Tag Archives: computer science

My year in review and one thing I wish I knew when I started

Written by Vasanth Sarathy, Computer Science Ph.D. Candidate

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Super Mario Bros. 2

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!

Happy summer!

Why Tufts? Part 2

robot_grow_up_Final

Written by Vasanth Sarathy, Computer Science Ph.D. Candidate

“I think I want to go to grad school. Does that sound crazy?” This was a question I asked one of my mentors about a year and a half ago. I was about to quit my job as a lawyer, a job that I had held for nearly a decade. I wanted to switch careers because I really missed learning and teaching science and math, and I wanted to exercise some creative control over my life. I thought that a career in academia was the right way to go. “Unusual, yes. Crazy, no!” was the response I got from my mentor. His response gave me the confidence to go ahead and follow my heart and pursue this career track. Of course, to pursue said career, I needed a Ph.D., and to get a Ph.D. I needed to get in to and graduate from a strong research program. Thus began my search for schools.

I decided to restrict my search to the Boston area. This was for personal reasons and because I think Boston is an awesome city! I also had a general idea of what subject I wanted to research. I am deeply interested in understanding the cognitive process of creativity and insight. I learned very quickly that studying these types of questions in cognitive science involves a highly multi-disciplinary effort approached from many different angles: neuroscience and learning about the brain activity; psychology and learning about the human thought process; artificial intelligence/robotics and learning by recreating cognitive architectures in computer systems; philosophy and thinking about why we think a certain way; and mathematics, the language with which to bring these disciplines together.

Each of the schools I looked into offered some combination of these disciplines. I chose Tufts because it provided an integrated approach to studying cognitive science. Not only does Tufts have some of the most well known names in each of the above fields, they all, in full earnest, work together under a coordinated Cognitive Science program. Moreover, I could pursue a joint Ph.D. in Computer Science and Cognitive Science. I felt this combination was powerful and would help me acquire a breadth of knowledge in less familiar fields while deepening my expertise in my primary area of interest: computer science. In the Boston area, this type of program is unique to Tufts. While some schools have cognitive and brain science programs many are limited to the combination of neuroscience and computational methods.

After confirming that I was on the right track, my mentor (during our “am I crazy?” conversation) advised me to reach out to faculty whose research I found interesting. This was a brilliant piece of advice. I sent emails and reached out to several professors in various schools to ask about their research. Only a few replied, which was understandable, given the madness that was the November application season. However, I was able to meet with some of them and learned not only about their research, but also whether or not I could see myself working with them for a long time. The professors at Tufts are highly motivated and driven, while simultaneously supportive–they truly care for their students. If the students are committed, the professors will match their commitment. So, needless to say, another big reason for applying and ultimately choosing Tufts was its faculty, and particularly my research advisor. Meeting via email and face-to-face with my then future-advisor helped me get a better sense of how this important professional relationship might play out.

There are so many more reasons I like Tufts, and I cannot do justice in a short blog post, but one takeaway is that being both a nurturing liberal arts school and competitive research institution, Tufts affords some great opportunities to do good work, grow in your career, and remain happy while doing so. Go Jumbos!

#GSRS2016

Written by Rachael Bonoan, Biology Ph.D. Candidate

Graduate Student Council (GSC) Academic Chair, Cassandra Donatelli, did a great job soliciting presentations for this year’s Tufts University Graduate Student Research Symposium (GSRS). Throughout the day, there were over 40 different graduate student presentations, representing 20 different departments, from 3 different Tufts schools—Arts, Sciences & Engineering, Sackler, and Fletcher!

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Emma Schneider

Of the 15-minute talks I saw (we had so many presenters, there were two sessions going on at once!), one of my favorites was Emma Schneider’s presentation on listening. Emma (pictured right) is a graduate student in the English department who is interested in environmental policy. Emma began her presentation by pointing out that when it comes to environmental policy, there is no lack of people speaking out, there is no lack of data, but there is a lack of listening. Emma then discussed how she analyzes texts about listening to nature, the silence around us, and of course, other people!

Of the shorter, 5-minute talks, the one that stuck out to me most was “MacGyver Robots” given by Vasanth Sarathy (below) of the Computer Science and Cognitive Science Departments. Vasanth is interested in teaching robots how to change how they react to an object based on context. The example Vasanth used was a knife. When picking up the knife to cut something, the robot should pick it up by the handle. When picking up the knife to give it to someone (or something?), the robot should pick it up (carefully!) by the blade. If the robot wants to spin the knife (for what Vasanth called a dangerous game of Truth or Dare), the robot should then grab the knife in the middle. But—asked Dr. Kelly McLaughlin from Biology—why a knife? Why not a pen? Unlike a pen, explained Vasanth, the knife also has a moral context. During the 5-minute presentations, we also learned about the microbes in kimchi, factors affecting conditional probability judgements, facial recognition systems, tail regeneration in tadpoles, and silica nanoparticles (among other things!)

