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Although computer science is poised for exponential job growth over the next several years, there’s a glaring lack of women entering the field. Since 1984, the number of computer science degrees awarded to women has steadily declined, to the point where today only 13 percent of computer science graduates are female.
As I speak with young women around the world, I continue to find that their disinterest stems from a lack of familiarity with the exciting and impactful career possibilities in computing. The obvious remedy is to expose more young women to the professional opportunities in computer science. This has been my personal mission, and I am pleased to be surrounded by amazing young women who evangelize computer science as a field in which women can make their mark.
One such “evangelist” is Microsoft intern Ayna Agarwal, a student at Stanford University. In January 2012, Ayna co-founded she++, a community that seeks to inspire women’s involvement in computer science. she++ sponsored Stanford's first conference on women in technology in April 2012, an event that attracted more than 250 attendees and hosted a lineup of inspirational women engineers, including employees of such Bay Area tech firms as Google, Facebook, Dropbox, and Pinterest. After positive feedback from attendees, mentors, and the press, the she++ conference has become an annual event at Stanford, one of many initiatives that she++ sponsors in its effort to create momentum for female technologists.
I was extremely excited to join with Ayna to co-host Reinventing Tech for the Next Generation—she++ and Microsoft Research, on August 28. This event featured two panels: the first comprised of female interns who are on the forefront of the next generation of computer scientists, and the second consisting of top technical women from Microsoft who are driving innovation and change across the company.
Katie Doran (far left) hosts the panel of interns: Ayna Agarwal, Amy Lin and Priya Ganesan (pictured left to right)
You can now view the event on-demand. And while you’re in video-watching mode, you might want to take a look at the she++ documentary video and the Microsoft Research Bridging the Gender Gap video, both of which highlight efforts to increase the presence of women in computing. In addition, I encourage all you girls (and boys) to try out these free tools that can teach you how to program and help you explore computer science: Kodu, Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer, Pex for Fun, and TouchDevelop.
—Rane Johnson-Stempson, Principal Research Director for Education, Microsoft Research Connections
I was extraordinarily excited to join forces with Microsoft Research to bring together generations of female programmers to share their stories, and I hope that the on-demand video of “Reinventing Tech for the Next Generation” will expose even more young women to the tremendous possibilities in computer science.
Pictured from left to right, Ayna Argarwal, Rane Johnson, and Katie Doran led the event, “Reinventing Tech for the Next Generation.” Rane joined the event virtually with the BEAM robot.
Three years ago, I entered Stanford as a dreamer, planning to change the face of global health through veterinarian medicine. However, I soon tired of the preparatory science classes and of feeling tethered to the vet hospital. I still wanted to have big impact on the world, but I wasn’t sure how.
Then I took my first computer science class and fell in love with the problem-solving mindset. Moreover, I soon realized that technology had the ability to touch the lives of millions, offering new communication and productivity tools and entertaining toys, serving as a means to unravel the biggest crimes, providing protection via mobile phones in developing countries—the possibilities are endless.
I became convinced that the full potential of tech is yet to be discovered. Yet a couple months prior to that first class, I had no idea that computer science was even a discipline, or that large companies and startups were built entirely around bringing technology to life. I had never even conceived of the possibilities.
I realized that my ignorance about computer science derived in large measure from the lack of role models sharing their stories. So I created she++ to be a community of voices of those technologists: the ones who are breaking the boundaries and incorporating their interests into the field.
she++ soon evolved into a personal mission to embolden and enrich the possibility of technology. I aim to provide an inspiration for all types of people, with every interest, encouraging them to take a peek and enroll in their first programming class. The future of the world lies in tech, and we need more people, with unique perspectives, than we’re training today to work in the industry. I hope that the joint Microsoft Research and she++ event entices girls everywhere to take their first programming class—and to realize they can have big impact in this world with technology.
—Ayna Agarwal, student at Stanford University and summer intern at Microsoft
Fun with programming
I recently sponsored an event in Manizales, Colombia, training biologists on .NET Bio and BioHPC, two projects that make computational research easier in the life sciences. As part of the training, Jarek Pillardy—the head of the Cornell Bioinformatics Facility (CBSU) at Cornell University—and some of his staff presented various aspects of BioHPC. I had the opportunity to sit down with Jarek, who is not only the developer of BioHPC but also a long-time user of the .NET Bio project. Here is a recap of that conversation.
Simon: You lead the CBSU—what activities does it support?
Jarek: CBSU is the Cornell University Bioinformatics Facility, and its mission is to support biological research with advanced computational infrastructure and bioinformatics tools and techniques. The facility’s main activities can be divided into maintaining extensive computational infrastructure configured for bioinformatics; providing easy access to the infrastructure through the web via BioHPC Web or interactively through BioHPC Lab; training, mainly through workshops and consulting; direct research collaborations, ranging from small projects to participating in major grants as co-principal investigators; and software and LIMS development.
Simon: What prompted you to develop BioHPC, and what does it do?
Jarek: BioHPC is our main way to deliver computational infrastructure to biologists. It is not easy for an experimental biologist to use computing tools directly and navigate the complicated maze of schedulers, command-line tools, data-storage methods, and other infrastructure. BioHPC simplifies access, both through the web and interactively, and management of the infrastructure (hardware and software). We created BioHPC to make our life easier and to provide services for many more researchers. BioHPC Web gives users a simple way to submit data for processing and for managing jobs and data. BioHPC Lab is a tool to organize access to interactive machines, reserve time, and manage associated resources, like storage and computing time. For us, it provides a convenient platform to deliver computational resources (hardware and software combined) and a set of tools to manage them.
