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I would like to thank the broad computing research community which has taken the time to share its thoughts and concerns about the recent closure of our research lab in Silicon Valley. I share with all of you a strong belief in the value of fundamental research and its importance for the long-term viability of our company, our industry, and our society, and want to reassure you of Microsoft’s commitment to fundamental research. Unfortunately, no organization—governmental, industrial, or academic—is immune to change and the technology business in particular is defined by rapid evolution. Technology businesses need to constantly adapt in order to survive. In July, our new CEO, Satya Nadella, discussed how Microsoft would transform to be the productivity and platform company for a mobile-first, cloud-first world, and evolve its culture to be more nimble. This transformation included reducing our workforce by 18,000 jobs. Each organization within Microsoft, including Microsoft Research, is accountable for driving changes in culture and organization, and each has to participate in the job reductions. No one at Microsoft feels good about the fact that a significant number of our friends and colleagues were laid off. These people contributed to the success of Microsoft over many years. As one can readily imagine, the decisions made about how the cuts were implemented within Microsoft Research were extremely complicated and personally painful. We feel with you the sense of loss that has been evoked by the closing of our Silicon Valley lab. We also understand the concerns that have been raised about the impact of these layoffs on certain parts of the community. We appreciate the community effort in helping those who have been impacted in the process, and we will be part of this effort.
Please understand, though, that despite these layoffs, Microsoft maintains its commitment to fundamental research at a historically high level. Microsoft Research still stands strong with more than 1,000 people in labs worldwide, making it one of the largest research institutions of its kind in the world, either industrial or academic. Microsoft Research continues to be one of the very few organizations in industry that does true academic-style open research. We will continue to partner with the academic research community not only in moving forward the state of the art in computing but also in developing computing talent around the world. As he was retiring from his role as Chief Research Officer more than a year ago, the founder of Microsoft Research, Rick Rashid, said that what he cared about most was that Microsoft Research and its people would stay true to its values: a commitment to fundamental research and a commitment to creating a future, both for Microsoft, and for the field of computing. I assure you that those values have not changed.
—Harry Shum, Executive Vice President, Technology & Research
The past decade has witnessed an incredible boom in Chinese academic research—a boom fueled in large measure by talented young researchers. Over the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of supporting the Joint PhD Program, in which Microsoft Research Asia collaborates with leading Chinese universities to discover and foster outstanding research talent. From 1998 to 2013, more than 150 Chinese students have participated in this program.
Some of the young researchers who gathered for the first Microsoft Research Asia PhD Forum
“How about hosting a forum to get all these young talents together and provide them an opportunity to inspire each other?” I felt quite excited when this idea came up during a Joint PhD Program committee meeting. After a month of preparation, the first Microsoft Research Asia PhD Forum was held on December 12, 2013. It was a rousing success, bringing together not only the program’s PhD students but also more than 60 additional doctoral students from Peking University, Tsinghua University, Beihang University, and the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. This PhD forum provided a platform for direct communication among top doctoral students. As one participant observed, it gave the young researchers a unique opportunity “to exchange ideas with fellows who have similar research experiences, which is very helpful and distinctive.” In addition to this overall sense of camaraderie and mutual inspiration, the forum featured many impressive sessions. Yu Zheng, a lead researcher at Microsoft Research Asia and a renowned expert on the burgeoning field of urban computing, gave an opening keynote that discussed how city problems could be addressed by using big data. This speech, from a researcher who was named one of world’s top innovators under 35 by MIT Technology Review, was an inspirational event, and many students clearly viewed Dr. Zheng as a role model. Xiaohui Wang, a PhD student from Tsinghua University, told us with enthusiasm, “I was inspired by Yu Zheng’s talk. It was great to learn how top researchers at Microsoft Research Asia have advanced their research progress.”
Zhen Cui, left, and Dong Chen discussed their work on face recognition during the oral session.
During the oral session, 12 PhD students shared their published research findings. Particularly notable was the dialogue between Dong Chen, a Microsoft Research Asia Joint-PhD student, and Zhen Cui, a PhD candidate from the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. They focused on face recognition, and both of their papers had been accepted by 2013 Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition. “Dong’s work on face verification is amazing. I am very happy and honored to attend this forum with such excellent peers, and I’ve benefited greatly from my interactions here with Dong and other students,” said Zhen Cui.
During the forum, 16 PhD students presented their work with posters and demos. Pictured here are the two students who were awarded the Best Poster Prize.
During the panel session, four participants engaged in a spirited talk on how to achieve a better PhD career. They made me think about my own professional life, so interesting and meaningful were their observations. Their discussion on relationships with mentors impressed me the most. “Mentors are quite different from each other. As a PhD student, it is quite important to know your mentor’s style first, and then by working together with him, you will grow and be independent in research work,” said Shiguang Shan, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
A capacity crowd listened raptly during the panel discussion, How to Achieve a Better PhD Career.
As I reflect on the academic achievements and innovative spirit of these young students, I feel extremely satisfied and honored to have organized this forum. Although it lasted only one day, I believe the forum will be meaningful in the development of these promising young researchers. With the rapid development of Chinese research activities, I am convinced that the full potential of young talent is yet to be discovered. I sincerely hope that next year, more students from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China will join us, and that the graduates of the Joint PhD Program will continue to make significant contributions to research.—Guobin Wu, Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections AsiaLearn more
Can scientists predict what happens when they introduce a change into a living system—for example, if they change the structure of a gene or administer a drug? Just as changing one letter can completely change the meaning of a word, the change of a single letter of the genetic code (referred to as a single nucleotide polymorphism, or SNP) can subtly affect the meaning of a gene’s instructions or alter them completely, making the effect of any change extremely hard to predict. Such changes are thought to be responsible for much of the variation between members of a single species—for example, in susceptibility to different diseases. The ability to successfully predict the effect of such changes would accelerate drug discovery and provide a deeper understanding of the processes of life.
In collaboration with Jasmin Fisher at Microsoft Research Cambridge, professor Yanay Ofran and his colleagues at Bar Ilan University have embarked on a program of scientific research that aims to resolve some of the questions underlying this overall goal, and some of their early results have now been published.
One of the researchers’ first tasks was to determine whether it is possible to predict how a complex network of biochemical interactions will change when a SNP (pronounced “snip”) alters the function of one of the network’s components. In an August 2012 paper entitled, “Static Network Structure Can Be Used to Model the Phenotypic Effects of Perturbations in Regulatory Networks” (available at Bioinformatics with paid subscription), the authors describe their success in analyzing static models of biological networks and correctly predicting the response to changes more than 80 percent of the time. This enables the functions of the network to be deduced, the foundation for building a more expressive dynamic model.
Building static networks is a challenge in itself; before beginning this work, the researchers needed to understand which genes are active in a particular cell and what they do. In their latest publication entitled, “Assessing the Relationship between Conservation of Function and Conservation of Sequence Using Photosynthetic Proteins” (available at Bioinformatics with paid subscription), the Ofran lab has shown that, while sets of related genes with similar structure diverge in function more quickly than previously thought, selected smaller pieces of each gene may still be useful in predicting function.
There are many unresolved challenges along the way to the eventual goal of predicting the effect of a SNP—understanding which genes are switched on in which cells and how drugs interact with proteins are just two active areas of investigation—but once the goal is reached, an understanding of the functions of all genes and how changes affect biological systems could lead to the development of computational models to predict and cure many diseases.
—Simon Mercer, Director of Health and Wellbeing, Microsoft Research Connections