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February, 2010

Microsoft Research Connections Blog

The Microsoft Research Connections blog shares stories of collaborations with computer scientists at academic and scientific institutions to advance technical innovations in computing, as well as related events, scholarships, and fellowships.

February, 2010

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Updated Microsoft Biology Foundation Available for Free Download

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    There is an old saying that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. When it comes to scientific puzzles, especially those specific to bioinformatics, that adage could well be that if you cannot see it, you cannot solve it. Although still under development, the Microsoft Biology Foundation (MBF), the beta 2 version of which was recently released as open source is already helping researchers address visualization challenges by providing a language-neutral bioinformatics toolkit that’s an extension to the Microsoft .NET Framework. To date, MBF implements a range of parsers for common bioinformatics file formats and a range of algorithms used to manipulate DNA, RNA and protein sequences. 

     

    Perhaps most critically, in addition to allowing scientists to easily and quickly view their data within Excel, MBF provides a set of connectors to biological Web services such as the Basic Local Alignment Search Tool, or BLAST.  Alignments, for readers who aren’t familiar with research methodology, are valuable to researchers as they work with large sets of data, searching for similarities and differences throughout the discovery process.

     

    Drawing on what’s already within MBF, researchers at Queensland University of Technology in Australia have developed the BLAST Explorer, which uses SilverMap, a display technology based on SilverLight. Among many other benefits, the BLAST Explorer allows scientists to retrieve BLAST results on demand via Web services and easily share their work with colleagues and other researchers worldwide.

     

    Jim Hogan, associate professor at Queensland University of Technology, says that having BLAST-related visualization tools that are simple and easy to use is an important part of managing large and complex sets of data. “Since it’s a very standard tool that is used by many people, the people developing MBF have incorporated BLAST into the technology, which means that rather than manually editing data you can have direct access to BLAST from within MBF,” he says. “It eliminates the middle man.” And in a business where looking at massive data from hundreds of genes and dozens of organisms is the norm, eliminating the middle man makes the once complex process of analysis far more simple.

     

    In addition to its work on BLAST Explorer, Hogan’s team is working with Microsoft to develop and contribute extensions for those who use MBF within Excel.

     

    Hogan says that the BLAST Explorer is a work in progress, with future development plans that call for an overall extension of capabilities, specifically enhancing input and output of BLAST results – especially the use of custom BLAST collections – improved collaboration and exchange with other tools, such as Excel and sequence and alignment viewers.

     

    Derick Campell, Microsoft External Research

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    What do Ada Lovelace, Barbie and I all have in common?

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    This post originally appeared on The Official Microsoft Blog.

     

    The National Science Foundation reports that women currently make up only 19.5 percent of engineering bachelor degree recipients and 11 percent of professional engineering positions in the United States.  Those are unfortunate numbers. Not only do more and more of the world’s top jobs require science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) expertise, but few women enter engineering, causing a serious loss of a tremendous talent pool. We need to create more competent women engineers.

     

    Today is one step on that path. It’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day—a special shout-out to young women during National Engineers Week.  As a female computing professional, I thought it would be helpful to focus on several “girl” engineers (real or plastic) who have made a tremendous impact in our lives.  Maybe a look at them can show us how to close the gap between the world’s engineering needs and the women looking for great opportunities.

     

    Take Barbie. Back in 1992, when I was a computer science professor at the University of Virginia and the mother of two young girls, I learned that Mattel had created a Barbie that said, “math class is tough.”  I thought, “it’s only tough if the girls are led to believe that it’s tough.”  It’s the incorrect stereotypes themselves that make math hard!

     

    Nearly 20 years later, Mattel may help turn that stereotype around with the release of Computer Engineer Barbie—complete with a fashionable binary code shirt, pink glasses, and a pink laptop. (For all you Barbie experts out there: Don’t worry—her feet are still designed to fit into her signature high heels!)

     

    Barbie the computer engineer follows in some pretty big shoes. Those belong to Ada Lovelace. Never heard of her?

     

    The daughter of the poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke, Lovelace is often credited with writing the first computer program in the world—in 1842-43!  Essentially, she worked with Charles Babbage and, while translating and keeping notes about Babbage’s Analytical engine (the early model for a computer), she added comments that have been widely recognized as the first software.  As such, she is frequently seen as the founder of scientific computing.

     

    Between Lovelace and Barbie, there are plenty of other amazing women computer engineers—some famous, such as Grace Hopper, some not.  They serve as my inspirations as I work on projects such as the Tablet PC and other classroom technologies, or with teams of students around the world for the Multitouch and Tablet Accessibility Award at the Microsoft Imagine Cup competition.

     

    Providing role models is an important piece. But hands-on experience is equally important. Take Microsoft’s DigiGirlz program. It’s specifically designed to give high school girls the opportunity to learn about careers in technology, connect with Microsoft employees, and participate in hands-on computer and technology workshops. You get to actually see how technology can be used in a variety of areas, from healthcare to the environment to business.

     

     

    Whether or not you have the time today to introduce a girl to engineering, I want to leave you with this thought—and action item.  Think about an engineer or engineering solution you believe has had a tremendous impact on the world. Then share that information here and with a young woman you love. It’s never too early to start thinking about her future and ours!

     

    Jane Prey, PhD, is a senior research program manager with Microsoft Research External Research. She is also an active member of IEEE, with which Microsoft is collaborating to empower students to achieve their professional aspirations.

     

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    WorldWide Telescope: Exploring globally, learning locally

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    Thanks to a productive collaboration among members of the global research community, the WorldWide Telescope is in the process of becoming more worldwide in its reach and impact. By adding support for new languages, a process that is well underway, the WorldWide Telescope is becoming a more useful resource for more people in more places.

     

    In nearly all aspects, the WorldWide Telescope is the result of collaboration among Microsoft External Research and a number of academic and governmental agencies. The WorldWide Telescope transforms the process of peering into the planets into one that’s similar to using a technologically enhanced encyclopedia. Put more simply, the WorldWide Telescope is Internet-izing astronomy.  It does this by providing the ability to seamlessly pan and zoom across the sky, blending terabytes of images, data and stories from multiple sources, which are accessed over the Internet and packaged into a media-rich, immersive experience.  Finding relevant information with the WorldWide Telescope is easy: users just right click on the object they’re interested in – Neptune, for example – to open a window that includes links to resources, such as published articles or Web sites, specific to Neptune.

     

    To enhance the discovery that can result from such a collaborative effort, Microsoft External Research has made the WorldWide Telescope available, free of charge, to the astronomy and educational communities. The goal is that it will continue to expand the ways it inspires and empowers people around the world to use their exploration to deepen the global knowledge of the universe.

     

    And to further that goal, and in recognition of the technology’s truly universal appeal, support for new languages is being added.

     

    Localization of the WorldWide Telescope is occurring in two phases. The first, which commenced in November 2008, is the translation of the user interface, which is then professionally validated by local astronomers, all of whom have volunteered their time and expertise in support of the effort. Today, localized user interfaces are available in simplified Chinese, German and a Latin American version of Spanish. Localizations in Hindi, Japanese, Russian and Turkish are nearly complete and should be available this month.

     

    The second and more complex phase of localizing the WorldWide Telescope will cover the translation of its vast volume of topically relevant resources available to those who use the technology. In addition to being more complex, this phase will also take more time to complete. I’m often asked when I expect the translation of resources to be complete, and my answer is fairly simple: it depends upon how old the country is for which the translation is being performed. That’s because the more years a country has existed, the longer its astronomers and other explorers have had to name what they see in the sky. And the more that’s been named, the more data we have to translate.

     

    The evolution of the WorldWide Telescope, like the universe to which it offers us access, is ongoing. To make sure your voice is included in the process, please use this blog to share your insight and suggestions.

     

    For more information on the WorldWide Telescope, you may read an essay by Alyssa A. Goodman and Curtis G. Wong from the The Fourth Paradigm.


    Yan Xu, senior research program manager, Microsoft External Research

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