Simon: Do you have any plans to extend the capabilities of BioHPC in the future?
Jarek: BioHPC is constantly evolving to meet the changing needs in bioinformatics and adapt to technological changes. Currently, we are supporting a diverse array of local and remote clusters, but we are planning to add capacity to run computations in the cloud. We are in the final stages of adding Windows Azure to our supported computing infrastructure. We will be also adding new software.
Architectural overview—BioHPC schema
Simon: How do you see the Windows Azure cloud being used in bioinformatics?
Jarek: For direct research computing, I can see two main scenarios. First, there will be advanced users, running their own virtual machines. These probably will be a minority of users. Second, there will be researchers who access Azure resources via an intermediate service like BioHPC. This scenario will involve a lot of task-focused services (for example, analyzing population data, assembling and annotating sequences, or handling a particular software pipeline) running on Azure, with the end-user not even fully aware of that. Azure provides an opportunity to bring data closer to the computing infrastructure.
Simon: How has BioHPC been able to help the Colombian BIOS Center?
Jarek: I think BioHPC may deliver for them the same benefits it does for us: an easy-to-use tool that provides convenient access to infrastructure and simplified management. They are still in the process of setting up and organizing, and we are in close contact with them, providing consultation and help. BIOS’s mission to the Colombia researchers is very similar to what our facility provides to Cornell, so our tools should be very useful to them. I hope they will be able to improve and expand BioHPC in order to meet their particular needs, which will make it much better.
As Jarek notes, BioHPC is a living, constantly evolving project, as is .NET Bio. If you’re a biological researcher, I encourage you take a good look at these tools.
—Simon Mercer, Director of Health and Wellbeing, Microsoft Research Connections
Sixty students from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa participated in the 2013 PhD Summer School at Microsoft Research Cambridge.
The beginning of July is always a special time of year at Microsoft Research Cambridge as we welcome PhD students to our annual PhD Summer School. We began our eighth Microsoft Research PhD Summer School with a traditional afternoon tea served at Selwyn College—one of the 31 University of Cambridge Colleges—which also accommodated students for the week. PhD students from across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa joined us for a week filled with learning, networking, and mentorship in our new lab building, which opened just a few months ago. “The School was an exciting showcase of research by Microsoft staff and the students themselves, and provided training in key research skills,” says Andy Gordon, co-manager of our Programming Principles and Tools group and part-time professor at University of Edinburgh. “We were especially delighted to welcome the first cohort of PhD students in the Joint Initiative between the University of Edinburgh and Microsoft Research.”
This year’s diverse student body included 20 Microsoft Research PhD Scholars, as well as students from Max Planck Institutes in Germany, the Cambridge Computer Lab, and students associated with Microsoft Research’s collaborative research institutes: BSC-Microsoft Research Centre, Microsoft Research-Inria Joint Centre, and Microsoft’s Advanced Technology Labs in Egypt, Germany, and Israel.
The technical agenda included a stimulating mix of talks and hands-on demos and poster sessions. Our research talks covered the wide spectrum of work we are conducting across the lab, including environmental science (“Modelling All Life on Earth. Yes, Really!”), computational biology (“Software for Programming Cells”), and cloud computing (“Cloud Computing—Big Data and Beyond”).
As in previous years, we complemented our research talks with a range of personal development talks. These included the all-time favorites, “How to Write a Great Research Paper” and “How to Give a Great Research Talk” by Simon Peyton Jones and “A Rough Guide to Being an Entrepreneur” by Raspberry Pi co-founder Jack Lang, as well as talks on “Strategic Thinking for Researchers” and “Intellectual Property at Microsoft”.
The Thursday afternoon keynote was a special highlight for the students: Christopher Bishop presented “Machine Learning: the Future of Computing?”, which was followed by a DemoFest where Microsoft researchers demonstrated their newest research projects to the students, who had the opportunity to try out new technologies and ask questions. The day ended with drinks in the sunshine and a formal dinner at Jesus College, where a crew of Microsoft staff, including laboratory director Andrew Blake and a number of Microsoft researchers, joined the students.
But, we weren’t the only presenters at this year’s Summer School. PhD students displayed their research to dozens of Microsoft researchers during the three lunchtime poster sessions. They received valuable feedback on their research and Sue Duraikan of Duraikan Training provided targeted poster training, giving individual as well as group feedback with special guidance for non-native speakers.
Cambridge Computer Lab PhD student Andre Ribeiro presents his poster to laboratory director Andrew Blake.
We also engaged the students in practical work. Students had the choice between a Windows Azure tutorial and a .NET Gadgeteer workshop. About 25 students participated in a .NET Gadgeteer hackathon and the best project by Istvan Haller from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam was rewarded with a hardware gift.
During the week, we hosted a number of social events to give students and staff a chance to relax, socialize, and network. Some of the students used the opportunity to visit the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in London, where Microsoft researchers presented the Technology for Nature exhibition.
After five busy days, we said goodbye to the Summer School class of 2013. We were pleased to receive positive feedback reflecting the students’ appreciation:
Microsoft Cambridge management and staff were equally positive about the School’s outcome: “The 2013 PhD Summer School seems to have been a wonderful success,” Andrew Blake comments. “It has brought together around 60 research students who have shown us some of the very exciting work they engaged on, and it is clear that the next generation of researchers in computer science and related areas is full of ideas and promise for the future.”
—Scarlet Schwiderski-Grosche, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA