Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing Rasha Shanaz in the “How I Work” series. Rasha Shanaz is a PhD student of Theoretical Physics at Bharathidasan University, India. She works on Chaos Theory and uses Machine Learning to predict patterns in chaos. She is passionate about art and languages, and hopes to bring science to a larger audience using them. When she is not coding away on her computer, she reads, paints, sketches, edits photographs, stargazes or writes a to-do list!
Current Job: PhD student
Current Location: At home, due to the Pandemic
Current mobile device: Redmi Note 5 pro
Current computer: Acer Swift 3
Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I am a first-year Physics PhD student at Bharathidasan University, Trichy, India. I started my PhD just two weeks before the lockdowns started but since I am continuing in the same lab and project from my M.Phil, I did not have much of a disorientation. My research is in theoretical physics, specifically Chaos Theory, Complex Systems and Machine Learning. I study complex chaotic systems, their dynamics and how to predict or make sense of the chaos in them. For this, I am trying to build ML algorithms based on other chaotic systems. I use a method called “reservoir computing”, which allows one to use any dynamical system (ranging from a bucket of water to bacteria to electronic circuits) in place of an artificial neural network. Metaphorically and literally, I am fighting chaos with chaos.
What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
Since I use a Linux OS, I turn to open source tools for all my needs. I code all my experiments in Python 3 and use the Jupyter Notebook IDE for that.
For writing, I use Google Docs and typeset using LaTeX on TeXstudio and Overleaf (when collaborating).
For presentations and figures: Google Slides and PicsArt (on phone) and for project planning and consolidating lists: Google Sheets. For other notes and to-do lists, I use Tusk (Linux alternative for Evernote). I rely majorly on Mendeley for managing all my journal articles and references and also use it for annotating PDFs. As for the version control of my codes and other files, I am beginning to use Github.
One of my favourite tools to keep up my flow is the Digital Wellbeing feature on my phone. It lets me focus on work by scheduling “focus modes”, which pauses all the distracting apps. While working I use a modified version of the Pomodoro technique (longer work time with longer breaks) and for that, I use the Goodtime app. It also keeps track of my work sessions. I am still exploring better options to improve my workflow.
What does your workspace setup look like?
In general, my workspace is my lab at the university. I live in the campus hostel, so I don’t have a “home office” except for a desk and chair in my room. Since I am a theoretical physicist, I do not have an ‘experimental lab’. So my work spot and lab are the same: a desk with my workstation in our “lab”. And also as I can carry anywhere my primary “equipment”, which is my laptop, I can do the experiments from my hostel room too. I mostly work at my lab and tend to keep my things there. For writing or making presentations, I choose to work in the library or my hostel room.
But now, due to the lockdown, I am at home, in a different town 6 hours from my university. So my primary workspace for the past 5 months has been different corners of my home. I do have a separate room with a desk (picture 1) but I don’t always use it. I enjoy sitting on the floor and working. So I shift around random places around the house with all my stuff in a tiny table.
What is your best advice for productive academic work?
Don’t force yourself to work in routines that don’t fit you. Find your style and your time, go with it. Also, ride the waves of productivity and don’t expect yourself to be always productive!
How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
I am pretty much analogue when it comes to planning. I use my Planner Notebook for planning projects, daily tasks and to keep track of my progress. I make weekly to-do lists on Evernote (for the ease of editing and moving around tasks), then copy the next day’s tasks to my Planner Notebook the previous night and also update them on Google Calendar. Sounds meticulous but that helps me stay organized. To create work plans for my research projects, I create Gantt Charts in Google Sheets.
Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
Outside academia, I am an artist. I take photos, edit them, create watercolour paintings and sketches, dance and learn new languages. And I always try to incorporate those artistic elements into my academic work. I try to introduce principles of design in my posters, include intuitive artistic examples and I try to make science as appealing as art to a layperson. I believe that has always made my works stand out. I try to see scientific ideas and arguments from different perspectives, including that of a common person. So, that makes my presentations and talks reach a larger audience.
What do you listen to when you work?
I listen to music only when I am working with a nearing deadline. I’d play one song on loop or maybe a small playlist on loop because that robs me of the sense of time and hence I’m less pressurised. Peppy Tamil/Hindi songs or Taylor Swift when I need the rush and soft instrumental music while reading.
What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
I recently received Lynda Barry’s “Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor” as a gift and I am so obsessively reading it. I am an avid reader but I don’t read regularly. But if I start a book, I won’t put it down without finishing. So whenever I don’t have much on my schedule, I’d start a book. Sometimes, having more things to do increases my productivity and I’d choose reading to be one of the tasks. For example, recently while I was writing my very first journal article, I was reading Robert Galbraith’s
Lethal White. I’d try to finish more writing within a certain time so that I could go back to the book. It’s kind of my reward system.
Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
I consider myself an ambivert. I enjoy socializing and chatting with friends as much as the alone times. I prefer solitude mostly, which is abundant in the academic workplaces. But I also go to different labs and chat with my friends. I have always had a big circle of friends and it has helped me at the stressful, lonely times. When it comes to meetings or conferences, I unleash my extrovert self and it has helped me make so much valuable connections and opportunities.
What’s your sleep routine like?
Pre-pandemic: Sleep routine is very much dependent on my daily work schedule. So I go to bed by 11 pm and wake up by 8 am. Exceptions when there are nearing deadlines.
During pandemic: It varies every week. Sometimes it is 11 pm-8 am, then it is 1 am-10 am or even 4 am-12 pm. But I try to get 8 hours of sleep everyday, else I can’t function.
What’s your work routine like?
My daily working hours at university starts at 10 am and ends at 5 pm. My peak productivity hours are from 4 pm to 12 am. So I try to schedule all my coding, writing and other creative works to that time. I allocate journal readings and other stuff to the mornings.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
One advice I tell myself often is from my mentor, which goes “Take one step at a time and play your cards wisely”.
Another one of my favourite academic advice is to have an unofficial “board” of mentors with seniors and other professors whose advice you can rely on. This has been very helpful to me.