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Even today, there is nothing quite like seeing innovation up close and in person. That’s why you don’t need a calendar to know when it’s the TechFest season at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Every year, researchers from around the world come to Redmond to share their most compelling, innovative work with colleagues, including those who apply the knowledge gleaned from research into Microsoft products.
One of the more compelling topics explored during this year’s TechFest was Client + Cloud Computing for Research. This approach takes into consideration the fact that scientific applications have requirements that range from the desktop to super computers. To meet those requirements, cloud computing provides a way to accommodate evolving scientific needs with a model that’s scalable, economically feasible and accessible on demand.
To learn more about the ways this model can be applied, presentations were given on several projects, including:
- Azure Ocean – A Sea of Data in the Cloud
- Bioinformatics Computation in the Cloud
- ModisAzure – Azure Service for Remote Sense Geoscience
- Tools to Transform the Potential of Cloud to Reality for Research.
Another event of particular interest to the global research community was a presentation on the Microsoft Research Biology Extension for Excel. This add-in for Microsoft Office Excel 2007 simplifies the process of working with genomic sequences, metadata and interval data – all within an Excel document. The Biology Extension implements several features of the Microsoft Biology Foundation (MBF), including a set of parsers for common genome file formats, a set of sequencing algorithms for assembly of a consensus DNA strand and connectors to several Basic Local Alignment Search Tool (BLAST) Web services for genome identification. It can also be extended to use other MBF features.
Today is the 99th annual International Women’s Day, and an opportunity to discuss an issue that should concern all of us: the lack of women in computing. Even though we’ve made slight progress recently—according to data shared by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT)—in 2008 only 18 percent of all computer science degrees were earned by women. This is a dramatic drop from 37 percent in 1985. Closely related is the fact that girls represented only 17 percent of those who took advanced placement computer science exams, making it the AP exam with the lowest female representation. Given these two statistics, perhaps it isn’t surprising that only 16 percent of Fortune 500 technology companies have female corporate officers, and that women hold less than a quarter of the technology jobs, even though they hold more than half of all professional occupations in the U.S. Of greater concern, since there are fewer women in the field, when technology companies are hiring, even during an economic downturn, there are fewer female candidates.
Diversity and parity are important social indicators. Additionally, diversity of thought is a clear business necessity for innovation and thought leadership. In fact, statistics on U.S. technology patenting show that the patents created by mixed-gender teams are the most highly cited, a testament to their innovation, usefulness and, ultimately, profitability.
Front and center in this arena is computer science. A very creative field, it requires diversity of thought to thrive. And that’s where I come in. I have the best job at Microsoft: My job is to help improve these numbers and make sure the issue of too few women in this field is as obsolete as the mainframe computer. It’s a big job, to be sure, but one I love.
In addition to working internally at Microsoft to ensure that we continually foster an environment that values diversity, passion and ingenuity, I also conduct outreach to organizations ranging from the NCWIT’s Academic Alliance Seed Fund (through which Microsoft contributes to the gender diversity activities of colleges and universities in the US), the ABI’s Grace Hopper Conference, the CRA-W Grad Cohort for Women Program, and many other computing communities around the world.
I’m old enough to know that change isn’t always easy. Sometimes, in fact, it seems downright impossible. So whenever I find myself in a discouraging moment, I just focus on a special person: my 90 year-old mother. When she was born, your outlook meant your attitude, nobody had a car, and electricity was a luxury. Today, she uses e-mail to keep in touch with her grandchildren and friends and checks her stock portfolio regularly on the Internet. She is curious and she is brave. This inspires me, not only because she’s my mother, but because it shows that people can learn, that innovation and creativity are part of the human fabric, and that it can happen for everyone.
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.
Almost regardless of the context, a work bench that isn’t properly organized and equipped doesn’t usually lead to the smooth or efficient completion of a project. To address that challenge in the realm of research, a scientific workflow work bench – code named Project Trident - is available for free and easy download to PCs that run the Microsoft Windows operating system. Trident was developed to meet the needs of various sizes of work groups. It can be put to work by the solo scientist or used by groups that rely on configurations of PCs and servers ranging from one of each to many of both. It is built to tackle tasks such as running scientific algorithms against a data set, filings and conducting Provenance to document the history of projects. And, to help researchers collaborate with one another across the hall or around the world, workflows developed with Trident can be shared broadly on sites such as www.myexperiment.org
Keith Grochow, who is currently finishing up his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Washington, has been involved in the development of Trident from the project’s beginning. “I provided input on a toolset specifically for oceanographers, which resulted in a resource consisting of things they commonly use,” he says. “I was also involved in the drag-and-drop model and a simple Web service interface for cross-platform access to the workflow engine.”
Grochow’s involvement with Trident has not been confined to offering input during its development: he’s now using it in support of his own research. “The core of my thesis is to look at an environment and determine how a geo browser such as Google Earth or Virtual Earth can be used as a science tool,” he says. “When you’re working with data sets that are geographically located, the one consistent thing, when scientists come together, is that their data sets have a time and a space associated with them.”
It’s finding the inconsistencies, Grochow says, that’s the challenging part. “If I have numerous sets of positional data, up to now there hasn’t been a tool that’s easy to use for analysis,” he explains. “For example, if I have a simulation of the ocean gathered over the course of a couple of days, making comparisons to determine things like what’s changed compared to what’s remained the same has been very difficult.” That’s where Trident comes in. “Rather than me just looking at data sets and trying to figure out what’s different, I can put them through Trident, which will then give me a composite,” he says. And, with Trident, Grochow can easily continue to leverage previous research. “I’m able to use legacy code to do projects with Trident,” he says.
While Grochow uses Trident for oceanography research, it can be used in a wide array of research domains such as weather forecasting, biology, hydrology and astronomy. How could it support your research?
Derick Campbell, Microsoft External Research
Derick Campbell, Microsoft External Research