Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Pooja wants Wednesday-Talks back!

Fourth year PhD student Pooja Roy hails from the City of Joy, Kolkata, in East India. Pooja reckons that most people there are foodies. Apparently you’ll find sweet shops every 500 metres around the city and anyone visiting Kolkata must try ‘phuchhka’, a tiny hollow fried bun with hot potato filling, served with a sour tamarind dip. Pooja loves singing and once thought of making a career out of her love for music - she even learnt to play the piano to compose music. She has not given up on this wish yet.

Why are you doing a PhD?
In early days of school when we were asked to write an essay about our ambition in life, I always wrote that I would become an educator. The wish got stronger every passing year and thus here I am, pursuing PhD so that I can teach in an university in my country. Instead of working in a tier one institution which is overflowing with amazing talents, I really wish to work for universities that are not so famous. I feel that I can utilize my training received in a top university like NUS to provide and contribute to an institution that lacks good educators.

Describe your research and its significance.
I work in the area of compiler optimizations. Compiler is a piece of software that translates what a programmer writes, into binary codes that a machine can execute. A compiler can be visualized as a vertically oriented channel which starts from application layer that is the source code and ends in the hardware that run them. At every level of abstraction it needs information to optimize the program so that it works correctly as the programmer wants, runs faster, uses the memory devices very efficiently, does not interfere with other applications running at the same time etc. Lately, as power consumption is a big issue in computing, compilers also need to consider how much power the code will consume when it is run. This power consumption is due to all the hardware that will be needed to run the application. In any computer, memory devices are a main consumer of power. In my thesis, I am exploring how compilers can optimize programs so that it consumes lesser power while it runs. There is a new type of memory called Resistive memories. These memories have special power requirements and properties. As SRAM and DRAM, the most common memory technologies are failing to scale up for future computing devices, this class of Resistive memories are being explored to replace them. My thesis work, specially, considers these memories and tried to optimize programs so consume minimum energy while its execution.
I am working on the junction of software layer and hardware layer which makes my work very interesting. Each phenomenon that we observe in a particular problem can be explored or answered from two very different perspectives - one that is abstract and based on logic, the other is real hardware devices. This not only makes the work very interesting, also makes it a bit difficult at times. Personally, I like my area of research because I get opportunities to explore the very core of how computers work.
I remember reading from a famous professor's blog "it does not really matter which era you are born in, science always have uncharted spaces". Though my area of research is a very well-known and well-studied area for past many decades, still it is very active and has lot of opportunities for research. Every innovation in the field of electronic design or programming languages has impact on compilation techniques. With more and more complex and high performance systems and popularity of mobile devices, I think there will be a steady need for innovative compilation techniques in the coming years and further. 
Frankly speaking when I started as a PhD student I found research very daunting. Especially after clearing qualifiers I really felt the difference between reading for exams and research work where you are expected to create new knowledge. Fortunately I am working with an amazingly encouraging supervisor [A/P Wong Weng-Fai]. If not for his constant motivation and simple words of appreciation at every step, I would not have continued so far. As a PhD student we have to publish research manuscripts. Many students face a lot of difficulty in achieving good publications. I too faced this peril. However, I could stand up after every paper rejection mainly because of my supervisor's trust in me. I love research because I love asking "why”s. I am very curious by nature and that is why my favourite part of every project is the idea formation or the brainstorming where we explore all the "why"s that comes to our mind. For every "why", when I can find an answer, it is a joy that cannot be explained in words. It is somewhat like a treasure hunt game. :-)

