Rachit Nigam

Your Eternal Spark

I don't have words to put here

September 01, 2023

Content Warning: Death

My dear friend and colleague Priya Srikumar passed away in a car accident. I write this post to memorialize the impact they had on me and other people around them. If you knew Priya in their capacity as an academic and would like to add something, please email me.

I started my PhD at Cornell in 2018 and Priya was an undergraduate student then. I first met them when they gave a talk at the programming languages discussion group, which usually has research talks from PhD students. I remember thinking that their talk would put most PhD students to shame: they deeply understood complex math that took years to grasp and gave an easy-to-follow talk which is no mean feat.

Priya continued doing research with professors in the programming languages group and applied to various graduate programs. They got into most of the top programming languages departments in the country. After an arduous decision process, which I was a part of, Priya decided to stay at Cornell for their PhD and eventually started working with my advisor.

Priya had an infectious spark for research. They would get excited about a topic and pursue it to obsessive depth. Before our first conference together, ASPLOS 2023 in Vancouver, Canada, Priya sat with me and read a paper together with me on the train ride from Seattle. This is an unconventional choice because the train ride has some beautiful views. However, Priya always cherished the chance to learn something new. They grasped the intricacies of a computer architecture paper (something that they only recently started learning about) and eventually asked some thoughtful questions from the paper’s authors.

Most people I know struggle to network at conferences but watching Priya at the conference was remarkable. They gave a widely-liked WACI talk in one of the most crowded rooms at the conference. They made fast friends with tons of people, both junior and senior, and impressed them with their depth of knowledge in both computer architecture, formal methods, compilers, and programming languages. Priya always made an impression on the people who interacted with them.

Apart from research, Priya shared in my joy of food, music, and boba tea. They showed me around their favorite food places in New York City and took me to Korea town to try my first ever bingsoo.

My last interaction with them was at FCRC 2023 where they helped co-run a tutorial on Calyx. Priya asked me about how to manage the mid-project blues, the part of research when you have a direction to pursue, but it gets hard to maintain the momentum. This is something every researcher experiences, and so I encouraged them to continue pursuing their work. I remember jokingly telling them, “I’m excited to read the paper that comes out of your work; don’t make me wait so long!” They sparked up on this and promised me that I will be reading it soon. We hugged and I left to catch my flight.

Priya was full of potential. Potential to do great science, potential to be an amazing, kind, thoughtful mentor, potential to change the world. I, and many others, imagined seeing them at every conference we went to. They were supposed to be a permanent fixture of our lives. At every conference I attend, I will miss them. At every group discussion, I will miss them. When I talk about my mentees, my friends, and my time in grad school, I will miss them.

Goodbye Priya. Your spark is eternal.

Joshua Turcotti said:

It always appeared as if things came naturally to Priya, but the more you got to know them the more you realized that the thing that came most naturally was putting in more hours than I ever knew the day had methodically researching, preparing, and attacking the problems in their life. They always fought battles hard, but came out the other side with skills and passions that inspired others. Music was a huge part of their life that they worked so hard to cultivate, becoming a beautiful vocalist and an aspiring guitarist. They never wanted to be passionate about things alone, and so they took that love of music into their community, performing with our beloved Dexter and with a local band. They always brought out the best in the communities that were lucky enough to have them, and in short time they always become one the best and brightest elements of those communities themselves.

Ben Kushigian said:

They were such a sweet person, and I was always so happy to see them in PLSE. They had a smile that would break me out of my grumpiest of moods. I can’t believe they’re gone, and I can only imagine what folks who were closer to them must be going through. They were a special person, and I’m really lucky to have known them, even just for a bit.

Omkar Bhalerao said:

Priya has always struck me as a helpful educator in addition to a knowledgeable academic. They never hesitated to help out with the overall structure of the class and perform logistical duties even as a heavily burdened PhD student. During our time together as TAs, the work ethic that they displayed heavily inspired me to improve my own efforts as a TA for the class, and I also learned quite a lot from them.

Paulette Koronkevich said:

I am so fortunate to have known Priya for too short of a time. I met them at POPL in 2020, and found an instant connection. They reminded me why I wanted to pursue research–because of the excitement of new discovery, but also because of the kindness of the community. Priya was an undergraduate at the time but was already participating in the community and learning so much. The next time we met in person was 3 years later, and it was as if no time had passed. We instantly wrapped each other in a huge hug. I expected that these wonderful meetings and hugs would happen for many, many more years. I am so proud of everything they’ve accomplished, and the impact they’ve had on all their communities, and I will miss them greatly. We’ve lost a piece of our heart, but Priya has shown us that our heart should remain open.

Zach Sisco said:

I first met Priya at ASPLOS, and then FCRC, this year. I have fond memories of Priya at those conferences—whether it was talking shop, chatting about our shared passions and hobbies (music and film photography), or just goofing off. Conferences can be draining, but Priya had a level of energy and curiosity that was infectious (in a good way). If I was lucky to catch them in the hallways, they’d always pep me back up; I will always remember the kindness and compassion they showed me in those brief moments. Although I only knew Priya through academic conferences, I wish I could have known them more, and their bright presence will be missed at future ones.

Alexa VanHattum said:

I first really got to know Priya when they were still an undergraduate—but already serving as a TA in Cornell’s challenging graduate programming languages class. The care and dedication Priya showed to our students was representative of who they were as a person and as a researcher. Priya was always, always helping someone with something—organizing discussion groups when they were still a first year Ph.D. student, rallying enthusiasm for department picnics, commiserating and offering me tips as we both were training our own puppies. Over the years, Priya and I would meet for Gimme coffee chats to talk about life in the department and what would come next. During our last chat earlier this year, Priya was so excited to hear about my job search, and I could already picture reading over Priya’s own faculty materials in a few years. Priya made such a mark on our community, and we will all miss them dearly.

Griffin Berlstein wrote an in remembrance post.

The UW PLSE group wrote a remembrance post