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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.

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    A Future for Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

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    As I read the Washington Post article by Anna Holmes entitled, “Technically, science will be less lonely for women when girls are spurred early,” I felt my heart grow heavy when I encountered the following quote from Jennifer Skaggs, a University of Kentucky education researcher: “We are back to the beauty versus brains saga, in which girls entering middle school feel forced to ask themselves, ‘Do I want to be smart in math, or do I want to be seen as attractive?’” Skaggs, who authored the June 2011 paper, “Making the Blind to See: Balancing STEM Identity with Gender Identity,” is also quoted as saying, “If a female is seen as technically competent, she is assumed to be socially incompetent. And it works the other way around.”

    Exciting the imagination and potential of girls to pursue technical fields

    Exciting the imagination and potential of girls to pursue technical fields

    I can’t believe that, in 2011, we still haven’t found a way to encourage girls to be confident in pursuing science, math, and technology courses in middle school and high school. I was in high school 20 years ago, and it never crossed my mind that I would not be popular, attractive, or boys would not like me because I was smart and took every advanced math and science course that was available. I was excited and pleased to let everyone in my high school know that I planned to be an engineer and attend one of the top 25 engineering schools in the country. Where have we, as a society, gone wrong when, 20 years later, we actually have fewer girls pursuing these fields?

    I feel fortunate to be able to represent Microsoft as the company’s lead for Women in Research, Science, and Engineering. As I travel the world and meet with amazing researchers, I feel confident that we will solve this problem in the next decade. I would like to highlight a couple of projects that are taking on this challenge:

    • Computer Game Design: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Addressing Underrepresentation in Computing is a project being conducted by Jill Denner at ETR Associates and Michael Mateas, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, and Teale Fristoe (faculty members and students) from the University of California at Santa Cruz Computer Science Department’s computer game design lab. Research suggests that many children, especially girls, want to create games based on dynamic relationships, social interactions, and storytelling. But game creation tools for beginners have not offered support for game mechanics that would enable such games. The project team’s work is Kodu AI Lab, which is a set of extensions to Microsoft Kodu Game Lab that enables the design of just such games. Targeted at middle-school girls, the team hopes to foster girls’ interest in computer technologies.
    • The Future Science Leaders program is led by Katherine Blumdell, Oxford University, for early-career women researchers in physics, math, and computer-science fields. The objective is to explore challenges that scientists face today, techniques for scientists to succeed in research, and to educate today's and tomorrow's scientists. The speakers at the 2010 workshop included Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the Nobel Laureate William D. Phillips from Maryland, and Professor Alyssa Goodman from Harvard. The program was funded, in part, by a Royal Society prize that Blumdell was awarded last year (given in honor of Rosalind Franklin, who pioneered research in DNA) for the promotion of women in sciences. After attending the workshop, each program participant presents her research at two high schools (one in her university city and one in her home town, to avoid excessive travel costs). The benefit: high-school students get to attend a talk by a young scientist who can be a role model—particularly for young women—and spark student interest in the sciences. In addition, the young scientists gain useful experience in speaking about their research.

    Encouraging women in the pursuit of computer science education is important to us at Microsoft Research. We offer support through the following two Microsoft Research Connections programs.

    • The Microsoft Research Graduate Women’s Scholarship Program is a one-year scholarship program for outstanding women graduate students and is designed to help increase the number of women pursuing a PhD in computer science, electrical engineering, or mathematics. This program supports women in the second year of their graduate studies. Women who are interested in this scholarship must apply during their first year of graduate studies. We began accepting applications on August 16. To be considered, all applications must be submitted by Thursday, October 6, 2011, 11:59 P.M. Pacific Time.
    • The Microsoft Research PhD Fellowship Program is a two-year fellowship for outstanding women and men in their third and fourth years of PhD graduate studies in the United States or Canada, with a research focus in computer science, mathematics, or electrical engineering. This program supports women and men in their third and fourth years of PhD graduate studies. We began accepting applications for 2012 on August 16. To be considered, all applications must be submitted by the office of the university department chair by Thursday, October 6, 2011, 11:59 P.M. Pacific Time.

    In the coming months, we will highlight projects and programs that Microsoft Research Connections will support to cultivate the next generation of women professionals in research, science, and engineering around the world.

    Rane Johnson, Principal Research Director, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Adjusting Childhood Pneumonia Vaccination Periods May Save Lives in Nepal

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    Nearly a million children die from pneumonia each year, making it a leading cause of death and the single most important health issue facing children under the age of five. The standard vaccination schedule calls for three doses of pneumonia vaccine given at six weeks, 10 weeks, and 14 weeks of age. Naturally, the intention is to protect children from this disease as early as possible—but administering the vaccine at such an early age also reduces how long the vaccine protects the child.

