June 07, 2020

My Research Experience

Written By - Satyam Sachan

Looking back, the closest thing to cryptography I’d ever seen before my fifth semester was a code-breaking book that I’d seen in a school exhibition called Codes: How to Make Them and Break Them. As expected of an eighth-grader with the attention span that was occasionally tested by football (Arsenal used to be better then) and other kiddy stuff, I never read the math and tried to understand why the ciphers and such worked the way they did. Well, this time around, I did not have much choice in the matter but to be more considerate if I was to pass CS553 (the Cryptography course offered in the fifth semester). I had to get down to understanding the core concepts of why things worked the way they did. It took a little time but the effort was worth it because I had finally found a topic I was genuinely interested in. Right before the last tierce was over, I made my way to Dhiman sir’s (the course instructor for CS553) cabin and asked him if there was anything I could work on, with my goal being a publication. This was important to me as I aim to apply for a Master’s degree after my time at IIT Bhilai and showing that I had some research experience when applying is a big plus. Right after the last tierce, I was a part of a team that was going to work on the hash function SHA-3 and began reading up on the concepts required and such. The team aimed to work further on Dhiman sir’s doctoral thesis to explain one of the interesting properties that were yet unexplained and submit the resulting paper to a conference and then wait for the results. As I started studying the papers and acquiring the technical knowledge required for the first time, I did have a hard time understanding the concepts from papers. Research papers (particularly in the technical fields) are usually concise and laid out in a manner I was new to, with me being used to video tutorials and textbooks that go into the math and its implications and such. I often had to ask sir and the other members to explain the concepts over and over again (I’m just thick that way). As I got back from the winter break, I had a decent understanding of what I was expected to do: implement the distinguisher, observe the results, and report them back for further analysis. As the new semester was already underway, I had to balance out my work with the rest of my coursework (I probably could’ve quit FIFA but let’s not talk about that). We had to complete the paper by the sixteenth February, the final submission date for the AfricaCrypt Conference. There were a few all-nighters, a couple of frustrating days where I felt I wasn’t making any progress with the code, but we did manage to get everything done within a few days and began writing the paper. I don’t think I’ll be forgetting the last day right before we submitted the paper in a hurry, a twelve-hour slog to finish the paper culminating in four exhausted but relieved students handing in their work to sir, who completed the rest and finally submitted it to the conference. Weary and delirious, I made my way back to my hostel, dreading the morning classes before being reminded that the sixteenth was a Sunday. Oh well.

I must admit, between the frenzy of online classes and the coronavirus pandemic I had forgotten about the paper acceptance date. On April 15, right in the middle of the Blockchain class, I received a mail: And so, that’s that. The paper was accepted and we had to prepare the camera-ready version (an activity I was not involved in owing to the upcoming exams). This experience has left me with a deeper appreciation of cryptography, and with a lot of new avenues to pursue. A word of advice now. If you find yourselves ever wondering about what to study further and have no idea, that’s okay! I hardly knew what I wanted to do before last semester and still do have some reservations. My advice to everyone who’s struggling as I was is to simply stick to a subject you like. I did, and I have benefitted from this decision because I thought crypto was worth doing and actually got around to doing something. If you do find something interesting, ask a member of faculty or a senior you know is involved in the subject. Also, feel free to contact anyone in the de.ci.phe.red Labs for further information about what we do and our aims for the future!