EPFL – Shubham Jain


Hello World!

Two confused teenagers get down from a bus onto the road, holding heavy bags and looking around for help. They seem new to the country. It isn’t summer yet, thankfully – the heat isn’t sweltering, but just right. The lack of pollution is apparent by the clear sky and a pleasant atmosphere. A friendly lady comes over to them – “Are you looking for something?” The nervous and clearly tired boys reply with exasperated looks on their faces. It’s 4:10 pm, and they have to take the room keys by 4:30 pm – otherwise, they’d have to sleep somewhere else tonight! The friendly lady decides to take it on herself to help these teenagers, while her two cute kids – a boy and a girl – run around playing catch with each other. “Ah, it’s right there, about a kilometre in this direction!” The two boys thank her profusely. “Ah, it ain’t nothing. I’m Australian myself – moved to this beautiful country two years back. Enjoy your stay here!” 

I’m Shubham, an undergraduate in Electrical Engineering who (successfully!) completed his second year. This summer, I’m interning at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Switzerland (EPFL for short). I’ll try to write this blog in a question answer format, where I ask questions and answer them myself, for ease of readability. So sit back and enjoy!

1. How did you come to know about Summer@EPFL? How did you apply/ get selected?

Ans 1. I came to know about the program Summer@EPFL through the Internship Cell around October last year. I hadn’t applied for other internships yet back then, as I was still trying to ask around about projects in algorithms. I came to know that EPFL is really a world-renowned university (It is 8th in the QS rankings for Computer Science this year), and it had an algorithms profile, which I am very much interested in! Of course, I applied and promptly forgot all about it.

On the last night on a trip to Pune with friends, I got a mail from my top choice professor for an interview. Needless to say, I couldn’t sleep that night out of excitement. However, the interview went well, and I soon got an offer and accepted! 

View from the Eiffel Tower

2. What are you working on? 

Ans 2. Basically, my professor (Michael Kapralov) works in the field of sublinear algorithms. A sample problem in this field is something as follows: If you assume that the Fourier transform of a signal has certain properties, such as only k coefficients are non-zero (known as the exactly k-sparse case), then there are a few questions to answer. For example, the follows:

  1. How fast can you get the non-zero coefficients and their locations in the transform domain?
  2. How many samples of the original signal suffice to get this transform?
  3. How fast can you recover the original signal?

All of these problems are not approached in an exact manner, but in an approximate way (i.e., we want good guarantees so that stuff works out and we have a good enough estimate for our applications).

My professor had a paper published in STOC 2017 (one of the top conferences in theoretical CS), which improved upon previous bounds for the 2nd problem, by assuming a block-based approximation for the structure of the transform (basically, solving it for this special case). My work here involves looking into the implementation of that paper and simulating the algorithm using synthetic data, and trying to compete with the state of the art on various parameters. The practical applications of a fast and low sample complexity algorithm in this field are numerous – for example, in reducing the amount of space needed in storing data like images and videos. I am also looking into theoretical improvements for some specific problems in this area.

I’ve been blessed with amazing people to help me out – shout out to Lazar and Amir, apart from Michael – all of them being people from whom I’ve learnt a lot, and hope to continue learning in the future.

                       My desk at work. I can usually be found snacking on something here!

3. How is the environment in Switzerland? What things did you find particularly surprising?

Ans 3.

  1. They’re extremely strict about time (which I love, because I like punctuality a lot!). The trains are never late, and thus we could schedule trips with just say 5 minutes of transfer time between trains!
  2. The garbage disposal system – We’ve to pre-sort all waste and buy proper disposal bags to throw them in the proper bins. Everything that can be recycled, should be recycled. Infact, legend says that the police will be called for improper disposal of garbage! 
  3. No noise from 10 pm – 7 am. Now, this may be exclusive to Lausanne, but the Swiss are peace-loving people! Coming from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai to such a quiet place, was disturbing for the first few nights.
  4. You wake up everyday to a beautiful view. This never gets old!

A picture taken from EPFL. This is the view from my office!

This is close to my home. Pic credits: Satvik Mashkaria (Also my roommate!)

Having said all of this, I do miss the food and my friends!

4. What do you do in your weekends?

Ans 4. Some weekends, I grocery-shop, go to the beach and just relax. Some weekends, I spent working on my projects, both my intern and my own. However, the best weekends are those in which I get to explore someplace new. So far, I’ve been to Venice, Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, apart from places in Switzerland. We also had train transfers in other countries, one of which was conveniently in Belgium – so I could try their famous chocolates first-hand! I’ll try to do this section in the form of a photo blog, because it’s more fun that way!

The old city of Venice is quite unique in the fact that it does not have any conventional roads! Christened “The City of Water” or the “Queen of the Adriatic”, this beautiful city has it’s only means of transportation as through boats.

The parade at Disneyland Paris! 

Ï’m happy to report that my inner child is still ageless.” – James Broughton

Probably the favorite part of my day at Disneyland was the show at the end. The rendering of “Can you feel the love tonight” from the Lion King, together with amazing projections of Mickey diving into different Disney films, with fireworks was a perfect end to the day. 

Note – Picture is from the disney website!

A Panaroma capturing the whole of Paris from the Eiffel! We could only go upto the 2nd floor, due to bad weather on the day. Enjoying a nice hot chocolate (yes, the Eiffel has a host of shops inside! Infact, it also has Eiffel-Wifi!) while enjoying the wind and view is something that I’ll always treasure!

Inside the Louvre! It’s extremely big. We had a lot of fun here guessing what the paintings could represent, and then cross-verifying our thoughts. After all, it’s fun to be pretentious art lovers once in a while!

Frankfurt! Germany is particularly famous for it’s buildings and architecture. We particularly enjoyed laying back in Skyline Garden and enjoying the view, or heading to the very top of the Main tower to get a look at the entire city!

A life-size Ironman statue at MyZeil in Frankfurt, a famous shopping complex.

Amsterdam – a beautiful city! Sadly, because of a mess up in some train’s schedules, we couldn’t spend nearly as much time as we wanted here.

Me and my friends getting ready to take on “Sherlocked” – one of the world’s most challenging Escape rooms! Although we didn’t manage to escape, the experience was totally amazing.

A display at the chocolate factory in Broc! I fulfilled two of my childhood dreams – a chocolate factory and Disneyland Paris! I can now satisfactorily become an adult.

5. Do you have any advice for students who will be going for Europe interns/ vacations?

Ans 5. Yes, sure! First, let’s get the vacation (aka travel tips) part out of the way. I think it’s a good idea to think in advance about how you’re going to be travelling. Good options are travelling with Flixbus for short distances, and planes for long distances. Personally, I bought a Eurail pass in December for a 40% off discount, and I think it’s been plenty useful and has saved me a lot of money.

For living options, Airbnb is a great place to find something cheap yet great – many people lend out one room, and usually the homes are maintained very well. Apart from this, it’d be great if you know the local language or at least a few basic phrases – I learned this the hard way in some serious situations. English is not as common as you would expect.

For interns, something that I really found is that you should make the most of the opportunity and learn as much as possible. I had the opportunity to attend a handful of talks through my stay at EPFL until now (about 7 or so), apart from a PhD defense; all of them have been unique experiences, and I hope to attend some more before I leave. 

If you’re planning to go for an internship in your 2nd year, I’d say go for it! You’ll learn tons of things, and you’ll get to interact with people with experience, who’ve spent years in the field. I’m grateful to my professor and my guides for helping me learn many things, and for the other students (PhDs and Post-doctorates) for having helpful discussions with me. I’d like to end with this quote by Gina Greenlee:

”Experience is a master teacher, even when it’s not our own.”

Ending with a Me-and-the-Boiz meme with Mona Lisa!

12 months ago