About the Author: Aabir Abubaker (on the right), from Birla Institue of Technical Science, Pilani, beautifully narrates his research experience at Indian Institue of Science Education and Research, Kolkata (IISER-K).
Late in May 2016, I arrived at IISER, Kolkata. The institute accepts students to its Summer Research Program via two channels – the IAS fellowship, and the in-house IISER-K Summer Fellowship. Applying to each is simple – find the website, fill the form, and wait for a response. One typically has to select between two to five professors that they’d like to work under, and send a resume with a short statement of research interest and motivation. I was fortunate to be accepted by my first choice, Professor Supratim Sengupta of the physics department. His research interest is broadly in theories of decision making, and he has worked on game theoretical analyses of bribery and biological models, besides others.
My work under him was to be on ‘game theory in evolutionary biology’. You will notice that as a student of Mechanical Engineering and Physics, none of the words describing my branch happen to be in my project title. I can’t say that anything I’ve studied was directly applied to my project, and that made it less than trivial to explain to my family and friends exactly what I was going to do in West Bengal for 8 weeks. But such is the nature of interdisciplinary research, especially in an emerging field like this. If it still baffles you that such ‘branch jumps’ are a reality, reading about the applications of computational simulations to emerging ‘hybrid branches’ like econophysics, quantitative social science etc. will be hugely eye-opening.
My professor at IISER-K was incredibly helpful, and I was able to learn a number of things. My problem statement was on the following lines – to model the evolution of cooperative behaviour in the competing interacting organisms, as well as to understand how cooperation is sustained over generations. For my project, I had to be able to code (I use Python, but MATLAB/Octave are very popular in research spheres). Also required was an intermediate understanding of probability and network theory. Other techniques central to such simulations are agent-based modelling and cellular automata. As I was not working in a laboratory, my working hours were very flexible, and a typical day was entirely dictated by when I chose to work. I was often found in the library to escape the Bengal heat. Periodically, I met with my professor and updated him on the progress, or obtained a new problem statement to simulate and understand.
The facilities at IISER-K are fairly well developed, it being a young campus. Large parts of the campus are still under construction, such as the new hostels, an auditorium, gardens, and new research buildings. The completed buildings, however, are top notch. It’s slightly eerie walking around at night, for many rooms to later be used as labs are devoid of any equipment and one feels like a mad scientist’s den could easily exist here. Calcutta is a ridiculously interesting city. Travelling is easy, with the minimal comprehension of Bengali required. Call everybody ‘Dada’ with a wide smile on your face, and you’re set. Food is good and there’s a lot to see. Government-provided WiFi zones see hordes of teenagers crouched together, while ancient men in thick comical glasses almost scoop you into their cycle rickshaws. There’s also the exquisite Ganges and the burly bridges that have conquered her. The city manages to fuse its colonial history and traditional ‘intellectualism’ with the Instagram generation in a ridiculous cocktail that is at once hilarious and beautiful.
I really love this field, as it’s taking me further into what I’m interested in – modelling multidisciplinary problems and generating complex behaviour, to better understand thereby and improve the systems under study. What I’m doing can be extended to the modelling of the stock market, demand and supply of goods, auction design, sales and marketing, fiscal policy, war strategies (not my cup of tea), intelligent strategies for peace (that’s more like it) and so much more. It’s beautiful, and I could certainly do it for the rest of my life. Not coming to IISER-K would perhaps have been the biggest mistake of my life. I feel equipped to take on the research world. Not because I feel like I know more, but because I now know how little I know. Here’s to a lifetime of discovery, and a summer well spent.
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