Microsoft Research Nurtures Top Tech Talent with Student Fellowships

REDMOND, Wash., March 6, 2006 – Don’t be surprised if in the not-too-distant future, computers can follow spoken commands without first training them to recognize the user’s voice. Or if every member of the family – regardless of the size of their hand or dexterity of their fingers – can easily control their control their portable device with a single hand.

And don’t be surprised if one or more of the top computer science talents chosen to receive this year’s Microsoft Research Student Fellowships play a pivotal role in turning these and other innovative ideas into realities. Speech recognition, mobile-computer interaction and digital media are among the areas of computer science that this year’s 24 fellowship recipients hope to advance over the coming years with the financial support and mentoring of Microsoft Research.

Now in its 10th year, the Microsoft Research Student Fellowship program has helped nearly 125 top graduate students, primarily at U.S. and Canadian universities, pursue their ambitions within computer research. In addition to financial support for their academic studies and research, the program offers the student fellows the opportunity to gain real-world experience as interns, working alongside Microsoft’s top researchers. In the process, Microsoft Research hopes the program nurtures the next generation of IT leaders, as well as generates interest among the best and the brightest students of the future as they investigate career options.

“Microsoft Research exists to advance the state of the art in computing wherever it is,” says Jim Kajiya, director of Microsoft Research. “Our student fellowship program helps demonstrate to the top students of today and tomorrow that the field of computing is more exciting than ever before, offering them a broad variety of technology challenges to explore and other opportunities to develop their talent.”

Since its inception in 1997, the program has attracted some of the best young talent in computer science. Among the recipients are current Microsoft researcher Desney Tan, a 2003-2004 fellow. He now focuses on improving the computing experience through the use of larger computer displays, multiple computing devices and even wearable brain imaging devices that sense a person’s cognitive activity. Other recipients include Vladimir Jojic, a 2004-2005 fellow and doctoral student at the University of Toronto, Canada. He has worked alongside Microsoft researchers such as David Heckerman, manager of the Machine Learning and Applied Statistics Group, to apply software algorithms similar to those used to manage computer databases, compress digital files and block spam e-mail to overcome roadblocks in the hunt for an HIV vaccine.

This year’s recipients, selected from approximately 160 applicants, are of a similarly high caliber. In addition to graduating at or near the top of their undergraduate classes, several have already had research published in professional journals. A few have won awards for their publications from leading conferences. Others have developed innovative new software and tools designed to remedy some of today’s biggest computing and other scientific challenges.

Helping Attract Top Talent to Computer Science

Luring this quality of talent to computer science is no longer as easy as it once was. According to the Computer Research Association, the percentage of incoming undergraduates indicating that they would major in computer science declined by more than 60 percent between fall 2000 and 2004, and is now 70 percent lower than its peak in the early 1980s.

Randy Bryant, dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, applauds Microsoft’s efforts to create additional buzz for computer science. He says the positive vision for the future of computer science that Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman and chief software architect, has delivered during recent visits to top U.S. universities has helped generate media attention about the field’s future.

The student fellowships play an equally vital role, he says. “Universities around the country are experiencing a serious decline in federal research funding,” Bryant says. “It’s critical for private industry to help build the next generation of talent while they are still in school. These fellowships, as well as the internships and sponsored research funded by Microsoft Research provide fertile ground for new research.”

The Microsoft Research Student Fellowships cover all of a student’s tuition and fees and provide a US$20,000 stipend for living expenses and an additional $2,000 to cover costs associated with attending professional conferences. In addition, fellows receive a new Tablet PC loaded with Microsoft software.

If he hadn’t received the Microsoft Research fellowship, Luciano Digiampietri of the University of Campinas, Brazil, might have had to cut short his education because of the cost of tuition and other expenses. To provide additional support for graduate students in other parts of the world, Microsoft Research’s labs in Europe and Asia also award fellowships annually.

“Fellowships help students to stay in their courses and provide an incentive to be the best in their areas — to publish more papers and to get the best fellowships,” Digiampietri says.

Fellowships Amplify Computer Science Calling

For many of the student fellows, computer science has been a calling since childhood.

“When I was 15, I found a book about programming using BASIC on my cousin’s bookshelf,” said Jue Wang, a student at the University of Washington in Seattle. Although he didn’t own a computer at the time, he found it fascinating and spent the next two weeks teaching himself how to program on his cousin’s computer. “I just love the way computers work,” said Wang, whose research focuses on designing systems that allow non-professional users to easily organize, edit and manipulate their personal photographs and home video.

