Written by Vasanth Sarathy, Computer Science Ph.D. Candidate
It’s hard to believe that I am done with my first full academic year at Tufts. I know everyone says time flies, but I often find that expression to be meaningless in the moment and unhelpful in hindsight. When I am going through a challenging time I rarely feel like time flies and when it’s done, I don’t find myself at peace with the knowledge that it went by quickly. But, sometimes, not always, that expression can bring to bear something quite empowering and confidence-boosting: the idea that experiences, both good and bad, are fleeting and must be, for the lack of a better term, experienced and learned from. I learned a lot this past year, and if there is one thing I wish I knew when I started is to have confidence in myself and in my commitment to learn. It can be challenging entering a new environment, but I think it is okay to strive to be confident in your own abilities and experiences.
I am a Computer Science and Cognitive Science student, which means I am required to take CS classes and also classes in other cognitive science topics like Philosophy and Psychology. I love learning new things and this past year has been all about learning fun new concepts. I learned about interesting questions in Computer Science like what is the computational complexity of video games like Super Mario Brothers, which by the way was proven to be NP-Complete (math-speak for really, really hard for computers) by our own Tufts Professor Greg Aloupis. For the mathematically inclined amongst us, see here for proof. I was able to learn about fascinating and profound philosophical questions about our own minds, consciousness and the ties between cognitive science and artificial intelligence with none other than Professor Dan Dennett. Philosophy, math, and computer science came together in a single class this semester for me as I learned about Turing Machines and the limits of what computers can do, all from Tufts’ award-wining Professor Ben Hescott. Ben brought a level of excitement, entertainment and humor to theoretical computer science that I have never seen. Check out this news story about him. Who knew humor could help with learning. Apparently researchers looking into this very question did all along!
Besides learning how to answer questions, I also got the opportunity to learn how to ask them in my research. I explored some interesting questions around how we perceive objects in our environment. How do we reason that sometimes we can use coins as screwdrivers or pens as bottle openers? Believe me, I tried it and it really works! Asking these questions and beginning to find answers to them has allowed me to travel to scientific conferences this past year and afforded me the opportunity find mentors and discuss my work with other researchers.
I also discovered all the great programs and opportunities Tufts has for folks who want to learn to share their ideas. We had Tufts Ignite, Cognitive Science Graduate Symposium and the Tufts Graduate Research Symposium, to name a few. In addition, the Greater-Boston area celebrates Cambridge Science festival every year and this year, the postdoctoral researchers from Tufts and MGH put together a great spotlight talks event at the Rattlesnake in Boston. Several graduate students and postdocs from Tufts and MGH gave short talks to the general public (and I really mean general public) about their research. I had the good fortune of being involved in these talks and I really began to appreciate the importance of communicating your ideas to the world.
So, looking back, it has been an exciting first year. I thought being confident was about how much you knew. If you wanted to be confident in programming then you should know Java, right? But, having completed my first year (and learning Java), I am humbled by the discovery of all the new things I must now learn. It appears as I learn, the amount there is left to learn keeps growing, and growing at a faster and faster rate. As daunting as this sounds, I began to realize that this is a good thing. It means I can now shift my focus from maximizing what to learn to instead optimizing my learning process. Being confident is not about how much you know, but about your commitment to learning and the quality of your process of learning.
I am looking forward to the summer, when I get to dig a bit deeper into my research, work with and mentor some talented undergrads, and build robots!