    The Oxford Vaccine Group is conducting a program in Nepal to determine if shifting the vaccination schedule can extend childhood immunity until the critical five-year point. For the trial, the team is scheduling the first two doses to be given at six weeks and 14 weeks, but the third dose is given much later, at eight months of age. The team is hopeful that delaying the final vaccination will protect children for much longer, thus reducing the mortality rate from this serious disease.

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    One of the biggest problems in medical informatics is keeping track of the data. Researchers must meticulously log who collected each piece of information, how it was collected, and any associated details. Manually inputting this data takes time away from actual research and is prone to error, while incomplete entries may cause problems for other researchers who refer to the material later. A team that is working on software support for medical informatics at the University of Oxford’s Department of Computer Science is seeking ways to simplify the process and reduce the risk of errors.

    With support from Microsoft Research, this team developed CancerGrid, a system to manage all the diverse data that are associated with a clinical trial. Each data item to be collected is associated with a clearly-defined semantic label so that the precise meaning will be clear to clinical staff, and researchers can be certain that any two trials that use the same semantic label for an item of data are recording exactly the same thing. This makes it possible to reuse and combine data, making each trial far more valuable to researchers. Windows Azure and Microsoft Excel, SharePoint, and InfoPath are used to collect and organize the data, providing easy and intuitive access to data and implementing rules to ensure that critical data is recorded consistently and accurately. Forms, databases, and the associated infrastructure for each new trial can be generated at the touch of a button, permitting the deployment of trial support infrastructure in a fraction of the time and a fraction of the cost of conventional methods.

    It is this flexibility and automation that made it possible for CancerGrid to meet the needs of the Oxford Vaccine Group, rapidly generating full document management support for the Nepalese pneumonia vaccine trial. By using a secure Internet connection, researchers in Nepal now transmit data back to the University of Oxford, where it can be analyzed and the effectiveness of the new vaccination regime assessed. Working on CancerGrid has been a very satisfying collaboration for both the Oxford team and Microsoft Research. We are hopeful that it will prove to be a powerful tool in the fight against pneumonia and many other diseases.

    Simon Mercer, Director of Health and Wellbeing, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Happy Birthday, Microsoft Research…Now Blow out the Candles and Back to the Lab

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    Microsoft Research @ 20 Years

    Twenty years; two decades; a fifth of a century—we can phrase it several ways, but what does it mean? To a person, it’s the onset of adulthood (or maybe the point marking only 10 more years of living in Mom and Dad’s basement); to a dog, it’s senescence. But to us at Microsoft Research, it marks the lifetime of our organization, which has grown and evolved in a remarkable era of transformation and innovation in computer science and scientific research.

    Yes, Microsoft Research turns 20 this September, and in keeping with the tradition of honoring base-10 birthdays, this seems like an appropriate time to look back on some significant accomplishments and take stock in our future. Over the next four weeks, we will highlight some particularly noteworthy research: from using computing to better understand the body’s immune response to HIV and AIDS, to measuring and modeling complex ecosystems and global environment conditions, to tools that inspire and enable citizen-scientists around the world.

    As you will see, the vast majority of these scientific advances were made possible because of joint efforts between Microsoft Research and academic, government, and industry scientists. Collaborative research is the sine qua non of my group, Microsoft Research Connections. We work with the world’s top academic and scientific researchers, institutions, and computer scientists to shape the future of computing in fields such as parallel programming, software engineering, natural user interfaces, and data-intensive scientific research. It is through the connection of dedicated researchers at Microsoft Research’s worldwide labs with the top minds in academia that we are able to push technology to tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems. Similarly, it is through our fellowships and grants that we are able to foster the next generation of world-class computer scientists.

    As we look forward to our next 20 years, we do so with renewed vigor and a reaffirmed commitment to improve the world through basic and applied research in computer science and software engineering. Whether it’s the extension of the computer into people’s everyday lives through our research on natural user interfaces, or our ongoing efforts to create educational tools such as the WorldWide Telescope, or our quest to apply algorithms to solve the mysteries of disease, we will be guided by the words of Rick Rashid, who started Microsoft Research in September 1991 and today heads its worldwide operations:

    "We are investing for the future, an insurance policy for the future. We’re doing things that, when we start, we don’t know if they are going to be successful. For us, it’s more about ideas and taking risks. Basic research is about agility. It’s about giving you the ability to change when you most need it."

    The ability to change when you need it most… now there’s something to celebrate, for sure.

    Tony Hey, Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Research Connections

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