Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Nim(antha) Can Cook!

Third year CS PhD candidate, Nimantha Baranasuriya, was top of his class, played varsity tennis and received the Most Outstanding Graduand award at his alma mater. He thoroughly enjoys unnerving people who he has only met briefly before (who don’t remember him) with his knack for remembering faces and names. He is an avid photographer and used to cover engagements, weddings and corporate functions through his small photography service start-up in Sri Lanka. He’s doing a PhD because he enjoys ‘fiddling around with unknowns’ and tackling problems that can’t be solved by googling. Nimantha happens to be of the rare breed of people who have a passion for teaching.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small town, which was around 30km south of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. My home is what you would call a perfect holiday destination. It is located a few minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the town and it is within walking distance to a beach that had yellow sand stretching for miles. Every day, I would wake up to the sound of waves crashing on to the shore. On weekends, me and my friends used to play volleyball on a makeshift court on the beach or just sit and have a little chit-chat.

What are you working on and why are you passionate about it?
I am working on designing, implementing and experimenting novel communication protocols for dynamic networks like vehicular networks and smartphone networks. In these networks, the participants move around a lot and hence, communication links get established and disestablished pretty fast. So, our protocols can be used by applications that are designed to work on those types of networks. My work will aid the deployment of distributed sensor network applications on the types of networks that I mentioned earlier. For example, consider a fleet of taxi cabs that upload their status information (e.g., free/hired/shift, speed, location, etc.) to a server. The easiest way of achieving this is to give them all a 3G connection and get them to upload their individual information. However, this is very costly, as data connections carry a greater cost. Our protocols will allow the cars to talk to each other and upload all of the information in a cost effective and energy efficient manner. So, in the next decade, our protocols will allow application developers to deploy cost effective and energy efficient sensory applications. 

Describe your SoC experience. 
SoC really brings out the best in me. The school provides me with all that I need to do my work well. There are many opportunities like entrepreneurial support and internships that we can use to heighten our careers. The courses taught at SoC are really cool too. I sit in in the classes I find useful and none of them have disappointed me so far. The covered content is just right and has the correct depth. The school is very generous in funding as well. All PhD students’ receive a scholarship that covers all tuition fees and their expenses. This allows us to focus on our research without worrying about doing other work to get our next month’s allowance.
Dr. Seth Gilbert is my thesis advisor. He has inspired me in a multitude of ways. He helped me realize what exactly research is and how I should go about tackling research problems. On countless occasions, he assisted me in overcoming difficulties I was facing. I would have torn off all my hair by now if not for him (literally!). His supervision has been excellent and I really enjoy working with him.
From my first semester, I have being doing on and off TA work for Dr. Damith Rajapakse. His lectures are amazing! He uses out-of-the-ordinary lecture material that keeps the students focused and engaged. It was through him that I learnt the secrets of giving captivating talks that inspire audiences. It’s really wonderful to see the amount of effort that he puts into his courses. If I do teach someday, I aim to be a teacher like him.
[The one thing I would change in NUS is] I’d really like if NUS was made more bicycle-friendly. Adding cycle lanes, among many other things, would really make cycling safer on campus. I bike to school a lot, but unfortunately that it is not the safest way of getting to school. There were many times where I narrowly escaped from being bumped into by other vehicles. 

What is something most people would be surprised to learn about you?
I’m a great cook (or at least my wife and friends tell me so). However, my skillset is limited; I can only prepare a few traditional Sri Lankan delicacies. My mom is a great cook and I used to help her in the kitchen when I could. That’s actually how I picked up the whole thing. When I get free time, I love to prepare some Sri Lankan dishes, which are hard to find in Singapore, and invite my friends over for dinner.   

What advice would you give a prospective SoC graduate student?
Research can get to you sometimes because it is pretty tough. More often than not, you will have a hard time getting past obstacles when you come across them. I’ve had breakdowns a few times when things didn’t go the way I want. That’s quite natural because research is all about dealing with unknowns. You have to work hard and persevere until you arrive at the solution. So change the way you look at the problem, talk to a friend about it (that will help to get a fresh perspective), or do anything else that you seem fit to overcome obstacles. But no matter what you do, don’t ever think of giving up!
Meet your advisor regularly, at least once a week. This helps to keep things moving and to make a bit of progress every week.
Target conference deadlines. Keeping a conference deadline at the back of your mind will push you to complete your work and avoid procrastination. I found that conference deadlines become a good motivator as well.
Read as much as you can. Make a habit of reading papers that get published in the top-conferences of your field. This will allow you to stay up-to-date on what’s hot currently in the community.
Take some time off of work. Being in the lab all throughout the day doesn’t really help that much. Go out and do some sports. Or better yet, do some travelling with your friends. There are plenty of less-known places in Singapore that are worth visiting.

Quick-fire! Favourite design?
Definitely, UTown. It’s an engineering marvel!

Guilty pleasure?
Having baths in lakes in the middle of the night.

3 ultimate dinner party guests, dead or alive?
Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Tom Hanks.

Got ideas about questions we should be asking or people we should be chatting with? Email

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