Centre for Modeling and Simulation
Savitribai Phule Pune University All Models Are False, Some Are Useful

CMS in Hindsight: Sarvesh Nikumbh /* 2016 Mar 07, 04:11:13 */

Sarvesh Nikumbh
Sarvesh Nikumbh
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Association with CMS
M.Tech. Programme in Modeling and Simulation

Epoch of Association
2010-12

Pre-CMS Education, Occupation, Field
• 2004 - 08: B.E. (Computer Science and Engineering), Mumbai University
• 2008 - 10: Project Engineer, Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC), Mumbai
• Worked on statistical models for machine translation and transliteration, rule-based systems
• Current: Ph.D. Researcher in the department of Computational Biology and Applied Algorithmics at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics (MPI-INF), Germany

Post-CMS Education, Occupation, Field
• Statistical Consultant at Open Analytics, Belgium
• Current: Ph.D. Researcher in the department of Computational Biology and Applied Algorithmics at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics (MPI-INF), Germany

Honours and Achievements
• Was awarded a scholarship from the French Government for pursuing an internship at INRIA, Grenoble in France, 2011.
• Was awarded a Microsoft Research India travel grant for presenting our work at the IEEE World Congress on Evolutionary Computation (CEC), held together with WCCI (World Congress on Computational Intelligence), 2012.
• Received Ph.D. Fellowship by the International Max Planck Research School for my doctoral studies at the MPI-INF, 2013 onwards.

Curricula and teaching programmes

In my opinion, the M.Tech. curriculum at CMS(*) is very well designed considering the nature of challenges in doing so.

• The course document (http://cms.unipune.ac.in/reports/pd-20070223/) provided me a very elaborate view of what one could expect during the course. I find this document (as I did so even then) to be (a) very well written: This document very nicely explains what the M.Tech. programme in modeling and simulation aims to achieve. That it caters to both kinds of readers, those who are already aware about mathematical modeling and simulation and those who may not already know but wish to know, is a major plus; (b) quite self-sufficient: For me, it satisfactorily answered most of my queries on aspects important towards making my decision of enrolling for the programme.

• One major challenge for any such programme, especially a post-graduate one, on a field of very broad utility is attempting to reach out to the students from very diverse prior experiences. My prior education in computer science and a short two-years stint doing research at the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC) at Mumbai, I was looking forward to a course with a research-oriented focus. Thankfully, CMS was all about it.

• While at CMS, I appreciated the curriculum design of the M.Tech. programme (based on my short prior experience of working on computational models for it touched upon many details over a complete spectrum of what goes into building these kind of models), post-CMS I have appreciated this even more. This is because very often there have been scenarios where I have used what I learnt in, may be, one of the tiny modules of a course in the programme.

*I was an M.Tech. student at CMS during 2010-12.

Teachers

Talking about teachers, in general, I believe that every student has his or her criterion to evaluate teachers and that it is a consequence of his/her individual prior experiences and expectations from the course. And given the nature of this M.Tech. programme at CMS, the teachers would have to meet a very diverse set of criteria. Acknowledging this and my own expectations from the course, that of looking for a research-oriented perspective in all the subjects, in my opinion, we had our share of many wonderful teachers and few others. I clearly remember and I would like to point it out that among the students these opinions varied quite a bit.

Even in case of the few others, it took only little more effort from the students' side to be proactive in finding a solution. This typically began by either directly talking to the teacher or to the in-house faculty about the issue. I recall a couple of instances when a few of us from our batch had had discussions with the in-house faculty at CMS, when we weren't completely satisfied with the teaching for a subject, to collectively think over feasible solutions. Such feedback and open interaction was encouraged during our time at CMS. This, according to me, is another strength of the programme at CMS that the students had access to the in-house faculty including the Director and could discuss in case of any issues either individually or collectively. Due to involving the students into these discussions, for me they have been great learning experiences which have been helping me in many endeavours post-CMS when interacting or collaborating with people from varying educational backgrounds e.g., physicists, biologists, mathematicians etc.