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Vasanth Sarathy, a fellow blogger!

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Dr. Benjamin Wolfe

Following the 5-minute talks was the keynote by Dr. Benjamin Wolfe from the Biology Department. Ben studies microbes in…cheese (and other fermented foods but cheese is currently his main study system). During his talk, Ben briefly discussed his research (which you should check out!), and then focused on the importance of communication and gave the audience some tips on how to be good communicators.

So—why should we communicate our academic research and how do we do it? In communicating our research, we can understand it better. Ben started with an anecdote—the person who motivates him to communicate his science is his mom. A first generation college student, Ben had to explain his research to his mom in a way that was accessible. Being able to explain his research to his mom—and now cheesemakers—has made Ben understand his research on a deeper level. Also, communicating to the general public can help us to find unexpected things in unlikely places. The picture that Ben is pointing to is a piece of trach (specifically, a cigarette butt) that he picked up off the sidewalk and then put on a nutrient plate to let the microbes grow. This was part of a pop science piece that Ben wrote for a magazine (Lucky Peach).

Which brings me to the “how.” Basically, just do it. Sign up to present at symposia that aren’t specific to your discipline (like the Tufts Graduate Student Research Symposium!), write for magazines that are for the general public, start a blog. Ben also stressed two points that are important for successful communication: visuals and respect. Take pictures of your study system, make infographics, have fun with it! Who doesn’t like a good visual? And importantly, respect your audience and their beliefs. Don’t talk down to them, don’t belittle them; instead, excite them by showing them what they don’t expect (like microbes growing on a cigarette)!

Following the successful keynote was the poster session and reception with wine, cheese, and other refreshments. I presented a poster and found it was a great way to meet other graduate students from other departments and other Tufts schools. (All poster session and reception photos are courtesy of Psychology graduate student Clint Perry.)

If you are interested in checking out some of the other topics covered during the symposium, check out @TuftsGSC on twitter (we live tweeted all day!) and #GSRS2016! Hope to see you there next year!  Rachael Bonoan 3-4-16 blog pic 10

Where do I study on campus?

Vasanth 2-19-16 blog

Written by Vasanth Sarathy, Computer Science Ph.D. Candidate

One of my favorite parts about Tufts University is that it’s both a nurturing liberal arts school as well as a full-fledged research university. What that means for me, as a graduate student, is I can get personalized attention from my professors, collaborate with a smallish cohort of supportive classmates and also take advantage of the vast array of research opportunities that one might expect from a large university. What this also means is that graduate student life can get really really busy!

I’m a first year PhD student in Computer Science here at Tufts. I am returning to academia after having worked for a number of years as a lawyer. Long story! So, needless to say, I have a lot of catching up to do. I quickly needed to find cool study spots on campus where I can get my classwork and research done efficiently.

I realized that whenever I needed to find a study spot, I was always doing one of these three things:

  1. Thinking and “ideating”: when I needed ideas and creative insights to solve a homework problem, or explore a research idea.
  2. Discussing my ideas with colleagues and classmates: when I needed to talk about by ideas with friends, draw some pictures on a whiteboard and so on.
  3. Writing up an idea: when I needed to write up a draft of the paper, code or finalize my homework solution.

What I also realized was that these three types of tasks required very different study environments. I discovered that my best thinking and ideating happened in coffee shops, where there is a slight amount of background noise, but not too much to affect my stream of thought. Armed with my favorite micron pen, a yellow legal pad and mug of coffee Tamper (340 Boston Ave.) or Brown and Brew (474 Boston Ave.) or Tower Cafe (in the Tisch Library) can be perfect places to tap into that creative stream of consciousness. Oh, and they also have good coffee!

When I need a whiteboard to get my thoughts out there, I always find a spot in the lounge area in Halligan Hall (161 College Ave.) where there are not only whiteboards and chairs, but also other Computer Science students whom I can interrupt in for a quick clarification. Besides, a number of CS grad students have offices in Halligan and working there is a great opportunity for me to get to know my peers better. My own research group, the Human Robot Interaction Lab is at 200 Boston Ave (up the street from Halligan), and I am here a lot too.

Finally, when I need to buckle down and code or write up my paper or homework, I find myself escaping into the crypts of the Tisch Library stacks in the lower levels. There are some great quiet-study areas scattered there and can serve as an ideal get-away when I know what I need to do, but just need to get in the zone to get it done. Plus, being surrounded by books can be a great intellectual motivator!

This is by no means a comprehensive list of study spots and there are plenty of other spots around campus that Ipek and Rachel have elaborated in detail here and here. Rachel even suggests study spots matched by personality type, which is really cool! One place I plan to check out next is the Granoff Music Center (20 Talbot Avenue).

Will report back soon!