Describe your SoC experience. What do you enjoy the most about studying at SoC?
I like the freedom given to all students that they can learn just by attending the lectures. This way, it is easier for students to learn what we really want to learn without worrying about GPAs. I love the facilities provided to research students. We all have our own comfortable desks to work. The exposure given to the PhD students, for example, regular workshops, research talks and seminar by eminent people, is also very encouraging.
I think many PhD students will agree with me - the most challenging aspect of my journey is SoC was my qualifier exams. Though for the new students it is differently designed now. I hope the new structure will prove to be more research friendly. 
How I am shaped as a researcher is mainly because of my supervisor’s constant encouragement. He inspired me the most. Apart from my supervisor, I am really inspired by Professor Mohan Kankanhalli and A/P Tulika Mitra. Prof Mohan's guidance has always helped me in taking decisions about my graduate studies. And Prof Tulika is always providing us with many opportunities to meet very eminent people from our area of research. She cares and includes not only her students but also the students of other professors in any event that can help PhD students gain more knowledge and awareness of our field.
[The one thing I would change about SoC is that the] Biz canteen must have new stalls! haha :P On a serious note, I think we should have more interactions between research labs. We used to have a Wednesday-talk series called "CS-Talks" where one person from any lab would present the basics of his/her research area and all other students from others labs could attend. I really hope that it could resume.

What is the funniest thing that you’ve done? 
In December 2013, I went on a trip to Vietnam. As I like to travel in the streets and markets in any new place, not only the typical tourist attractions, I discovered that almost no one speaks or understands English, the only language I know, in the street food or market places in Vietnam. Of course in the cities and tours organized for tourists every one speaks and understand English but not in the local streets. The only one thing that kept me from getting lost in translation was "Google Translate". I downloaded an offline language pack (Vietnamese - English and vice versa) in my phone and went around all over Vietnam typing to everyone and communicating happily about anything I wanted to! It was at times hilarious when many people gathered around me to see what exactly I am trying to do by showing my phone to the shop keeper and such like. But surely it was helpful and lifesaving at times. :P

Apparently you’re a movie-buff. Tell me about this. 
I like movies and especially war-time films or films with non-linear story lines! My favourite director is Quentin Tarantino, director of the famous movie "Kill Bill". My close friends are Film Studies graduates and film enthusiasts. I think it’s because of their company that I am also a film enthusiast. not only watching different genres of films, I love discussing them with my friends over a cup of coffee. I also read blogs and love to watch various documentaries on Nat Geo or BBC! One of my favourite show is Air Crash Investigations.

Quick-Fire: Best movie you’ve seen this year?

Worst fashion trend?
"Moustache" lockets and prints!

Best hawker food in Singapore?
Jin De Lai Zhong Hua La Mian - a Chinese restaurant in Boat Quay (their speciality is chilli crab).

Tell us who we should we talk to next. Email tien@nus.edu.sg

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Wai Tsun the 'Copter-phile'

Fourth year Computational Biology student, Yim Wai Tsun, has been playing the traditional Chinese instrument 'Guzheng' for over a decade. Apparently he also loves singing - so much, that he takes every opportunity to sing whenever he's alone and has been serenading the walls of the clubroom, his shower head and the lamp posts that line the streets where he lives. Here, however, you will read about his other love...

Somewhere in New Zealand

Describe your SoC experience.
The most enjoyable thing about studying in SoC would be the people in SoC. Spending so much time with them has made SoC feel like another home, and these people, my family. No longer are professors just our teachers, but they can [also] be lunch/dinner ‘kakis’ who you ‘jio’ out with your friends. And of course, the willingness of people to help each other when you have difficulty in your studies, even if it means them missing the last bus/train, is something that I greatly appreciate.
Most of the useful things that I have learnt from SoC are not what was taught in lecture, but rather, when I combine knowledge from various fields. Programming taught me to abstract problems and solve them by searching for the factor that is causing the issue and focus on solving it. Other skills acquired while studying in SoC also made me a more informed consumer when buying electronic goods and effectively extending the lifespan of electronic device.
The most challenging thing in computing would be understanding all the "mathemagical" equations and algorithms. Often, I cannot wrap my mind around the maths. However, here is where the magic lies in problem solving. It is interesting to see how numerous complex problems can be simplified into a common generic problem, and just by solving it, the solution that will serve many people.
Some of the craziest things I’ve done here are:
  • A number of us found out that it is possible to read our matriculation card content using handphone NFC. So some of us tried and successfully wrote content to our matriculation card empty sector.
  • Deciding that sleep is more important than a grade.
  • Using force, peer pressure, threats and blackmail on Andrew Koh to get him to see a doctor after he coughed up blood from lack of rest and malnutrition (his diet consist of ONLY instant noodle).
  • Taking 6 final papers in two consecutive days when I was in year 2, effectively ending my exam 3 days into the exam period.
Currently other than school work, I'm interning at the Genome Institute of Singapore, doing research. At the same time, I'm also the Internal Finance Officer of the Alumni Relation Cell of the Computing Club. At the moment, we are in the midst of planning Grad Nite 2014 for this year’s graduating batch. Occasionally when NUS Wushu is invited for a performance, they will approach me to prepare their performance soundtrack for them. So this requires me to listen to numerous background music, movie soundtrack and mixing them together while taking into consideration the choreography of the performance.