It is a different question if these issues were successfully resolved or not. It depended on how satisfactorily one could find a feasible solution, a possible middle ground, if it existed, for a certain constraint. For example, dealing with a constraint like non-availability of a particular faculty for that semester seemed to be the hardest of all. In my experience the CMS faculty and staff always strived to offer the best to the students. Most issues were resolved this way and for some exceptions the in-house faculty even took personal efforts to help the students. In general, if it so happened that a faculty who was not available for a course during our first or second semester was giving the course the following year, students from our batch additionally attended the lectures by this faculty. I appreciated this possibility and was benefited by it.

Overall experience

Ambience – academic or work environment. I appreciated the ambience at CMS w.r.t. both, academics and work environment. The lab facilities at CMS were more than satisfactory for all our programme requirements. Many of our issues with regards to new software installations or other technical difficulties were solved together with the system administrator eventually making it a learning experience for all. Speaking of the CMS library, I do not remember of any instance of being unsatisfied with the library, although I mostly relied on the innumerable online resources for many modules.

Difference to prior education. Based on my experience I was looking to improve upon very specific skill-sets. To give an idea, among other things I was looking forward to more research at the intersection of different domains e.g., computational problems arising from linguistics, physics, biology etc. In hindsight, I think the environment at CMS was very conducive to really be able to attain or hone the skills required for interdisciplinary research. And this was very different from the environment during my graduation studies: (a) That the centre was located at the university in vicinity of other departments allowed a student to attend courses of interest in other departments either as audit courses or even as credit as part of the elective courses; (b) The quality of most of the faculty at CMS was much better, in the sense that they had varying degree of research experience.

Any issues faced? Were they resolved? Fortunately, there were very few issues I faced during my time at CMS. I have briefly talked about these issues, that either I or a few of us collectively faced, in the section presenting my thoughts about the teachers at CMS. As I pointed out, these were mostly resolved after discussing with the in-house faculty in one case, and with the Director in the other.
• In one scenario, the collection of students in our batch had a different requirement or expectation from the course ‘Technical Communication-I’ and we expressed this to the faculty then. Based on this feedback and after assessing the situation, the faculty had come up with a different way to address our needs.
• Only one other issue was an exception where I believed a particular course on management could have been included as an elective instead of mandatory. But, in hindsight, for me this happens to be a rather minor thing from a long-term perspective. I still appreciate the fact that although being only students, nonetheless we could express and discuss our concern.

Overall experience at CMS. The interactions with the faculty at CMS were very helpful in further nurturing my thoughts on science and research in general.

Impact on career and growth

Post-CMS, I took up a Ph.D. position in the field of my interest.

When I enrolled for the M.Tech. programme at CMS, I had a loose set of skill-sets on my mind which I wished to work on. The course content helped me gather most of these skills. In addition, the interactions among friends and faculty at CMS also helped.

Even when I began as an M.Tech. student, I was certain about getting into a Ph.D. programme post-CMS, and had a few areas in mind. But my tenure at CMS broadened the scope for me by opening up many other interesting possibilities. Today, I work in an area as a consequence of this broadening. My tenure at CMS left me very much enriched.

Advice for current and future students

Current second-year students:

(1) Focus on making your thesis work interesting to yourself. For instance, spend enough time to find a problem of interest to you or may be your approach/technique to solve the problem is interesting to you, or try to get a good perspective on where things stand in the state-of-the-art and see if you can challenge yourself better it. These will motivate you and help you do good work.

(2) During your thesis work, minutely analyse for yourself what technical aspects or key points that you learnt during your M.Tech. programme were utilized in this work. Often, this could reflect your comfort level with the things you learnt during the programme.

You should have begun your thesis work by already noting the criteria on which your work will be judged. An outcome that is a good blend of (1) and (2) will help you focus on the right aspects, especially since the duration of your thesis work is around 6-8 months.

