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On October 5, 2011, on the stately campus of the University of Edinburgh, Sir Tim O’Shea, principal of the University of Edinburgh, and Rick Rashid, chief research officer of Microsoft Research, officially inaugurated a significant joint initiative in informatics. It was standing room only in a crowded lecture hall as Rick delivered a Distinguished Lecture on the topic, “It’s a Data Driven World—Get Over It.”
Rick Rashid and Andy Gordon with the supervisors of the first group of PhD students in the joint initiative. From left to right: Stratis Viglas, Charles Sutton, Guido Sanguinetti, Rick Rashid, Amos Storkey, Jane Hillston, Andy Gordon
The new initiative brings together researchers from two of Europe’s leading centers in informatics: the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics (the UK’s largest and foremost university research center in informatics), and Microsoft Research Cambridge. It builds on the deep intellectual ties between the two institutions—ties that include research into programming languages and semantics, bioinformatics, machine learning, computer vision, natural-language processing, and security. Microsoft Research Cambridge’s Managing Director Andrew Blake, Distinguished Scientist Christopher Bishop, and Principal Researcher Andy Gordon all hold part-time professorships. University of Edinburgh faculty members—including Paul Anderson, David Aspinall, Gordon Plotkin, David Robertson, Sethu Vijayakumar, and Bonnie Webber—have received funding for PhD scholarships and senior fellowships from Microsoft Research in the past.
To celebrate and consolidate these relationships, we are delighted to announce that Microsoft Research Connections is co-sponsoring four studentships (PhD scholarships) to be awarded to students at the University of Edinburgh. As Rick Rashid said at the launch, “PhD students are the glue that binds together collaborations between Microsoft Research and the university.” The studentships, which are offered through the Microsoft Research Connections PhD Scholarship Programme, receive half of their funding from Microsoft, and half from matching funds obtained by the university. As with all studentships provided by the PhD Scholarship Programme, the recipients will receive a three-year bursary and invitations to the Microsoft Research annual PhD Summer School in Cambridge, where they learn about Microsoft Research Cambridge research projects, acquire key transferable skills, and share ideas with Microsoft researchers. All students are supervised by a university faculty member and co-supervised by a Microsoft researcher. In addition, some of the University of Edinburgh studentship recipients may also be offered an internship at Microsoft Research.
Applications for the first round of scholarships closed in September 2011. University of Edinburgh faculty members submitted proposals for twelve research projects for the studentships and the following four projects were selected:
The students who are selected to participate in these research projects will begin their studies in September 2012.
Microsoft products have previously benefited from Edinburgh research—for example, the technology behind the Microsoft Visual F# programming language was derived from research at the University of Edinburgh. As reported in The Scotsman, it’s hoped that the new initiative will encourage a new generation of innovators in Scotland. So strike up the bagpipes—here’s to more Edinburgh innovations!
—Andy Gordon, Principal Researcher, Microsoft Research Cambridge, and Scarlet Schwiderski-Grosche, Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA
Astronomy is rapidly becoming exponentially data rich, with data management, data exploration, and knowledge discovering becoming central to the research enterprise. This has brought about great opportunity for growth and discovery in both astronomy and computational science. It has also created many technical and methodological challenges. The emerging field of AstroInformatics provides a bridge between the scientific challenges that are associated with this rapid data volume growth and the inherent complexity of astronomy, engineering, computer science, and applied statistics.
This fascinating field was the subject of the AstroInformatics 2011 Conference (AI2011) held in Sorrento in September. The four-day conference attracted a broad community of astronomical, biomedical, computational, and educational professionals from around the world. An estimated 10 percent of the conference speakers presented via Skype, in keeping with the spirit of informatics. I’m proud to say that a number of representatives from the Earth, Energy, and Environment (E3) division of Microsoft Research Connections were active participants, both as attendees and presenters—including several keynotes.
Keynote by Dan Fay, director of E3 at Microsoft Research Connections, on “The Rise of X-Informatics.
Demonstrating Thought Leadership
The conference began with a keynote by Dan Fay, director of E3 at Microsoft Research Connections, on “The Rise of X-Informatics.” Dan’s presentation successfully guided the discussion throughout the event on engaging scientific research with advanced computing technologies such as WorldWide Telescope, Microsoft Silverlight PivotViewer, and OData.Later, Jenn Lin, senior test lead, Microsoft Silverlight, presented “Interactive Visualization of Massive Datasets Using Microsoft PivotViewer.” During the session, Jenn demonstrated compelling examples of how PivotViewer, an interactive data visualization tool, can be used to visualize and facilitate discovery of hidden science in large datasets. Audience feedback to Jenn’s session was positive.
“We should really explore interactive visualization tools like this while doing our data mining,” commented visionary scientist George Djorgovski. Another attendee, May Wang, immediately began visualizing ways to integrate the tools into her own work. “My (biomedical informatics) research can really benefit from PivotViewer,” she noted.
Building a Better Scientist
On the final day of the conference, I had the honor of opening the Computational Education for Scientists Workshop with my keynote presentation, “Building a Better Scientist.” I should note that several of the researchers who attended AI2011 have been significant contributors to—and supporters of—the Microsoft Research Transform Science effort since 2007. They recognize not only the importance of interdisciplinary computing for sciences, but also the urgency of creating a generation of computationally empowered scientists. “Computational literacy and data literacy are critical for all,” said Kirk Borne, a professor at George Mason University.
The day’s presentations stimulated a passionate discussion within the audience. Many people expressed their great expectation for Microsoft to help create computational thinkers among young scientists. “‘Building a Better Scientist’ will be a reserved topic at the next AstroInformatics meeting,” said Professor Giuseppe Longo a professor at the University Federico II in Naples, Italy, and a co-founder of the annual AstroInformatics conference.
The grand finale of AI2011 was a half-day workshop on Microsoft Research WorldWide Telescope (WWT). A dozen local science educators from high schools and a regional science museum joined the session attendees for this fascinating workshop.
I began the workshop by introducing Microsoft Research’s twentieth anniversary and presented WWT as a showcase project. Next, I introduced Alyssa Goodman of Harvard University who presented “Seamless Astronomy Enabled by WWT,” in which she discussed research that we recently featured on Science@Microsoft (see WorldWide Telescope and Seamless Astronomy). Her enthusiasm for WWT was reflected in her presentation. “WWT has made it to the community beyond personal levels,” she said. Speaker Ed Valentijn demonstrated WWT and Kinect in his session, the aptly named “Demonstrating WWT Live to 5,700 Festival Visitors.” (“The same will happen in Italy soon,” noted Professor Longo.)
During an hour-long Q&A session, I demonstrated how easy it is to create an astonishing WWT tour by combining data and images in WWT, with additional presentation materials in almost any form: astronomical images, music, clip art, narrative audio, etc. The excited audience couldn’t help but discuss it amongst themselves (in Italian). Although I could understand only a little of their conversation, I knew that—once again—WWT had wowed the audience.
—Yan Xu, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections
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
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:
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.
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