Microsoft Research New Faculty Fellowships Help Young Professors Succeed

REDMOND, Wash. — May 1, 2008 — The road to tenure can be a bumpy one for early career professors in any field. Most find their first few years filled with a seemingly endless process of writing grant proposals.

For the professors selected as Microsoft Research New Faculty Fellows each year, this “overhead” is considerably lessened, allowing them to concentrate on the business of pursuing their research with minimal distractions — Microsoft Research annually selects five of the top early-career professors in the field of computer and awards them each a $200,000 gift, with no restrictions on how the money can be spent.

Microsoft Research has helped a total of 20 Fellows follow their dreams since the program’s inception in 2005. This includes the five newest Fellows selected today (see sidebar and related press release).

“We focus on identifying the best and brightest young researchers who not only have interesting research agendas, but who also show the capacity to do great work throughout their careers,” says Harold Javid, Director of Education Research, Microsoft External Research. “After they explain what they’re doing and why, you wonder why everybody hasn’t been doing it that way before, and that’s the sign of a real breakthrough. We think it’s important for Microsoft to help these early-career faculty members be courageous, and work on high-risk/high-reward research that is often difficult to get funded by traditional funding mechanisms.”

More than 100 early-career professors were evaluated during the selection process, which is intended and is intended to identify the future academic leaders while they’re still at the beginning of their careers. As such, the selection criteria includes not only the capability to pursue cutting edge research, but also the personal leadership required to bring those ideas to fruition, and to communicate complex concepts in a way that inspires and intrigues. Now in the program’s fourth year, the External Research group is seeing how selection as a Microsoft Research New Faculty Fellow has helped the awardees be successful.

Two awardees from the inaugural year 2005 have been hard at work making a name for themselves. Wei Wang, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, initially won her fellowship for a collaboration that used data-mining algorithms to identify patterns in protein structures and associate those patterns with biological functions. Since then she has gone on win her tenure, established several new collaborations and secure funding from two major national agencies.

Meanwhile, Harvard University’s Radhika Nagpal was able to build her own research group studying algorithms and strategies in biology with an eye toward creating computer systems with “adaptive properties,” such as the ability to self-repair.

Both researchers say the Microsoft Research New Faculty Fellowship program helped their careers beyond the monetary considerations, by providing publicity, opening doors, and allowing them to concentrate on their careers.

“After the Faculty Fellows award, several colleagues in my university became interested in what I was doing, and that has led to other new collaborations in the context of computational genomics and bioinformatics,” says Wang, whose winning entry on the patterns of protein structures is currently in use at research institutions and pharmaceutical companies across the U.S. “I also won other funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health to support the continuation of my work.”

Nagpal’s group published a paper in the journal Nature. She attributes that success in part to Microsoft Research enabling her to do the research she had envisioned, rather than conforming to the requirements of a funding agency.

“The Microsoft Research New Faculty Fellowship grant allows me to do the kinds of research I’m excited about doing,” she says. “It was clear that Microsoft just wanted me to do great things, and trusted that I would know what those things are.”

This was especially helpful for her group, which is examining a new area of systems biology with many unknowns.

“There are so many things you try that fail,” she says. “But it’s really exciting because when you do succeed, there are amazing insights to be found.”

Now that she has her own group of graduate students and is a bit more established, Nagpal has turned her attention to securing funding through traditional agencies, and she is finding she’s able to enter the traditional funding process with a little less apprehension than if she were just starting out.

“There’s a tremendous amount of learning that happens those first two years of being a faculty member, provided you can focus on that and start up a good research group,” she says. “I feel I was sort of charmed in that Microsoft Research helped me so early in the process. Having the first two years to establish myself, both thanks to Harvard and Microsoft, was terrific.”

Nagpal and Wang also represent another trend in the Microsoft Research New Faculty Fellowship program—in all but one year of the program, two of the top five finalists have been women. And this year is no different.

According to a member of this year’s selection panel, Martha Pollack, dean of the School of Information Science at the University of Michigan, the percentage is indicative of the growing impact women are having on high tech.

“We have a higher percentage of women who have shown this leadership quality within the New Faculty Fellowship program than are actually presented in the university system,” says Pollack. “But these women just rose to the top. They did outstanding work.”

Javid is also encouraged by those results as a sign that the industry is coming to a point where there’s broader interest in computing among both men and women.

“This is one of the dreams of Microsoft Research, that there’s this true balance where the percentage of women in computing represent the percentage of women in our population,” said Javid.

Beyond demographics, according to Pollack and Javid, a real reward of participating in the New Faculty Fellowship program is meeting the young researchers and hearing them talk about their work. Both industry veterans talk about the infectious enthusiasm on display with all the finalists in the contest.

“You’re struck by the fact that they’re not bound to the approaches that have been used in the past,” says Javid. “They are in the process of creating new ways of looking at things and solving problems. This year’s group really has demonstrated that.”

According to Pollack, it’s no surprise that the five winners show such promise, considering the pool from which they were selected.

“Each university can only nominate one person,” she says. “Your application has to be decided on by your department, in some cases across multiple departments, and then it gets run by the provost. Even if you don’t make it to the finals, you’re being recognized by colleagues within the university as being one of the best young scholars in the field of computing. I was enormously impressed, not only by the people we selected, but by the finalists and the semi-finalists whose documents I read.”

So what were some highlights from this year’s crop? According to Javid, when you get to the top five among one hundred of the best young researchers in the country, everyone is a highlight.

“It’s hard to make that kind of distinction because everybody has such exciting ideas,” he says.

Rather than looking at individual accomplishments, Pollack sees hope in the program for the future of computer science as a whole.

“For a long time people had this view that computer science is dead, it’s boring,” she says. “You only have to look at the work of these kids to see that’s not the case at all.”