Thursday 6 September 2012

The research process

My paper got published recently and I'm pretty stoked about it, especially since undergrads rarely get to publish, let alone with first authorship. I'd like to take a moment to share my thoughts on the research process that culminated in this achievement.

Initially, I had decided on a project and supervisor relatively late in the semester. It was related to the Prisoners Dilemma, and I was tasked with running an arbitrary bunch of experiments to simulate agent interactions. Those first few weeks, I really thought hard. I read voraciously. The whole time, I was really under pressure to come up with something innovative and interesting. Soon, I had a rough idea. I was pretty excited about modelling noise in these agent interactions, and some realistic form of noise, something which wasn't boring. Interactions between people are affected by things like language, culture, etc (i.e., noise), and it would've been really cool to model these types of interactions. Now I needed to formalize this idea.

This was a painful process and I spent a bunch of sleepless nights crying myself to sleep (cue laughter). One fateful dinner, my group of friends, none of them CS majors, were discussing their projects. Hearing mine, one of my friends went "Hey that cultural thingy you were blabbering about- that kinda sounds like something we learnt in business class. I can't remember, but it has a name.". I then spent the next half an hour hounding her (some might call that harassment). Finally, I had the term I was looking for- pyschical distance.

The next step was far more rewarding. I thought of modelling sound waves as communication signals between agents in this Prisoner's Dilemma like game. These sound waves would be affected by the noisy effects of Psychical Distance. This was difficult- I had never taken a course in sound engineering. So I found a professor who knew things- sound things! Anyway, turns out, he couldn't help me. Another few sleepless nights followed. Finally, I gave in and visited the library. I remember hauling 10-15 sound engineering tomes to the nearby table, poring through those books in search of the elusive equation (which would help me design a function to model psychical noise). You should've seen me- disheveled hair, unshaved beard, baggy eyed. I was surprised no one mistook me for a hobo. Incredibly, I found a bunch of equations which fit perfectly into my model! That was a great day.

Fast forward presentation day, I had a really cool project which I had poured my heart and soul into. Too bad nobody really understood much of it.

Anyway, I wasn't done yet. I soon got a job, but I was quite relentless in designing new experiments in my spare time. My supervisor, suggested that we submit a paper. The publishing itself took nearly 8 months after but boy was I happy.

The whole research process was quite rewarding, but I'd like to highlight a few things I learnt-
1. Choose a good supervisor
2. Have varied interests (my project is essentially an amalgamation of comp sci, math, and business)
3. Talk to your friends
4. Textbooks in the library aren't just for show
5. Luck does play a part sometimes

Now I've not mentioned some of the more obvious and hackneyed advice that goes into research (work hard, don't give up, etc), but, uh, yeah, there's light at the end of the tunnel friends.

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