I wanted to continue the tradition of writing an annual review post reflecting on how another year in my PhD program went. Links to previous posts are at the bottom of this page. Also, I am using a somewhat different format this year with the following sections largely highlighting what went well this year.
In the professional arena of my life, this was quite a good year. I submitted three first-authored paper drafts for peer review and another two with collaborators. All except one were accepted. Among the three, the first was for the inaugural PLanQC workshop at POPL, another was an extended abstract for POPL SRC and the third was the first full paper that I submitted to QPL.
This was a good experience as I had never really interacted with the peer review process before this time in my career (I am discounting a poster and a talk proposal during my master’s, that did not involve written feedback in my recollection). I am thankful to Mike Hicks and Robert Rand for making my first submission happen with their highly useful and applicable feedback.
I also established research collaborations with researchers at the University of Maryland (Mike’s group) and Microsoft (Aarthi and Brad), the first of which led to my first research talk (that at PLanQC) and the second to a second QPL paper and my ongoing (remote) internship at Microsoft Quantum. A third collaboration is in the works and I may be able to talk more in some time.
Another highlight of this year was that I got to teach our department’s introductory CS class in the winter quarter. It was my first time teaching a full course and (obviously) involved a lot of learning about teaching. I benefited from the Chicago Center for Teaching’s teaching workshop and Individual Teaching Consultation that involved observing one of my lectures, two meetings, and a final report from them. I think I was able to apply a lot of mini-lessons I learned from observing Shriram’s teaching style at Brown. The student feedback was mixed, but I was overall satisfied with my first time teaching experience. I am grateful to Adam Shaw who offered me this opportunity to teach the class alongside him and also guided me throughout the quarter with course planning, and to John for agreeing to let me teach even though he was concerned about my research progress and also for sharing his excellent slides with me for reference that served as the backbone of my teaching material.
A benefit of teaching thrice a week for 10 or so weeks is that one gains comfort with giving talks, it was certainly true for me. After two weeks of teaching, I was off to New Orleans for my first research talk and more importantly for the SRC poster session. Since my PLanQC talk was merged with Kesha’s, I got all of 5 or so minutes to speak but I think it was just right for a small work-in-progress project (certainly much better than not speaking at all). I was also glad that my first talk was at a co-located venue at POPL because it was a nice circle back to my first interaction with the PL community at POPL ‘16, that I got to attend thanks to the PLMW scholarship.
Speaking of POPL, one of the main reasons I wanted to go was for the poster session. I recall discussing with Ravi once during a PL group lunch where I was arguing that the motivation and incentives for the SRC seemed all wrong. The main purpose should be for the students to gain feedback from people in the community and not chase prizes (which tend to feel weirder when the participation count is very low). I decided to use the SRC opportunity in exactly this manner. I printed a dozen copies of my poster on the letter-size paper format and talked to many people who had an interest in either quantum computing or Hoare Type Theory for feedback on whether I was going in the right direction. I especially recall conversations with Jennifer Paykin, Amal Ahmed, and Jonathan Aldrich that gave me new insights and helped me refine my ideas further for later submission to QPL in March. Conversations with Bob Harper, even though not directly related to my specific project, were also very encouraging.
In early June, I got to give my first full research talk on that paper at QPL but it was all virtual. My partner was especially excited about the prospect of going to Paris with me if I had a paper acceptance at QPL, but (no) thanks to COVID it wasn’t to be (Joce reminds me I owe us a trip to Paris). My plans to go to India to get my Visa renewed after attending QPL in Paris and then PLDI in London also didn’t work out.
Speaking of PLDI, I wanted to go this year because of HOPL. I was told back at POPL that if I volunteered, there was a good chance to attend even though it was not in the US. It was clear by March or so that a physical meeting was not possible, but I still applied to volunteer at the first virtual PLDI as I have always found volunteering at PL conferences to be a fruitful exercise and no doubt it was no different this time. Since my internship was starting the same week as PLDI, I chose to do pre-conference activities for my volunteering, that of reviewing pre-recorded talks. I got a good view of how Alastair and the team managed to hold such a large conference in such a short period of time in the virtual format.
One thing I started doing more this year is offering to read paper drafts for people that I work with. In addition to getting more insight into the work they do, it is always nice to see one’s name show up in the Acknowledgements section. Earlier, one of the bigger surprises for me was my advisor telling me that he found my name in the Acknowledgements section of the second edition of the HtDP book, a draft of which I had read a little in the summer before I moved to the US in 2015.
