Round Table Discussions

A long wooden table rests in a small room inexplicably labeled as “tea room”, although there’s hardly a hot water dispenser in there. Scattered around it as haphazardly as the reflections of photons around an atom are graduate students, spread out in the half-lazy manner that they sit when there’s no teacher around. A skimpy VGA projector sits in the middle of the wooden table, projecting in 4:3 ratio to the screen just a few meters in front of it. And there was I, sweating profusely in the back, trying to explain my results to this collection of USTC students.

I wasn’t expecting to have anything to present three days into this internship, and honestly, I don’t think anyone else was expecting it either. After all, I am a high school student surrounded by graduate students, right? But I wouldn’t attribute finishing the program to hard work alone. It was largely because of Yaxiong and Fan Laoshi that I was able to find an entryway into this problem in the first place. If Yaxiong hadn’t shown me the algorithm that he was planning on implementing, I would be most likely still mucking around with linear algebra right now anyways!

Yesterday was primarily polishing and testing the ImageProcessing program with large data sets, creating helper programs and functions that could process images faster and more efficiently. Trying to zap miniscule bugs was difficult work, especially given particularly crappy internet that couldn’t even look things up on StackExchange. (For instance, I was absolutely confuzzled by why python interpreted np.nan == np.nan to be False instead of True – it easily took 30 minutes of testing and waiting for the internet to work to discover np.isnan(np.nan) -> True) Afterwards, I created a lab report, using the exact same template as the SSP research group meetings, and called it a day. I felt like I had done all that I could, and contentedly set off to learn Control Theory.

But wait, there’s more!

First, control theory is hard. Really hard. The “essay” that I was reading was targeted at “Physics professionals and physics graduate students, although especially talented undergraduates could understand the basic concepts”. I started getting lost after the 6th page of the 60 page document, where the author moves from classical dynamical systems modeled with differential equations and using Laplacian Transforms to suddenly speaking of complex and chaotic systems that required multiple transformations to be solved. Too much for me!

Second, Yaxiong was able to create a great way of allowing the user to manually select several regions of the image, which allowed the image processing program to run better. However, that meant updating my report, which existed in the crappy internet-based ShareLatex, AND he then told me that typical reports require not a document, but instead, a clear presentation of all of the ideas. Which I did not have. And the meeting was in three hours, don’t forget to get dinner, and good luck!

Okay, it wasn’t as hurried as that, but I was definitely feeling the pressure. I was desperate to prove that I was competent for small tasks, and furiously set out to create a polished report. Using the knowledge that Dr. Hsu taught me back at the University of Washington regarding presentation, I created an image-intensive ppt that was able to explain the rationale and successes of the program. I’m still quite proud of what I’ve made!

Still, actually getting to the round table discussion was entirely a different monster to take care of. There were about 8 Chinese graduate students and 3 German graduate students from Heidelberg university, all of them experts in imaging and ultracold atoms. I was expecting the meeting to take maybe 10 minutes for me, and then move on to the next person who wanted to present, so I was planning on only providing simple explanations. But, lo and behold, the entire thing took a full 45 minutes to conclude, and then 20 more minutes to answer lingering questions and propose new designs. I was very worried that I was only wasting these student’s time, but Yaxiong helped save the presentation by presenting heavily on the mathematics. I think that I could have explained it as well, and I’m proud to say that I understood the discussion, but clearly Yaxiong deserved the lion’s share of the credit here. I’m still mostly a code-junkie, trying to diligently work out each of the knots in python, while Yaxiong was the one who discovered the original paper and had the idea to solve the algorithm in this fashion.

I’m still a bit exhausted from yesterday night, partially because of the ridiculous intensity of it all. For the past three days, my life has been sleep, work out, eat, code, eat, code, eat, code, sleep, rinse and repeat. Other than the meals, where I would chat with Yaxiong about life in China, there really aren’t other people for me to talk to. I don’t want to distract the graduate students here – the office really is deathly quiet, as everyone has their own giant project that they are trying to solve – and obviously there are not any other high school students around that I can hang out with. Even my Facebook friends are out of reach, simply because of the horrible horrible HORRIBLE internet here. So I guess you can say that I’m a little tired right now. But chatting with some friends back home in a glorious hour of internet last night helped rejuvenate me a bit, so I should be ready to face a completely new challenge today :)

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