Facebook – Week 9 – Part 1

Posted on 28th April 2014

Week 9 PhD Open Day

I arrived in Philly without my winter coat, which had wandered off the previous day in suspicious circumstances. The weather was a frosty -14C and I hadn’t yet acclimatized. Shivering I walked to the cab dispatch station and shuddered my way into a taxi passing by. Next stop ‘Club Quarters’ Hotel, Center City, Philadelphia. When I arrived there something seemed odd, perhaps the fire crews coming in and out mixed with a large number of grumpy looking tourists tipped me off. At any rate, I went up into the hotel to find out that not only could I not check in but that there had been a fire in the kitchen, causing a full evacuation. I decided to nap on a couch in the lobby to try and get at least a few minutes in, but was unfortunately unsuccessful.

In the lobby I caught the eyes of two other people who seemed to be talking about engineering so I went over and asked them if they were part of the Penn group. This was my first introduction to some of the potential PhD candidates. They seemed friendly enough, though it was hard to gauge much more as we were all a little awkward. Slowly but surely a pool of young twenty-somethings gathered in the lobby and collectively shivered as the entrance doors opened and closed. After a short wait, a mini charter bus pulled up and we clambered in for the ten minute drive to Penn.

On arrival we were ushered into the new nanotechnology building for a meeting with the assistant dean. However, due to traffic issues the dean never materialized and so the time was spent in conversation with the individuals in our rows. Following about thirty minutes of this Sonya Gwak, head of admissions, gave us a brief welcome and overview of the school before we were led out and separated into faculties. As computer and information science prospectives, we were led out by Mike Felker and taken to a room in Levine Hall where more faculty members and a few PhD students were waiting. After an introduction by Stephanie Weirich, the next two hours were composed of brief talks from faculty members on their research groups within the department. The two talks that appealed to me most were that of the architecture group and of course the distributed systems and security group.

Prof. Joe Devietti’s talk on architecture and multiprocessing was interesting as much for its presentation as for the content. He spoke well and his slides were used to good effect, so though I may not remember the content in depth, I am still left with a highly positive impression of his work.

For the security group JMS (Jonathan M Smith, a past professor of mine) and Nadia Heninger were presenting. Together they made somewhat of an odd pair, but the contrast between Nadia’s youthful exuberance and JMS’s wry humor set them on strong footing before the presentation had even begun. They presented on a number of clever hacks and security flaws discovered by the group, and integrated meme culture into their presentation. I wasn’t sure whether it was the coffee I had just consumed or the quality of the presentation that led me to sit up forward and pay attention.

Following the presentations, which ended at midday on the dot, the group sat down for lunch, both students and professors. I sat at a table with a friendly guy called Luke, also interested in security, JMS, Nadia, and one or two others whose names I now can’t recall.

With nowhere else to go, lunch lasted a while and this provided some time for everyone to get to know each other a little better. The other prospectives’ opinions towards Penn varied across the spectrum, with some pretty sure that it was the right choice for them and others merely visiting in the hopes of being inspired to change their minds made up for elsewhere. Luke seemed pretty set on Penn, as was I, so it was nice to get to know someone who I’d likely be working with in the near future. I was impressed when I learned that he volunteered with a gymnastics organization that served to help children from challenging backgrounds find a safe outlet.

Following lunch I was to have a series of meetings with faculty members, in order to pique my interest in the various research groups. First up was a meeting with Nadia, Luke and I. Nadia, a new hire at Penn, was an individual of great character.  As the department’s newest hire, she was one of the youngest professors I’d met. However, she came with a fearsome research record, and to my surprise had produced papers that even I had read. The ‘coolest’ one involved freezing a computer’s memory chips with liquid nitrogen to stop the data from dissipating when pulled out from the live computer, sticking in another machine and then using a carefully constructed program to extract encryption keys. Another encouraging sign was that when I asked about time for extracurricular (RE: Penn Glee Club) she mentioned that she had done Tango throughout her PhD.

My meeting with her, combined with my previous time with the students in that lab, made me feel like Penn would be a good choice for where to complete my doctoral studies. It was also my only choice, but I didn’t feel at all hard done by.

My next meeting was with Professor Val Tannen, the old graduate chair and also a friend of mine amongst the professors. I lapsed in the fact that I forgot to ask him about his research but we had a good talk about the PhD program and he was encouraging when I had concerns and had good answers to all my questions. He related to me much of the story of his PhD and that was quite insightful.

We had next a tour of the GRASP robotics lab, directed by Kostas Daniliidis, another previous Professor of mine, but I was way too zonked to fully appreciate the technical aspects of it. One standout however was the quadrotor ‘flying’ robots, which danced and darted in tall ceilinged room.