(3) Know that for many job interviews, if the profile has very specific requirements to which your thesis is a good match, it helps you a great deal to have already done it well. Your grasp of every minute detail of your project will be greatly appreciated. If you are wondering how one can know this before-hand (regarding your future job interviews), it is by talking to people. These may be your seniors or people who have gone through these experiences in the recent past in your field or the faculty. This is a safe bet to assume (the appreciation) in case of most research positions.

(4) Depending upon positions you apply for, you may need to prepare for them (e.g., revisiting the basic modules from the first-year). Do so!

Current first-year students:

(1) Choose your electives wisely.
(2) Encourage yourself to understand not just the subject matter but also the rationale behind studying them.
(3) Talk to the faculty in case of any difficulties you may face during the course.
(4) Above all, try and be proactive about resolving any issues you may face at the Centre.
In my opinion, all these points benefit both, the students as well as the Centre.

Future students:

(1) Begin by knowing and understanding well your own strengths (and/or interests) and weaknesses. Accordingly think and decide what set of skills you need to hone. Does the programme help you acquire these skills? The kind and amount of efforts to achieve what you plan for yourself will also be very specific to you.

(2) For any student who has heard about this course from any source, I believe his or her preparation for this course could begin, first and foremost, by reading and understanding well the course document itself. This helps the students prepare in knowing what the programme goal is, knowing what the course expects out of its student, and most importantly if it serves what he or she has envisaged (point 1) and form their expectations from the course etc. For example, chapters 1, 2 and 3 of the design document available here: http://cms.unipune.ac.in/reports/pd-20070223/) can guide you make your decision. Such a comprehensive course document should be used to your benefit.

(3) Then, go and talk to the faculty and current students at the Centre. If available get information about the Centre's recent alumni and, if possible, even talk to them. Keep in mind that every student's opinion is formed out of his or her personal experiences with the Centre. It would be wrong to make a completely positive or negative decision based on a single opinion. For example, read other feedbacks in addition to mine. Remember the story of 'Blind men and an elephant'. In case you do not know it already, you can read it here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant). Your experience depends on what you make out of the opportunities presented to you.

(4) If you are planning in advance, make use of the public lectures arranged by the Centre. These lectures can give you a good idea about what is ‘modeling and simulation’ and its utility in various fields. You can check the Centre's website or contact the Centre for information on these.

(5) I would advise on considering this as a given: It is an M.Tech. programme, do not expect it to be easy; it is not! But, at the same time do not let this discourage you. Believe me, you will feel far more accomplished than what you expected when you began. All the efforts you take and rigour you go through is going to be worth.

This advice is based on my personal experience at CMS. It is certainly not exhaustive and like every piece of advice take it with a pinch of salt and customize things based on your needs. May be you can come up with a better list after your tenure. All the best!

Which direction should CMS grow in?

• The M.Tech. programme in modeling and simulation being a non-conventional course, I wish the University advertises more and makes the students at the graduate level aware of it.

I believe this would also help the Centre in attracting the right kind of students. And, in my opinion, getting the right kind of students is very important for the Centre which will eventually benefit the students. This could be an important step towards encouraging the students to take-up inter-disciplinary research.

Further thoughts

I would encourage the students to make the best use of the facilities at CMS -- which includes learning from and having more interactions with the faculty, which is something I myself benefited from while at CMS.
Most of my answers in this feedback, especially the piece of advices for future students, hover around the one basic point which is: to get the best out of your experience of undergoing this programme, treat it like reading a piece of text or a chapter in a book after going through the set of questions following it first, this way one knows in advance which points to pay attention to. I experienced this myself and was very ecstatic on days when this happened to me!

To end, I would add,

• enjoy your time learning new things;
• invest your time and efforts in not just learning the subject matter but more so in learning how to learn.

Thank you very much.



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