Another interesting event that occurred at PLDI this year was my chance encounter with Yunjeong who reached out to me asking to set up a meeting to talk. It reminded me of how I used to love mentoring before starting my PhD program. I suspect our twitter exchange even led to a new initiative at ICFP earlier this week. I benefited through this as the ICFP Mentoring program run by Talia brought back mentoring in my life as both a mentor and a mentee.
Finally, if everything goes well I will be serving on an artifact evaluation committee soon which will mark my first time participating in the peer review process from the other side, if only for a small part of the process.
I do not write a lot of software. This year there were some interesting points worth highlighting.
I created a homebrew cask script for SML/NJ compiler so that now one can install it simply by issuing
brew cask install smlnj on macOS since the 110.94 release. It seems the script is used often enough.
On Mike’s suggestion, I released an OPAM package for the OpenQASM parser I wrote in OCaml for the project I did with their group. To move from writing my first few lines of code in OCaml last summer to releasing a package early this year felt great.
I had a moment (or several) of epiphany this year when I was reminded of my love for Rust (that serves as an inspiration to this day in my PhD) when I picked up and wrote code in F* during my internship. The compiler (read: type checker) guided programming process where a human programmer is not allowed to execute their code without satisfying the wishes of a benevolent master is exactly what I loved about Rust. F* lets one do the same with much more precise specifications in the form of type refinements. Further, I have struggled with Coq for almost two years now, where I find the task of proving trivial lemmas extremely boring to the point of alienating me to the system; F* with the help of the Z3 SMT solver running side by side, makes it so easy to state things one cares about and prove them automatically!
Further, what I was struggling to implement in Coq for such a long time for my Quantum Hoare Type Theory work seems to become visibly feasible to me in F* because of its inherent support for reasoning about effects in both Hoare-style triples and Dijkstra-style weakest precondition predicate transformers. I feel so excited about the work ahead.
I am not required to take any more classes but I could not keep myself away from Stuart Kurtz’s first time offering of Type Theory class in the Spring quarter. I loved his deliberate focus on learning and absorbing things slowly. It also refined my research as even though my first paper is on a type theory I did not necessarily understand in depth everything that was going on, for example, while comparing terms for various forms of equality.
I also continued learning more about category theory, curated some resources, and participated for a bit in the NEU PL junior seminar as they worked through Awodey’s book.
Another small, but in hindsight very useful, workshop I got to attend was the oral presentation session by Jean-luc Doumont of Principiae organized by our department. I liked it so much that I bought his book (perhaps the most expensive book I have bought in my life). I am sure my presentation and speaking skills need a lot of work but the feedback I received on my paper submissions seemed to confirm that the lessons I learned from his book and applied in my writing did not go unnoticed. It almost seemed like what my work did not satisfy in technical merit alone was made up for by an organized structure in my papers. I still have a lot to learn from that book and I will continue to do so.
It also reminds me of the one-on-one breakfast I got to have with Benjamin Pierce during POPL where we ended up talking about teaching and he mentioned the course he was teaching on writing well based on Joseph Williams’s book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. I have obtained a copy of the book but still need to work through it to improve my writing at a lower level of abstraction.
Misc in Professional Life
I was profiled by UChicago PSD with a very awkward photo in which I was worried about a dark pimple showing up which ultimately got edited out.
One interesting observation I made recently is if one searches for my name, Google shows a knowledge panel with the role “Researcher”. If I were less conscious of impostor syndrome, this would have served as a strong reminder that I have made it this far. :)
The PhD student representation organization that I helped build is going strong with the beginning of its third year. We are in the process of reinventing ourselves for pandemic times.
I learned a lot about systemic issues of racism in this country and tried to start a conversation to effect change within our CS community with mixed effects. I truly believe we need to talk openly about these issues to be able to overcome them. Further, it is a continuing conversation that cannot and should not stop at a single workshop or even a day-long event.
Early last academic year, I moved to a new apartment with my partner in a much quieter neighborhood. I realized living in tall buildings is not for me after a year-long experience in a high-rise. I am happy enough that for the first time in my five years in the US, I have decided to continue my lease for another year.
After a lot of struggles with not finding a good diet to eat, I think I have settled into a decent rhythm. I have learned to make spicy guacamole and tend to cook at least one Indian dish each weekend (last several weeks involved rotating between a variety of lentils, rajma, and chhole; tonight it will be matar-paneer). Further, because of my partner who loves to eat veggies, I have started to eat a lot more of them, something that my parents were very happy to hear about.
