“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all”.
These words by Helen Keller has got me thinking these days. I guess all of this is fuelled by the internship that I undertook this summer.
In a typical engineering college set-up, a first-year student’s life is the most blissful. Not so much because I am in my pre-final year now, but because the freshman doesn’t have to bear the weighty burden of lending flesh to a hitherto scrawny resume. And in the first year, the mediocre circumstances of his college don’t successfully wear his flying spirits down- he’s infinitely optimistic, and quite rightly so. The second year brings in new challenges, that are both idiotic and profound. One does mindlessly roam about in the campus, while also trying to perceive his calling. He’s at a time many things. He’s the YouTube videos he watches, the writers he loves rereading, the comics whom he tries to emulate, but fails, the idealistic speeches he delivers, the grand events he gets to anchor, the actors he admires, the writing pieces he crafts that nobody really considers, and ultimately he’s his peers he discusses his aspirations so vividly with. Sadly, he never really believes in all the above-mentioned avatars. Because had he done that, he would not have taken up his current course in the first place. He explores them pseudo-intellectual-ly, and for the longest duration, sporadically. All this while he also manages to score decently well in exams. The important question, ‘what he wants to do?’, is not entirely solved in the sophomore year. How can it be! People answer that in their late 20s, early 40s, mid-50s, sometimes in deathbeds and in crematoriums. I just realized that this wanderer is very similar to me.
Amidst all the dissonance that I have already illustrated, in the 4th semester there’s a talk that gathers momentum, snail-like at first, and then snowballs into a phenomenon called “Where are you interning this summer?” I was one of the lucky few to have an immediate answer. Our beloved seniors at college had somehow disseminated this key information regarding internship opportunities provided by the ‘Science Academies’ (Indian Academy of Sciences, Bengaluru, Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi, The National Academy of Sciences, India, Allahabad). The window for applications is open from August to October. In my case, I had applied for the internship on 30th October 2017. One needs to write an SOP(Statement of Purpose), along with furnishing other relevant details, i.e., 10th, 12th, grades. Quite ironically, someone who had been grappling continually with his purpose, managed to conjure up a decent SOP(Purpose, haha! ).
I was immensely fascinated by cryptography. At least, that was what I had written. I didn’t know a thing about it. Here’s the deal: In life, the things you do not know much about, are the very things you end up doing well in.
So it’s called “Summer Research Fellowship”. I noticed that at the same time as I saw my name on the “List of Selected Candidates”. My guide was Prof. C. Pandu Rangan. The institute was IIT Madras. Okay, well done. I remember saying to myself. Now you’re fucked. Everybody around me made sure I felt like I had accomplished something big. The ground reality of life at college- utter flattery with a palpable air of callousness. Well, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t excited. I was. I so was!
As is the fate of expectations, my expectations from the Summer Fellowship met with reality in stark contrasts. Fortunately so. I had imagined this research world to be one fortress of unmistakable diligence where humans served lifetime imprisonment. Except that the cellmate was their own complex concepts that they chewed over, even in their slumber! I had basically concocted this research world without the fabric of human qualities or the room for them. Boy, how illusioned I was!
My summer stint began on a sunny day, the 28th of May. The campus of IIT Madras was mesmerizingly quiet and beautiful. Flora and fauna were in abundance. The deer were the pride of the whole campus. It suddenly dawned on me how lacking my college’s campus was, in every sphere. I reported to the Hostel Management Office and was allotted a shared-room. After exchanging formalities with my roomie, I freshened up. Then I boarded the bus to reach the computer science department. It took me some good five minutes to locate Theoretical Computer Science Lab (TCS Lab).
The marvellous journeys don’t usually have a marvellous start.
Till then, I was sweating profusely in the hot and humid climate of Chennai. But the moment I stepped into the lab, I felt cold, in ways more than one. Everyone was at their laptops or desktops, confirming my imagination of the research world. It seemed daunting.
Owing to sir’s absence, I had to talk to Arinjita mam, a PhD research scholar under my guide, CPR sir. She told me what to do. How to do? I thought. That, we always figure out ourselves, don’t we? “Cryptography Theory and Practice” by Douglas R. Stinson was to be studied by me to cover the basics. I had one week. I studied that in parts. But what really came to my rescue was the video-lecture series on ‘Introduction to Crypto’ by Christof Paar.
I felt really out of place in the first couple of days, but slowly, the time I spent at the lab became intellectually stimulating. Then in the next 10 days, I studied like crazy. First was the basics, and then I had to go through a few research papers. Studying a course book and studying a paper are two different things. One requires your thinking, while the other calls for critical thinking. Questioning every move, step and line. At first, my interaction with CPR sir was limited but very warm and motivating. Until the end of week 4, I had gone through a number of papers and presented a few of them. The presentation wasn’t daunting, thanks to my abiding love for public speaking.
Meanwhile, I was enjoying the campus life. Listening to nature, cycling, the quiet of mundane activities, the warm mess-people and their food, the routine of the bus, and of life- I savoured it all! I interacted with many MS and PhD scholars, who had different perspectives to share. But one thing was in common, that they were all very amiable and ready to help. They allowed me to sneak a glance into the humane part of their world. My fellow interns at the lab added to my knowledge. We spoke of our college experiences and shared our ambitions. Eventually, we all went on to become friends from fellow lab mates.
After some 25 days had passed by, we zeroed in on the target project. A forward secure Proxy Re-Encryption scheme was to be designed! I worked on this project in collaboration with Sharmila Mam, a postdoc in crypto. A very knowledgeable and caring lady. She helped me quite a lot. She taught me many basic fundamentals of research. We developed a good rapport through the process.
Now, CPR sir is a busy man. Being a member of the editorial team of reputed journals, in addition to his commitment towards teaching and research, he’s always doing something or the other. Despite that, he had time for me. We discussed at length about various topics.
One that I fondly remember is this thing I asked him- “What interests you in research?”
He said, “I loved mathematics. And I always wanted to pursue this.” His passion is also evident from the fact that he takes interns every summer.
On the last day, I felt a little sad seeing the wooden panels of TCS lab for one last time. It had become my home. I did everything there- studying, writing, thinking, listening, texting. The occupants too will be missed, I thought.
All in all, it was a wonderful journey. Not so much for the individual parts of it, as for the summation of the parts, which makes all the difference. When I left Bhubaneswar on 26th May, it was bone dry and when I returned, it was raining. It looked a vibrant green from the top where I was sitting enthusiastically on a window seat of the Indigo aircraft. It was night when I left and day when I came back. Probably, that explains my own little internal transformation as well.
One question that I got the most was if this internship in crypto was going to help me in my career given that I am planning to pursue an MBA further. The answer to this is a resounding yes! The experience I had is going to be with me. Consciously and unconsciously, I have imbibed so many packets of different energies. I am now less fearful to enter a new domain. I now know that it’s not what you have got, but how willing or hungry you are to get that. Being optimistic helps. Computer science is a very, very vast and exciting field.
I read this somewhere on social media the other day, that our cv is a list of things that we never want to do again. But what if you have something on it that you’re proud of, and would probably want to do it again?