Follow your gut

By Rachith Aiyappa Comment

It is always a pleasure to be in the company of someone who thoroughly enjoys what they do.
Although rare, it isn’t too hard to recognize it when you cross paths with them. However, the risk of this being a projection/cover harbored by the ‘someone’ always exists.

Unfortunate and thought-provoking stories of comedians and their struggles with mental health come to mind. Another example points to Andre Agassi, who hated playing the sport of tennis and yet today, is regarded as one of the greatest players to have graced the game. Certainly, the greatest returner of serve? (cough-Novak-cough)

As true as that is, I hope the individual I speak about here, who I think is genuinely passionate about his career (and life, in general), truly is! 

I spent my time betweeen Jan-June 2019 in Berlin working towards my Master’s Thesis. My experience in Germany was...well...different! Not the regular kind of different I usually write (or plan to write :P) about but the kind I have been seeking for quite sometime now!

A part of what made this 'different’ so memorable is Dr. Pawel Romanczuk, my supervisor.  Like any other young scientist, Pawel is actively involved in many, many things. To name two, he is the PI of the Collective Information Processing lab at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and part of the super cool Science of Intelligence cluster.

During my first call with Pawel and Winnie1, I immediately took a liking to his proactive approach to research and enjoyed our honest and open conversation, not restricted to research.  Lately, I’ve found myself having to make choices. I’ve never enjoyed making said choices. I don’t think I ever will. But apparently, life says you can’t have it all.
            (Update June 2020) I still don't like making choices. I want it all 😛
To a question I raised (outside of research), Pawel, not making an effort to hide the fact that he’s been through it all said,

“Follow your gut!”

In doing so, I’m glad Berlin happened 🙂.
To say the least, the past months served a selfish purpose of reminding (much needed) me of a cliché - Love what you do.

I never did completely fathom him sitting down beside me (as he did with all of his brilliant students) on a weekly basis to discuss my (our) progress. You could obviously point to it being ‘his job’ but trust my word, he certainly did not carry that aura of doing things just because it is his job.
Pawel effortlessly processes information.
He has a knack to offer constructive criticism and seems to have identified a perfect blend of hand-on and hand-off approach to supervision!
Watching him digest a week’s worth of work in the first few minutes of the meeting and read most of our thoughts before we explicitly voiced them out, is an art I wish to understand someday! 
Ideas seemed to flow through him so smoothly that it was as if he was born with them. 

A friend termed it as a state of zen!

Troubled by the near-godliness of this individual, my last ‘in-person’ conversation 2 with Pawel had me directly ask him how/why he is so good at what he does and if he was born with it!  His response, typical to the minimalism you’ll see in this musing, was not anything out of the blue. One could even trivialize it to the daily motivational messages which overpopulate social media. There’s even a book about it, ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell.  

Practice - hard-work - what being around long enough teaches you - the Ph.D. process…yada yada.

At the same time, he did not dismiss the possibility of luck/chance happenings and did narrate a story (storytelling is one among his many skills which he’s obviously great at. Duh!). He is a statistical physicist after all 😛
It was at that moment, my doubts about wanting to do a Ph.D. reduced and my pre-conceived notions were confirmed!3

After almost all our meetings, I was left questioning, “Did I just witness him write code in front of me!?”4, “Wait! Why didn’t I think of that!?”, “I’m clearly stupid but how did he normalize my mistakes as an essential part of research!?"

During one of our many casual conversations, he spoke about his days leading up to being a PI. The story, is his to recite. For me, he finally felt human!

A snippet,
Not so long ago, after a certain stage of one’s education in Germany, before they proceeded with their careers, a short stint in the military or a civil service was mandatory. Pawel chose the latter and spoke fondly (like he did, about many things) of his experiences and concluded it with this,

“Everything you do, changes you”

The profound minimalism his casual quotes carry, share similarities with his communication of (scientific) ideas - complex yet comprehendible, an under-appreciated superpower.

During my short time at his lab, 
      I did not see him patronize/be condescending.
      I did not see him NOT give credit where it is due.
      I did not see him pissed (unless you call for it by preaching homeopathy to him :P).

      I did see him extremely busy.
      I did see him stay late in the office/arrive early.
      I did see him being burdened with duties outside of research.
      I did see him make time for his students despite all this.

Most importantly, I did not see/hear him complain (no, not even about the bureaucracy a visitor to Germany is warned about :P5)

These might be little things that are often overlooked.
As far back as I can remember, I was told, but rarely shown, that little things matter! It matters not only for one to set and reach their goals but it defines them as an individual. I’m glad Pawel gave me a chance to witness and confirm this for myself.

To most, Pawel might seem to conduct life no different than you and I. Like you and I, he might have his imperfections (although I haven’t seen them).  But take a closer look and you get the impression that he does enjoy the process, truly. I’m unsure if that’s a universal trait amongst us. 

My writing, as usual, fails to capture all the five senses. I conceded with this; leading upto my thesis, I had a fair idea of my passion and things which makes me happy but Pawel, as a teacher, showed me what it takes and what it is to enjoy the process.

He humanized it for me 🙂

       Winnie’s brilliance requires a write-up of its own. Her untainted patience bore the brunt of my never-ending questions (code, bugs, science, coffee with/without milk, benefits of being legally married in Germany, etc ). At times, a short meeting with Winnie to discuss (read, correct) my work before we met Pawel denied him a good laugh :P

Fun fact: I once accused the computer, as I often do, of having a mind of its own. I kid you not, for the longest time, the program used to run fine when I was sitting in front of the computer. But go out for lunch/snack only to return to see a dead program. You could almost see the monitor’s vile smirk. Of course, it was a bug in the program. And of course, Winnie was there with a celebratory smirk when I nudged her (this time, without a question) for the nth time that week!

Update June 2020: Winnie might be nearing the end of her Ph.D. now :)

       ~6 months before everyone’s last in-person conversation..oops pandemic!

       Update June 2020: I’m now all set to start my Ph.D. studies in Informatics (complex networks and systems) at Indiana University, Bloomington. Without Pawel and Winnie’s help, this would’ve remained a dream

       I’d never witnessed a supervisor write code or find bugs with their students until then! 

       Yet another cliché, in Germany, I did not meet a lot of people who possessed/appreciated a good sense of humor. Pawel isn’t one of them :P