João Mota and his Qualifier Exam Experience

 João MotaJoão Mota, a Ph.D. student in Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) in the Carnegie Mellon | Portugal Program, talks about his Ph.D, his research, and the qualifier exam experience.

Question (Q.) Two months after being at Carnegie Mellon University, you took your Ph.D. qualifier in ECE program. What are your thoughts on this experience?
Answer (A.)
I cannot say that the qualifier is a pleasant experience. In fact, in ECE, it consists of three people trying to find flaws either in your research or in your background knowledge. In my case, they focused on the applications of my research, which is its weakest part, since what I am doing is something that nobody else had tried before. Besides that, they also asked me very specific questions related to my work and background knowledge

Q. What is your current research project?
A.
I am trying to develop distributed algorithms to solve a problem that arises in the very recent theory of compressed sensing. More specifically, compressed sensing is a new paradigm in the acquisition of signals that states that it is possible to acquire signals in an already compressed form (in the usual paradigm the signals are compressed only after their acquisition). This theory has countless applications. My favorite one is a camera that has just one pixel. The applications I have in mind with my work are compressed sensing in sensor networks, namely distributed reconstruction of signals; and fast algorithms for multi-processor ambience (think for example in modern computers: how can you use efficiently all the processors?)

Q. What are your main goals?
A.
My main goal is to develop distributed algorithms that are as fast, or faster, than the centralized ones. Also, I would like to give my contribution to the theory of compressed sensing (but this is a hard one...).

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“Perhaps the most important aspect of the Carnegie Mellon | Portugal Program is the interaction with the faculty and students of both universities.”

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Q. You have two advisors, one at Carnegie Mellon and other at IST. What kind of role do they have in your research?
A.
Both of them are quite good in their fields. Besides all the technical support they give me, they always ask the right questions. Crudely, their role is to pose me problems that I have to solve.

Q. How do you comment your work with them?
A.
That depends on the specific part of the work, but usually it's presencial or through web conference meetings. For small details, the email is quite effective.

Q. What do you think of your experience of being part of the Carnegie Mellon | Portugal Program?
A.
So far, I have spent one year in Portugal, at a university that I know very well, and four months at Carnegie Mellon. Perhaps the most important aspect of the program is the interaction with the faculty and students of both universities. Also, living abroad in a "student city" like Pittsburgh has been quite a good experience for me. Of course, the tough part of being in the program is being far from my family, friends, and girlfriend for two years.

Q. What are your goals in the future?
A.
I am not very sure about the goals for my future, but I'm considering making a researcher/professor career after completing my Ph.D.. As everyone else, I would like to make something for living that I love to do. At this moment, what I love to do is to study something related to mathematics with an eye on applications.

Q. What advice do you have for students who are preparing for their qualifiers.?
A.
Well, the first advice is: know your work. By this I mean that you should know how to give a general idea, not only of the proofs of your results, but also of the proofs of other's results that you use in your work. It's also important that you know the definition of all the important words you say and write. My second piece of advice is: be updated. Although you might be running out of time preparing your presentation and reviewing your work, it is worthwhile to see the recent results on your area. The third one: know your committee. Talk to their students, take a peek into the courses they teach and try to guess the questions they will ask (of course, do not expect to guess right; however, this constitutes a good preparation exercise). Fourth: practice your talk. Invite students from your department, people who took the qualifier with the same members of the committee and students of the committee members to watch your presentation. I was amazed by the amount of good feedback I got when I did this. Don't forget to bring food for them! (but not for the committee on the day of the qualifier: it's forbidden). Finally, the fifth: don't panic. The goal of the qualifier is to see if we can represent Carnegie Mellon at a scientific conference. So, expect the committee to be aggressive (I mean, in the nature of the questions). It is their role to question every detail of your work and this might be uncomfortable to you. Instead of panicking, try to get out of that area of discomfort graciously, by leading the conversation to where you want.

January, 2010