From Small Beginnings…

Sir Francis Drake’s motto is

sic parvis magna

When translated from Latin, it means “greatness from small beginnings.”

At a young age, I wanted to learn all about computers and computer science. I aspired to know it all. Anything about the current programming language I was learning, I wanted to become an expert in it. I wanted to be one of the greatest. These aspirations were bold. They were more outlandish than bold. However, little Sasank did not waver. He continued to learn more about programming and computer science.

Looking back, the start was probably the hardest part for me. I really didn’t know where to start. So, being a small sixth grader, I approached my dad about computer science. He immediately pointed me towards learning Java and the art of making Java applets. But after making a few, this did not really entice me. I wanted something more. I craved something tougher, grittier, and more theoretical. Not knowing much, I decided to stray from the path that my dad laid forth and explore more computer science ideas.

Back to Sir Francis Drake’s motto. It seems pretty posh: “greatness from small beginnings.” However, when I first heard the saying in fifth grade, I immediately took it to heart. In everything, I was, and am, passionate about, the major driving force to keep me motivated is this motto. When my family moved from Pittsburgh, between seventh and eighth grade, I got very caught up in the change in everything that I forgot this motto. Furthermore, I forgot my passion for computer science for a brief piece of time. Eighth grade was a feeling out period for me and it was arguably one of the toughest years for me due to the lack of true friends I had. During that year, I stopped focusing on my passion for computer science and just focused on being a social person.

Ninth grade was similar but I started to regain that passion. I could feel that something big was coming in my future. During that school year, I took my school’s introductory computer programming class, and I was hooked. My teacher was absolutely phenomenal. In that class, I didn’t learn a standard programming language like Python, C, or Java. Instead, we learned a functional programming language called Racket. It is part of the Lisp family and was the first true language I learned. That class shaped my point of view on computer programming and on the art of developing programming languages.

The summer of ninth grade was the most important summer for me, I think. That summer, I went back to Pittsburgh to attend Carnegie Mellon’s Andrew’s Leap program. There, I took my first true dive into computer science and programming. At that program, I learned more advanced mathematics in the areas of probability and number theory. I started to dive into P versus NP problems. The knowledge I was exposed to was amazing, and it drove me to delve further into the link between computer science and mathematics.

After Andrew’s Leap, I had a very strong feeling that computer science was my calling. To probe this feeling, I decided to research in a field that interested me greatly: cryptography. My sophomore year was filled with countless hours of reading research papers on the analysis of various cryptographic algorithms to fuel my idea: creating my own cryptographic algorithm. To do this, I took an online course in cryptography as well as learned more advanced mathematics. By doing this research, I found my niche in the wide spectrum of computer science. After I finished my sophomore year, I wanted more. My research had done very well, but I craved more knowledge.

During the summer between my sophomore and junior year, I went back to Carnegie Mellon to do research. I was graciously allowed to research in the CyLab Biometrics Center by Professor Marios Savvides. At CyLab, I learned more about biometrics and the process of identifying a person using a unique feature, such as an iris or a fingerprint. The knowledge I gained here led to my research project my junior year. This project was by far the most difficult project I’ve worked on due to the steepness of the learning curve for me. Walking in, I knew that most the material I was working with was usually made by Ph.D.’s and postdocs, not sixteen-year-old’s. However, this research turned to be quite fruitful as I had my paper published, which for me is absolutely amazing. After closing up that project, I felt it was time to discover something new, not cryptography/cyber-security related.

The summer before senior year was extremely relaxing compared to the past three summers. I decided to stay home for a bit to relax after a very eventful junior year. After by brief stint of relaxing, I went to a summer camp held by Wolfram Research. That two-week camp was an amazing experience as I was able to learn so many new things about compute science and the Wolfram Research company. There I was able to create a new facial recognition system (personally I think it was the worst thing I’ve ever created because it hardly works anymore ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). That camp led to a wonderful opportunity for me during my senior year: a mentorship program as a remote worker for Wolfram.

My senior year was a wild one. So many ups and downs but one thing always stayed constant: my love for computer science, mathematics, and research. So, during my mentorship program with Wolfram, I was assigned a project to help classify cellular automata automatically. If you do a quick bit of reading on this topic, you’ll soon learn that it is extremely difficult because most cellular automata are non-deterministic (not all cellular automata produce the same result). So, this experience allowed me to move into a more cutting-edge field: machine learning. I was able to bring a topic that has been researched for the past 100 years, cellular automata, and intertwine it with a new and upcoming field, machine learning. This mentorship opportunity taught me a great deal about both subjects, but more on how to collaborate and conduct research in a group setting. This opportunity helped me write a research paper and also help the Wolfram community in solving the problem of cellular automata classification.

Looking back on those four years, I am constantly reminded of the motto by Sir Francis Drake. “Greatness from small beginnings.” Such a simple motto can spur a person to do explore so much. For Sir Francis Drake, it was coming from a farming life as a young boy to being second-in-command in England’s rout of the Spanish Armada in 1588. And for me, it was a series of research opportunities that helped me discover my love for computer science and mathematics.

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