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

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