Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Visit to University of Washington

Over spring break, Steph and I were in Seattle doing a variety of fun things to fill our time. Most importantly, the official graduate school visit days for UW Computer Science (from now on, UW refers to University of Washington, not any strange institutions in the Midwest).

I haven't really written much about the other visit days because I haven't had the time to come up with something coherent to say. All of the visits are of the same form: on the first day, spend your time alternating between short (20-30 minute) meetings with graduate students and potential advisors, and sitting through fire-hose presentations that are not terribly useful if you've read up about the department and school beforehand. The template for the second day (if there is one) is to do more "fun" tourist-like things in the city, and get to know the current graduate students or professors in a less formal context. Some of the things done to this end have included frisbee golf, drinking, snowshoeing, drinking, eating, and drinking.

So, when one gets to the third such visit, everything falls into a familiar pattern, and it can be at times difficult to put on a mask of sheer excitement when watching the 20th powerpoint presentation in as many days. Another familiar pattern was the faces and archetypes of other prospective students: by the third visit, I had already seen quite a few of them at other visit weekends. One such student is Shaddi Hasan, whom with I went drinking for two consecutive weekends in two different cities (Boulder, Seattle). After three weekends, you can pick up the differences between east-coast and west-coast students, who's trying to show off, and who is absolutely mortified to interact with strangers.

Day 1

In the first day, I met with lots and lots and lots of people. Of these people, two were professors (Prof. Ernst and Prof. Notkin) and the rest were graduate students. Interspersed with these half-hour meetings were various powerpoint presentations that showed the current research of a few professors. For lunch, I went with a group to a nice El Salvador-themed restaurant off The Ave. In the afternoon were some more meetings, and then finally after all this, there was a fancy dinner and graduate student party in the HUB (Husky/Student Union Building).

The dinner and reception were probably the better parts of the night; Steph was with me, and was able to socialize with some of the graduate students and get a better feel for who the department is in a social sense. We both sat near Dan Grossman for dinner and listened to his stories of hiking for an entire summer, among other interesting bits. One of the funnier parts of the evening was the CSE Band, which made alternate lyrics for pop and oldies songs and performed them live at the grad student party. I don't remember many other details from the party, but it was a terribly long day and I had been through a bit of beer by that point.

Day 2

The second day, as explained above, tends to be less hectic and more personal. At CSE, I actually spent most of the morning doing yet more meetings with people. This actually isn't so bad, since I was still running internally on Eastern Standard Time (hence, a 9am meeting was actually a noon meeting for me, and all was good). It was at this time that I met with Luis Ceze and Dan Grossman formally. Doing all of these formal meetings can sometimes be awkward, especially if you do not have a bunch of questions in your clip to use as ammunition. At this point, I had already talked to both professors the night previous, and of course have read every scrap of available information on the website.

After these last few meetings, Steph and I went to Hank Levy's house with the Security/Systems group for a nice lunch. His house is at Sand Point, between the Burke-Gilman trail and the water. I was able to speak with Alexei Czeskis, a Purdue CS graduate and one of the star undergraduates that my cohort looked up to as little freshmen and sophomores. After eating, I hung out on the dock and talked to some people about my JavaScript work, and about the challenges of JavaScript security. Later, I returned to the house where Steph was talking to none-other than Mark Zbikowski, employee #55 of Microsoft and architect of NTFS, Cairo, the MSDOS executable format, and other things. Apparently he's returning to graduate school ^_^ He had some interesting advice and stories to relate, and it is interesting to hear advice to a new hire at Microsoft from someone who has been there since the near-beginning.

After this lunch, we went back to the Paul Allen Center and went back out for some fun with the PL/SE groups (Notkin, Grossman, Ernst) for some [indoor] beach volleyball. This was way more fun than I thought it would be: professors diving face-first to make a save, trading jokes with potential advisors, and getting some exercise at the same time. While neither Steph nor me are much good at volleyball, we had a good time getting to know the personalities of the group a bit better. Afterwards, we killed some time in the park throwing around frisbees, and then headed home.

We were way too tired to go out after another full day, so we grabbed some quick food at Thai 65, tried out the hot tub at the hotel, and went to bed quite early.

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Overall the visit went very well. I learned a lot about the department, the people whom I may be working with, and the current things that are going on research-wise. I was also able to get a sense for what projects will be available next fall, and possibly even in the summer if an internship never comes through. I still have a while before I'll feel as comfortable talking to new professors who don't know me as well, but I'm confident i'll fit right in with the people in Seattle.

In the next post, i'll talk about why Chicago was especially green, the pros and cons of using Amtrak vs. flying, and the rest of our spring break in Seattle.

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