Rice University alumnus Kuldeep Meel (Ph.D. ’17) is an assistant professor of computer science at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He was also recently appointed the Sung Kah Kay Assistant Professorship. He still recalls the first lesson his Rice adviser unknowingly taught him about working with students.
“In my second meeting with Moshe Vardi, there was a scheduling snafu, and he profusely apologized multiple times for the few minutes that I probably lost in waiting for him,” said Meel. “Now I was used to giving respect to professors, but to have a professor value my time, and value it as highly as Moshe did,
really stuck with me. By showing me --a then undergraduate exchange student—his respect, Moshe made me realize he was the kind of person I’d want to work with on research projects.”
In addition to respect, Vardi gave his graduate students a wide latitude of freedom. Meel joked that his adviser gave students a long rope and they could either climb up as high as they were able, or use it to strangle themselves.
Meel said, “At NUS, I want to incorporate Moshe’s philosophy of letting students and postdocs drive their projects. For example, I remember after my first semester, Moshe suggested a change of direction. I asked for some more time to think about changing directions, and he readily agreed. For a month and a half, I was stuck at an approach to the problem of sampling over high dimensions but then something clicked, and pieces fell in place. Moshe gave me more than time. He gave me confidence that I could figure hard problems out on my own.”
Meel is thankful to Vardi for giving him the opportunity to teach.
“When Moshe traveled, he offered his grad students the chance to fill in for him. I had several opportunities to teach COMP 409 in 2014, and by the end of the semester, three of those students had approached Moshe about working in his research group, and I like to think that my lectures played an epsilon part in their decision making. I realized not only how much I enjoyed teaching but also that I could get people excited about diving deeply into problems. That is when I recognized the power of teaching,” he said.
Meel’s undergraduate peers and professors might be surprised at his interest in teaching, particularly since he was not an avid listener in class.
“I’d never been a good student. As an undergrad, I probably slept through most of my classes. Then I signed up for an Optimization Theory course with Richard Tapia at Rice. He showed me how to get people excited about solving a problem. If I’d had that kind of professor before, I would have gone into research a lot earlier.
"Richard Tapia has been using the same book for the last 30 years, and it is full of typos. Even his slides have typos, even in inequalities. For example, I would not be shocked if there was a typo like 5 > 7. But Tapia teaches ‘it is all about understanding, not memorizing facts.’ You don’t need to remember 5 is less than 7, you need to understand the concept of 5 and 7 -- and the typos disappear in your memory.”
Vardi encouraged him to take Tapia’s course, and Meel did so without any background in optimization or knowledge of Tapia’s teaching style.
“I don’t think there is any other course where I learned so much, but was initially posed to fail. For one project, I asked if we could use the example from the book and he said, ‘Yes, but if there’s a typo it’s your fault.’ By the final exam, I realized everything I used in that course, I knew it.
“As a professor, I may not purposely leave typos on my lecture notes, but I do want my students to understand the concepts –and not just whether something is inefficient or efficient, but WHY. Being forced to understand ‘why’ is the big difference in Tapia’s approach to teaching. You had to be in class and working through the problems to be able to tackle the questions on an exam. You can’t just synthesize his prepared lecture notes because if they might (probably) have errors in them.”
At NUS, Meel startled students in his first course by not using slides in his class. Instead, he outlined problems on a whiteboard at the beginning of class and introduced the students to discussion-based learning.
“I told them, ‘In this course, you will learn only a few things, but you will learn them very deeply.’ And I explained that we would be learning by diving into some open-ended projects. They shouldn’t come to class expecting to be fed but expecting to engage with each other.
“In fact, once I got the students to become comfortable asking questions and suggesting answers, then I encouraged them to try and convince each other. That is when they began to realize where their gaps were. It’s back to Tapia’s style of teaching – once the student discovers the final answer on their own, they have examined it thoroughly and really know it.”
At the end of his first semester as an assistant professor, Meel felt pleased with his results. In addition to seeing his PhD and Masters advisees increasingly show signs of independence, he was happy to get students in his course engage deeply with the course materials.
“One of the evaluations I read at the end of my first semester at NUS really made my day. 'Your way of teaching has allowed me to sit down and distill my goals in both academia and personal life, and I would like to thank you for that,' wrote the student. Similarly, the other day one of my advisees walked in and told me that he is unable to do anything except to think of the proof that we are working on. And moments like these make me realize what a privilege it is to be a Professor.”