I got a new pair of glasses, actually twice as of last Thu. The first one was the cheapest I could find within the limits of my temporary vision insurance and gave me a lot of troubles as none of the sensible coatings on the glasses were covered by the insurance and I did not want to pay anymore than I already did. The new glasses that I just received overcome all of these issues, but since I ordered them online, I still need to visit a store and get them tweaked a bit for my face.
After moving to my new apartment and also because I had bought a new iMac the previous summer, I started working from home a lot since last Fall. This gave me early practice with WFH when COVID restrictions hit. I would not say if I was necessarily more productive, however, I was better prepared mentally with lockdowns in place. It still took a lot of readjusting with not having the space completely to my own as my partner had to work from home too.
I am not much of a traveler except for conferences and work obligations. My partner is the opposite, so this time even though the last 6 months did not involve much travel, I got to travel quite a lot locally.
First was a road trip (my first, even though I drove less than 0.1% of the route) to Pennsylvania and back. Apart from spending nights in a variety of motels, too much time on highways, and observing the beautiful countryside and greens of Pennsylvania, I also got to meet Zeeshan Lakhani who was very generous with his time to give us a tour of the CMU campus.
I also got to travel to NOLA (for POPL), Milwaukee, and various suburbs of Chicago and a couple of cities in Illinois mostly in trains and cars. I also got to experience Thanksgiving and Christmas (the traditional kinds), thanks to my partner.
One upside of lockdowns was that there was a pretty enticing opportunity to participate in the global research community with so many virtual conferences and seminars popping up; too many to list here and almost all of them free of cost. I made ample use of them.
What did not go well?
I seem to have trouble finishing projects. Both of the talks I gave were about work in progress projects and I am yet to take them to logical conclusions. The second one once finished will lead to my qualifying exam as well.
Speaking of, even though I was done with the course requirements for the qualifying phase of my program last year, I am yet to take the qualifying exam. At various points in the past 5 months, I was apprehensive about getting kicked out of the program, but the last evaluation I received from the Graduate Committee seems to suggest quite the opposite. It might be safe to assume I am okay for now but I need to continue working hard.
I keep saying I want to write more on my blog, but after the previous year’s review, I just wrote one more post. Now that I am writing papers, I feel less of a desire to write blog posts. It seems a lot of discourse that I used to think happens on blogs, now happens through arXiv, however, I am yet to post anything there preferring my academic homepage instead.
Even though I am interning with Microsoft this summer, my years-long desire to visit Seattle was left unfulfilled because of COVID. Same with Paris and London.
I think I got very distracted by news at various points this year. The time of the impeachment trial was quite interesting, so was the time of primaries especially in Feb and March, right before the lockdown started. As elections come close it will be increasingly hard to stay away from the news so I need to form strategies to avoid going down this hole.
I have also been struggling with the organization of my tasks and notes. Especially after the internship started, I have found it hard to keep the work separate from tools that I regularly use such as Todoist and Rescuetime. The end result with avoiding keeping work tasks in third-party apps is that I do not have a single place to look at for my tasks and the same for taking notes which ends up leading to a disaster in personal organization.
What did I learn?
Working with my collaborators, one of whom is a quantum information researcher and another a mathematician and who are not directly involved with Programming Languages research has helped me expand my mind beyond what I was comfortable with. I used to be pretty scared of trying to read papers from fields outside of Computer Science, but now it is common for me to glance along with my collaborators at papers mostly published by physicists. I think it was bound to happen as I work on Quantum Computing, but having helping hands eased up the process a lot.
Taking care of one of the most important of my occupational needs, my eyes, is more important than saving money. I think I could have avoided a lot of stress on my eyes and could have been more productive if I had paid for the full prescription with progressive lenses and recommended coatings instead of suffering through it for almost a year and getting tired all the time I had to work on a screen. But it also speaks for how messed up the health insurance system is in this country. The university provides medical insurance, but they don’t cover vision and dental; the one you can buy (that I did) doesn’t cover most of the things I needed. In any case, another lesson learned; I recognize my needs better now and will be extra careful in the future about them.
Like Steve Jobs famously said, you can only connect the dots looking backward, I realized all of this learning and research interaction with others is important. For example, Ravi had suggested me to take a look at F* back in Feb of 2019, and only in June this year, I realized with my QHTT project I was chasing a system exactly like F*. SMT-based automation for proofs is a cherry on the cake. Similarly, reaching out to Robert Rand when he was still finishing the draft of his dissertation, then working with him at UMD and later led to a bunch of papers and now I am super happy that he has joined our department as a faculty member.
Writing this I realize, among my various approaches of taking notes and reflecting, it is very important to have a high-level view on a monthly and quarterly basis. I hope to be more consistent in doing private monthly and quarterly reviews from now on.