As promised, I am writing the first post in our research-life stories project. I will start today with a few stories about my first steps in research. Nothing special in them, but I hope they will become more interesting in the context of other’s stories (which I hope will follow). So, tell us, how was your beginning?
In future posts I’ll discuss a research low point and high point (that were remarkably close to each other wrt. to time), so stay tuned … 😉
Choosing academia and choices in academia
It seems I knew I’m going to be a professor even before I started my undergraduate studies, in fact, before I knew what would be my field of study (and I’m not talking about Math vs. CS but rather Math & Natural Sciences vs. Humanities). Obviously, I had no idea what academia really means. I was influenced in part by my oldest brother who became a Professor of Cognitive Psychology. This is kind of funny as it turns out that my brother’s path to academia was not exactly planned (or always desired). It’s not that I’m complaining, after all it is nice work if you can get it … But at times I found it disturbing that I almost never questioned such an important and immaturely taken decision (apart of a short time of personal turmoil when I toyed with the idea of running a gift shop in the Galilee, coming to life only for the occasional tourist bus that stops by).
Lucky coincidences did not only lead me to academia, and to TOC, but even inside TOC. In particular, when I contacted my adviser Moni Naor, I was sure his main area of research is randomized algorithms (as the course I took with him was titled something like “randomized methods in CS”). Surprisingly, I found myself doing Cryptography instead.
An Adviser and Advisee
Talking about working with Moni, I still remember very vividly stepping into his office after one semester in grad school, asking him for a research project (which at Weizmann could be taken instead of a course). I still remember my nervousness very vividly and the very exact awkward words I used. But he seemed content and almost immediately went to check the procedural aspects of it. When he returned to his room he started showering me with open questions and project ideas (this is one thing Moni is never short of). While I followed (in real time) only a small fraction of Moni’s insights (again, not unusual in our interactions), one of these questions (constructing a parallel pseudorandom function) became my first research paper a few months down the road. Years later when Ronen Gradwohl stepped into my own office at Weizmann with a similar request (though he was much more composed than me), I was struck with a warm wave of nostalgia.
An adviser-advisee relation is extremely powerful. Students are very vulnerable (more on my anxieties soon), and need the “parental” guidance and protection of their advisers. I understood that very well when working with Moni, and he gave me what I needed in abundance. I strongly believe that this is a relation for life, and find myself still consulting with Moni on important things.
What I did not understand then is how powerful this relation can be from the point of view of the adviser. I learned it in such a wonderful way with my own students. The academic success of my students certainly fills me with happiness. But what were really great were the rare times when I felt that I made a real difference for them (either academically or personally).
Like many others, the first steps in research came with a fair bit of anxiety: I already knew that I can do well on tests, and can solve hard homework problems (in the well-defined context of a class), but could I also do real research? My brother Eyal used to tell me that the best way to do research is out of fun rather than out of pressure. I did not always manage to follow his advice. But while pressure can be paralyzing, I found that obsessiveness could be enjoyable. Many times, when I do not have it, I miss being so completely immersed in a problem that I think of it in the shower, while driving (it’s dangerous – please don’t try it yourself), during the last minutes before falling asleep, etc. Indeed, while working on my first paper, I woke up from a dream that felt like it solved the problem. Although it did not, it was an important step forward …
The thrill of having my first result, and of traveling to give talks on it (more in future posts), turned into what felt to me like a long period of inactivity. In my mind, “the community” which applauded my first result was now tapping its shoes and watching its watches, and reaching the unavoidable conclusion that my result was a fluke. Perhaps even at the time I realized how distorted this view was, but I was still anxious. What I also did not realize is how much I was learning at the time. One thing I was learning is how to write a paper. Reading so very few papers before writing my own, I had a lot to learn and the rough-around-the-edges journal-editor that handled my paper was just the person to force me to learn… I was also learning from my failed research attempts. The project I worked on directly after my first paper was derandomization of space bounded computation (following an intuition of Moni on the relation between the pseudorandom functions of Goldreich-Goldwasser-Micali and the Nisan generator). During that period I “almost proved” RL=L many times, and while none of this stuck, I did develop many intuitions that found themselves very useful in my future research.
To this day, my research moves between times of high intensity and times of “inactivity.” To this day, I did not learn not to be anxious about this false sense of inactivity and to accept it as a vital and blessed part of the research life. But I still have hope, don’t I?