as I have enjoyed sitting in his classes :). Unlike other guys from my coll who were working on  Provable Security and trying to write a Survey, Prof let us work on a Problem right away :). We had to solve couple of Round Complexities in VSS and most of the day , it would be sitting in the TCS Lab and discussing if this works or that works with Akhil and Bharath(also a bit of chatting online with college friends and visiting the canteen freq :P). Bharathwaj was a step ahead of me and Akhil and always had a clear idea of whats wrong and whats right :). He helped me a lot in figuring out few mistakes too.  Whenever, we had a small idea we thought would work, we would run to Arpita and Ashish , who were doing  PhD under Prof. Now these two deserve more than a special thanks from me cos, I haven’t seen some one so dedicated as them :). In fact, whenever I consider my self if I have to do a PhD in future, I ll be weighing myself against them to check if I am ready :).

The one thing about TCS Lab is that you can find a lot of interesting people to discuss and chit chat including Prof Pandurangan. He would come around the labs, chatting with each one about his work in progress and crack a joke that would have us all in splits :).  He would also tell us what it takes to get a good publication out of students.After a few interactions with him, I was more than convinced to not just stop with B-Tech and get a stud job, but to definitely do a Masters.  Back then, the Lab would be full with so many  students that people who walk past the corridor, would mistake the place where we keep our foot wear for a shop that sells footwear :P. And some or the other old Student of Prof would visit the lab, not to forget the box of sweets that come with them. We had a tradition in TCS lab that who ever gets sweets for Prof  [which according to records, he never touches 😉 ], also gets a box of them for the lab inmates. All this experience with the Lab was something I could never dream of getting at NITT :). I dont think any Prof would comeback at Ten in the night to the lab and have discussions till late midnight at NITT ( many of them dont even come to dept in the day time !).

After our first internship, we were extended the opportunity to continue  working in the winter also. Prof was always insistent on making us realize  how Research is not a one-summer-outing thing. I still tell my juniors who are onto doing research project the same thing. Don’t think of it as a Summer Project or something you get to do for getting a Certificate.  A certificate can get you nothing in my opinion. So I said to myself, that I am not gonna give up unless I get a good publication out of this. Also Aishwarya and Anugrah joined me during the winter and we were looking at a new set of problems, hoping to solve them. By the end of it, I almost got some results and it so happened to be the new year eve.  During my  6th sem, I was mostly spending my time writing the paper for submission when one fine day, Arpita and Ashish spotted  a flaw in it :). And it rest there until the next summer when I went back to lab.

This time, I was totally working on a diff prob, AMPC. And suddenly one evening, I got an idea for the proof to work around the flaw in my previous result. Finally I had a perfect working one(though it was a very simple solution). And Prof wanted to send it for CANS 09   which had the submission deadline in  a week or so. So once again we were off to writing the protocols, changing a lot of stuff from old paper, adding new.. And we had a 23 page paper for a conf that allowed only 18 pages with appendix :P. And this is when Arpita and Ashish clearly demonstrated to us how many papers they have successfully authored. The draft before Arpita and Ashish did the corrections looked so amateurish. We had no idea what point to highlight and what to leave it for the reader to understand himself.  Using notations, skipping unwanted statements and proofs… learnt lots from them:). My desktop would have draft_1 draft_2 … and so on :P. We worked till some 2 in the labs. Did a lot of night-outs in lab (never heard of students even using labs outside the lab hours back in NITT). It felt exciting and like a whole diff world to me :).  Later in August, we were delighted when the paper got accepted. Should thank Sharmi and Vivek too for all those night outs. We used to go to Basera at 2 in the night after doing all the corrections to paper. At times, Sharmi n Vivek’s 2 yr old son Shvithin would come to lab and play around. Such a delight to watch prof and him talk :).

All this made me transform from a guy who aspired to get into a Stud company back in 3rd Sem  to a guy who wanted to go for higher studies by the end of 6th Sem.  Ironically, Akhil on the other hand who  wanted to end up doing research at the end of coll back then  is now heading to join Facebook :).  I still have no idea what it would have been if I hadn’t gone down this path but I am sure it would have been less exciting for me :). The admits that I got would never have been possible if not for Prof’s motivation and support:).  I owe it all to TCS lab , Prof  Pandurangan , and my other friends over there( Its actually a big list 😛 ). Those late night chats, running from TCS Lab – I to TCS Lab – II whenever we have something to discuss with Arpita and Ashish, Prof always trying to kalachify Shriram and Kalai, running to the Staff canteen for tea/cofee/icecream/lunch, the stay at KV school, latex work, Seminars, Prof’s jokes, Treats.. a long list of things I ll be missing when I go to Wisc Mad 🙂


Written by Sathya Narayanan

July 16, 2010 at 10:24 am

10 Responses

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  1. Hi Sathya……

    Nice one. All the best with for ur higher studies. Hope NITTians and others read this and understand the importance of publishing a paper over increasing the number of projects in their kitty.



    July 16, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    • definitely 🙂 .. all the best for ur research too 🙂

      Sathya Narayanan

      July 19, 2010 at 2:53 pm

  2. You should add a “facebook” widget on your blog so that ppl can like posts 😀

    Akhil Ravidas

    July 16, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    • dont start campaigning right from now itself 😛

      Sathya Narayanan

      July 19, 2010 at 2:53 pm

  3. Nice read :D. And the second pic serves nicely as a synopsis 😀


    July 17, 2010 at 1:16 am

    • there were better ones.. with more gulab jamuns.. 😉

      Sathya Narayanan

      July 19, 2010 at 2:54 pm

  4. Wow.. Nice article da. Will inspire the juniors . And will publicise Prof Pandu like hell 😛

    Aditya Venkataraman

    July 18, 2010 at 1:05 am

    • thanks 🙂

      Sathya Narayanan

      July 19, 2010 at 2:56 pm

  5. Very nice satya..


    July 19, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    • thanks arpita 🙂

      Sathya Narayanan

      July 20, 2010 at 6:44 pm

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