Arriving at my next meeting, there was again another student in the room, with Professor Benjamin Pierce. They were already deep in technical discussion and at first I couldn’t quite understand what they were talking about. Prof. Pierce was a Programming Languages expert, a field that still held many mysteries to me, and kindly explained the basis of their discussion. It was only at the conclusion of the meeting that I realized that I had stumbled into the wrong meeting, having been scheduled for Prof. Pierce in the next hour and had actually been designated to meet with Prof. Joe Devietti across the hall. I felt highly embarrassed as I felt I had detracted a little from Prof. Pierces meeting.

With my tail slinking down, I edged over to Prof. Devietti’s office and found him to be as personable and brilliant in person as he had been during his presentation. He offered much insight and made his field come alive. It was enough to tempt me to later do some reading and try and gain a stronger background so that I could appreciate his research more thoroughly.

After all this, and little sleep on my flight, I couldn’t take any more of the open day, so I gladly walked down Locust Walk, the central boulevard at Penn, and was let into my close friend Louis Petro’s apartment. I took a brief nap, changed clothes and then headed to Hillel for Friday night proceedings.

It was lovely to again be surrounded by community and I took the chance to catch up with as many people that I had missed last time as possible. Again dinner was with Ariella, Louis, Aviva and co. but Michal was sorely missing. I spent the rest of my waking hours chatting with Hannah Dardashti, and, when Hillel eventually closed, it was back to Louis’ to talk with him for a while before falling fast asleep on his couch.

The next day the PhD prospective met back in the Engineering buildings for fruit salad (delicious) and bagels. The Professors sadly weren’t around but it was another chance to get to know the other students better.

As they went off for a tour of the city I said my goodbyes and headed to Hillel to listen to a talk on issues facing the community. While the talk was interesting, the company was great. Of particular note was the insights provided by Raymond Habbaz, ever logical, well spoken and of unique thought.

After lunch Ariella and I roamed the halls of Rodin, looking for friends and trying to scry out the location of Rina Krevat, whom I had promised I would see that day. That plan didn’t exactly work out, however as we were traversing a certain floor, the elevator doors opened. Ariella gleamed as a younger, black haired girl stepped out with a smile. I was then introduced to Becca Hallac, another Jewish computer science student and told that she also TA’d a course. We stood in the hallway chatting for a while, and when Ariella needed the restroom, we stepped into to Becca’s room for a moment.

With Ariella gone for a moment I sat chatting to Becca and when Ariella returned and made plans to leave, I stayed, being mid-story. Thus, for much of the remaining daylight I stayed and got to know Becca a little better. Her charming demeanor and enthusiasm made me wish I had time to grow a friendship, but sadly my time this trip was short.

In the late afternoon I visited the Glouse for a mandatory visit to see Rigel and co.  After a time there yakking a way, I returned to Hillel for ‘seudah shlishit’, the third communal Shabbat meal.

There I finally ran into Rina again, and also had an opportunity to speak to Sarah Baldinger, a sophomore who I had become good friends with during my exchange. After havdalah, Rina and I walked to one of the OCP off campus houses so that she could practice piano. This was an opportunity for us to chat a little, which was nice given we didn’t have much time in New York.

Soon it was time for ‘cake-wars’ back at Hillel, a cake decorating competition in support of research for breast cancer. I walked Rina back but unfortunately couldn’t attend myself as I had prior plans. From Hillel I walked to see Charu, who had spent the day shopping and so had bags with her, this suited me well as I had my belongings on my person too. We chatted for a few hours, before Charu had to go and get some work done and I rendezvoused with Ariella and a few others back at Hillel.

Back at Hillel Ellery Kauvar was in fine form, a tall, white Jewish guy with a giant black bag full of nerf guns and foam ammunition. He had been running games of capture the flag for the past few years in a series of buildings on Penn’s campus. This was a great opportunity for studying students to let off some steam. We played three matches in two teams, scrambling up and down stairs, poking our heads out of elevators and claiming territory. All the while we were trying to transport two tins of tennis balls to our ‘bases’ for victory. It was one of the most enjoyable nights I’d had in months.

From there it was back to the ‘Club Quarters’ hotel for a few hours sleep before checkout in the morning, more hot drinks and goodbyes.

After waking up in the morning I partook in breakfast with two other PhD hopefuls that were readying to leave. I checked out of my room and caught the SEPTA (South-Eastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority) back to campus to pick up a few belongings I had left at Louis’.

From there I went for a quick drink with Shilpa Kannan, one of the busier people I knew at Penn, then bounced on to chat with Shadia. Morning wound into early afternoon and it started to rain. I met Samantha Merritt, a top Digital Media Design student and future Googler, outside the ‘tampons’ next to Rodin. I had always been a bit shy around her but we had both found some time to talk a little more. We went for coffee to ‘Lovers and Madmen’. She inspired me through a story from her high school experiences and offered good life advice, and I was glad we had ended up friends. Our time passed swiftly and before I knew it I was packed off in a cab to the airport.

My flight was delayed as per usual, but the experience itself was nothing to comment on. I arrived home, hungry, munched on a few snacks left over and headed to sleep, well prepped for my second last week.


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