Which faculty members made impressions on you?
Uncle Soo - He really doesn't feel like an academic staff when he teaches. More like a SoC senior who you approach for help when you are stuck with your coding. 
Henry Chia - Took his Introduction to Artificial Intelligence when I was in year 2. He is really passionate about his subject and his method of teaching is really informal. The most memorable class with him was the last AI tutorial of that semester. Even for a cohort of 120 students, only a friend and I attended it. 
Prof Leong Hon Wai - My supervisor when it comes to research, though I must say that I must have disappointed him a lot. However, it is thanks to him that my understanding of computational biology has broadened beyond what was taught in classroom. Through his weekly research meeting, I was able to meet with PHD students, final year students and UROPS students. We exchange ideas and opinions on each other’s projects.
Of course, the list goes on and on. SoC is filled with awesome staff.

What is the one thing you would change about NUS?
The bus routes of our internal shuttle busses have gotten from bad to worse over the past 4 years with the bus route going from barely servicing the student body during peak hour to nonsensical this year. Bus 95 has become my shuttle bus when I need to commute between Computing and Science. If there is at least one thing that needs to change about NUS, the bus route is definitely one of them.

What do you count as your most significant achievement to date?
I would have to say it's my Student Exchange Programme (SEP) experience. I always believe that one can learn more by spending one week staying overseas than spending one year in your home country. Thanks to the 4 months, my culinary skills, vacation planning skills, and driving skills certainly improved a lot. Apart from these, I was able to gain insights into New Zealand, a place which I will never have come to understand if not for my SEP. 
[I decided] to apply for it in year 2, seeing my friend getting her application for SEP in Canada approved. Hence, I decide to give it a try. I guess it fortunate that the country that I want to travel to wasn't a popular place so I do not get much competition for the placement. 
The wonderful group of friends I made on exchange really helped to hone my culinary and driving skills. Of course, my exchange wouldn't be possible if not for Ms. Quek Woon Woon’s efforts and the support of my family. 

