IIIT-H Alumnus Deepesh Data’s ACM India Doctoral Dissertation Award 2019

Meet Deepesh Data, batch of 2011, BTech (CSE). He is the winner (Honourable Mention) of the ACM India Doctoral Dissertation Award 2019. Calling himself a “small-town boy” with limited exposure, he shrugs and says that it all worked out in the end. In a telephonic conversation, he modestly talks of himself, his journey so far and his mantra of working hard.

Tell us about yourself.

I’m from Khairthal, a small town in the district of Alwar, Rajasthan. My mother is a home-maker and my father is a businessman who runs a small-scale oil mill. I did all my schooling until the 12th grade at the only school present there! It was a government-run school where there were no fans, or lights. We used to sit on the mud floor and study. I did reasonably well in the 12th, Rajasthan Board exams in the Hindi medium. The syllabus wasn’t sufficient to crack entrance exams like IIT-JEE, AIEEE and others. So, like most other engineering degree aspirants, I too went to Kota and underwent 8-10 months of coaching. When I didn’t get my choice of IIT and the Computer Science stream that I preferred, I was advised by my father’s friend to apply to IIIT-Hyderabad. That’s how I ended up here!

Do you have any special memories to share with us from your days at IIIT-H?

Before coming to IIIT-H, I wasn’t exposed to a whole lot. I didn’t know much. I had never heard of Olympiads and I got to know of the programming language C, when I first came here. For me, one of my best times on campus is when I got interested in research. Towards the end of my 3rd year B.Tech, I was drawn to theoretical Computer Science, which comprises of Complexity Theory and Algorithms. That was when I bought some advanced books and started reading up on my own. I will always remember this time, a period of over a year. I used to be in my room all day and night reading whatever interested me. I wanted to take courses in these advanced subjects and not spend any more time in other subjects that I was not interested in. Back then, we could take courses as part of independent study. Typically, you could pick up a subject, read about it and meet the professor under whom you were studying it. In my case, it was Prof. Kannan Srinathan and Prof. Suresh Purini.

What did you do after graduating from IIIT-H?

After completing my BTech at IIIT-H, I applied to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. It is one of the best places in India for theoretical research. Both Prof. Srinathan and Prof. Purini gave me recommendations for my application. I went on to do my Masters and PhD there. Currently, I’m a post-doctoral researcher at UCLA. I’m doing a couple of things such as research in distributed optimization, machine learning, information theory, differential privacy and so on. I’ve also been involved in cryptography.

What inspired you towards research?

((Laughs)) Should I tell you the truth? It’s a long story. In BTech 3rd year, when companies come to campus for recruiting interns, I too participated in the process and applied to Microsoft. The selection process entails a written test followed by an interview. I didn’t even clear the written test! Most companies require qualified candidates who are good at algorithms, data structures, coding, among others. It was then that I decided to master all these subjects before these companies came again for final placement. I bought books and started reading them. Of course, we had courses that covered this subject matter but because I had previously not paid much attention, I didn’t do well in them. Reading, and solving problems took me a couple of months. From beginning with Introduction to Algorithms by Cormen, I began exploring theoretical Computer Science, learned that there is Complexity. I began to enjoy these subjects. That’s when I toyed with the idea of doing a Masters in this field. And the rest like they say is History!

Can you tell us briefly about your award-winning dissertation?

ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) is a prestigious global association. The ACM India chapter awards the best doctoral disseration in computing from an academic institute in India. I didn’t expect it. My over-all topic is ‘Secure Multi-Party Computation’ which is a sub-area of Cryptography. It’s about how distrusting parties collaborate with their private input without revealing their inputs to each other. The title of my thesis was ‘Communication Complexity and Characterization Results in Secure Computation’. To put it very simplistically, it dealt with which functions can be securely computed and for these functions, how much communication do you really need for them to securely compute.

What advice do you have for other students who wish to pursue a career in research?

I don’t think I’m qualified enough to dispense advice….(thinks)… In BTech, you are exposed to a whiff of the entire discipline. I would say that if you are interested in higher studies, find one thing that appeals to you or that interests you. These days, if you pick up a single area, it’s so vast that it can occupy whatever time you wish to give to it. Spend time reading advanced books, continue learning more about it and don’t waste time. Apart from books, there are many lectures available online on YouTube to learn from. If you’re really interested in something, you will always find ways to do it. You don’t need anybody’s help. I did everything on my own. The greatest help I got was in terms of the Independent Study that I was allowed to do. I still remember what Kannan sir once told me. He said that it’s okay if you don’t study for a few days or weeks. But don’t let the yearning to learn go away. And this yearning will come only if you delve deep into subject matter.

What would you like to say to other students coming from small-towns?

These days, everybody learns English in schools. I too learned English. But I wrote all the entrance exams in Hindi. English as a language is definitely not alien, so it’s not difficult. You just have to work a little bit harder. One should not feel inferior to others. We need to work with what we have and figure out how to make full use of it. You can do anything at any time. In a country where a tea-seller can become the PM of India, anything is possible!

Any tips or suggestions on writing a winning dissertation?!

I didn’t work towards winning an award! It was just an outcome of it. You work on a research problem, sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t think anyone should work towards a winning thesis because there is no winning thesis. Research is not a deterministic thing. The key is to keep on working ..and to keep on working hard.

What next?

I’ll be here at UCLA for the next year or so. I don’t have any fixed plans. I’m open to both academia and industry. I’ll decide where to head next later on.

Sarita Chebbi has been a stay-at-home mom of two for the longest time. When she’s not painstakingly documenting heirloom recipes from her mom into a tattered diary, she can be found on the yoga mat, trying to impress her family with her pretzel poses. She also likes to nit-pick on the written word.

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