But students with an aptitude for computer science have more potential fields of scientific study than ever before because of the increasing use of computer technology throughout biology, astronomy and other areas of science. Grant recipients say parents and younger students who are still weighing their career options take notice of fellowships and other corporate support within different fields.

“These fellowships show the software industry cares about progress, science and research, and is willing to invest in talented people,” says another of this year’s fellows, Jurij Leskovec of Carnegie Mellon. “For prospective computer science students, it is exciting to know that the market wants you, that there is future in the field.”

Amy Karlson of the University of Maryland, one of three female fellows this year, says her exposure to computers, adventure games and the Internet as a child contributed to her curiosity about technology. “Academically, computer science clicked immediately, and from a career perspective, I knew it would be an excellent vehicle for contributing to any of a broad range of fields,” she says.

Still, as the only female computer science major in her graduating class, Karlson felt isolated from her classmates and questioned her choice of majors. The Microsoft Research fellowship and other awards, including the Outstanding Undergraduate Award from her university, have eliminated some of her doubts.

“The importance of that type of recognition and encouragement to me probably cannot be overstated, and no doubt was instrumental to my continued pursuit of computer science as a career,” says Karlson, whose current research focuses on making it easier for people to interact with mobile computers.

Internships Provide Real-world Research Experience

In addition to the financial and other support, Microsoft Research offers each an internship at one of its research labs. About half of the fellows pursue this opportunity. While appreciative of the financial support, Tan says it was the recognition of the fellowship and the opportunity to do the internship that he most appreciated – and that demonstrated to him just how much Microsoft Research was willing to invest in him and other promising computer science students.

At the start of the first of his three internships at the Redmond, Wash., lab, Tan sat down with George Robertson, who had been assigned to serve as his mentor at Microsoft Research. The senior researcher didn’t tell Tan what types of research he’d be working on. Instead, he asked Tan what he was interested in doing and what resources he would need. “It blew me away,” Tan remembers.

He was also impressed by the easy access he was provided to top researchers. “You have people like Gordon Bell and Jim Gray constantly interacting with younger researchers and students as if they were peers,” he says. “It’s just the most amazing thing.”

The access he had during his first two internships turned to expectations on his third internship, the one connected to his fellowship. No longer did researchers wait for him to come to them with questions; they came to him with requests and potential projects. “Fellows enter the lab with instant respect,” Tan says, “because the researchers know how steep the competition is for these awards.”

Jojic was not a newbie on Microsoft’s Redmond campus when he accepted his internship and fellowship in 2004. After working for almost two years in the Adaptive Computer User Interface Group at Microsoft, he had returned to the University of Toronto to work on his doctorate in computer science and pursue his growing interest in biology. The opportunity to work with Heckerman on his machine learning research project, called Rationale Design of HIV Vaccine, during his internship and his fellowship “jumpstarted” his interest in working within a computer science lab such as Microsoft Research, he says. Jojic’s brother, Nebojsa, another member of Microsoft Research’s Machine Learning and Applied Statistics Group and former Microsoft fellow, also worked on the project.

In addition to helping solve medical and biological challenges, he could see more clearly how his research could improve the Microsoft software that millions of people around the world use every day.

“Computer science today isn’t the same as it was 10 years ago,” Jojic says. While worldwide competition for programming jobs is growing, there is still a great demand for people who can help solve the increasingly intertwined challenges of computer software and other areas of science, he says: “You have to be attracted to the problems and have things you want to solve.”

Goals in Place, But Future Open

This year’s interns have identified their problems and are keen to solve them. Sibel Yaman of Georgia Institute of Technology will dedicate her time during her internship to helping solve challenges within speech recognition, while Filip Radlinski of Cornell University and Aron Culotta of the University of Massachusetts will work on Search.

Many of the fellows are much less certain about where they will eventually pursue their professional research. This is fine with Microsoft Research, Kajiya says. While always on the lookout for good researchers among the fellows and other top students, he says the fellows who go on to work elsewhere provide valuable contacts within academia and industry because they have roots at Microsoft Research.

Radlinski is among this year’s fellows who haven’t yet determined where to hang his professional hat. He wants to do research that moves the field of machine learning forward, but he also wants to teach undergraduate students. “Good teaching has the potential to have a large impact on the career decisions of many people, hopefully convincing them to also try to improve on today’s research,” he says.

All Leskovec is sure of is that he wants “to solve important problems and walk paths nobody has walked before.” He’s similarly succinct about how he’ll find this path.

“If you want to make a difference,” he says, “you have to start soon and work hard.”

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