What do you enjoy doing when you are not studying or working?
At home, I've built my raspberry pi into a file server. In the meantime, I am also building it into a bitcoin mining rig. Concurrently, I am also searching online for method to turn my raspberry pi into a home karaoke system. It is truly amazing what a small computer can do. 
Hobby wise, I love to fly remote control helicopters and quadcopters. However at the moment, I am pretty much grounded. My DJI Phantom's parameters require tuning and test flights which I have not had the time to do. My collective pitch helicopter is awaiting a motor replacement, while my fixed pitch helicopter is waiting for its flybar to be replaced. For some unknown reason, I am more interested in rotary flight than fixed wing flight.
In this hobby, crashing is common, so parts replacement is a common scenario. Replacing and fixing your own birds gives you an understanding of how thing works which in turn improves your piloting skills. Other than flying my birds, I enjoy watching air crash investigation. It nice to see how air travel has evolved because of these accidents and appreciate the safety protocols [that have been] implemented. 
I still remember how my passion for flying started. It all started when I watched a Japanese drama played by Kimura Takuya titled "Good Luck". It tells the story of an aspiring co-pilot, the situations and the various kind of flights that he encountered. It was in that show when I was exposed to the joy and beauty of flight. I can’t remember when I started remote control flying. It is considered an expensive hobby so I have to do a lot of repairing myself.
Over the years I have lost count the number of landing and crashes that I had. There was once when I was flying with my friends at Seletar reservoir when I crashed onto the roof of a pavilion. On quadcopters, there is no reverse thrust. So we had to build a human pyramid to retrieve my quadcopter. I have flown into trees, wall, ceiling, earth, but thankfully, I have never flown into any living being. 
I got my DJI Phantom when I was on exchange to better document my exchange experience, and also to see New Zealand from a different perspective. Every time I took off into the wild gust of New Zealand and over lakes, waterfalls, ocean, rapids, my heart always seems to jump up to my throat. Luckily, there were no major crashes on my exchange, so I guess I can consider them 'good' landing. 
One incident when I almost lost my DJI Phantom was while I was flying a low pass, filming a rapid in Huka Fall, Lake Taupo, New Zealand. I was about 100m up a rapid when my transmitter buzzed, notifying me that my transmitter was running  out of battery. Though the Phantom is equipped with a GPS module that will automatically return it to take off point if it loses signal from the transmitter, the rapid that I was filming was lined with steep rock wall on both side. The Auto pilot would fly the quadcopter into this wall if it attempted to make a beeline back. The rapid was creating turbulence between these walls and it was difficult to climb out of it. After much fighting, I was able to bring my Phantom back within reach, but the transmitter died before I could land it. A friend of mine had to catch it in mid-air for me.
Another incident where I almost lost my Phantom was when I flew too close to a radio tower and I lost control of my quadcopter completely. At that moment, I knew that a crash was imminent and mentally prepared myself to retrieve the wreckage. In a desperate attempt to avoid the crash, I pushed up the throttle and resulting in a rapid ascent, narrowly avoiding the face of a cliff. Thanks to the ascent, I was outside the range of the radio tower and manage to land my quadcopter in one piece. That was my last flight in New Zealand. It was in the middle of winter, and the gust was building up. Numerous commercial flights were denied landing at Wellington International Airport due to the strong crosswind. Almost every commercial jet liner had to crab in order to land and it is common to see a missed approach on the runway where the strong crosswinds prevented pilots from de-crabing and flaring. 
In NUS, there's not much room to fly my larger size bird. However, occasionally I still bring some smaller bird to fly in school, indoor. Especially during exam period, I will take breaks from my study by flying. Every battery last about 5-7 min, so it's perfect for a study break. Almost everyone who has studied in the Computing Clubroom has flown one of my birds and crashed miserably. Looking at their concern expressions when they wreck my bird (broken parts, main blade hanging off the hinge at odd angles, making weird noises), I often wonder whether I looked like them when I had my first few major crashes, while I reassure them that the bird can be easily repaired in a few minutes and every hobbyist or pilot learnt how to fly by crashing. 
After many years into flying, I come across a quote by Leonardo da Vinci, "When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return". I am deeply addicted to this hobby now.

The Incident of the Phantom's Mid-Flight Transmitter Battery Death

Quick-fire! Worst movie you've seen this year?
Hunger Game: Catching Fire. I had to endure 2 hours of watching Katniss choosing Peeta, a burden who kept dragging the group down by attracting killer monkeys and running into barriers, over Gale who obviously was a better choice.

Most interesting development in technology this year?
Smart watches, with the best example pebble while the worst example Galaxy Gear first gen.

Best place you've been to?
Lake Tekapo of New Zealand. It's 400m above sea level so the air is refreshing. In the daytime, the colour of Lake Tekapo changes colour depending on the angle of sunlight. The lake is ringed by snow [capped mountains]. There is a spa which is open air, and you get to enjoy the view while you are soaking in the water.
The city of Tekapo is commissioned by United Nation as the International Dark Sky Reserve. No artificial lightings are installed in the area. A single car's headlight produces more light pollution than the whole town put together. It is the best place to stare gaze at night. In Tekapo, there exists a love hate relationship with the full moon. When it's full, the moon appears big and round, however, it is so bright that it block out all the stars in the skies.

Tell us who we should we talk to next. Email tien@nus.edu.sg