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October, 2011

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.

October, 2011

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    FIRST Adds Kinect Technology to Robotics Competition Tool Kit

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    I’m thrilled to be part of a new phase of the partnership between Dean Kamen’s FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) organization and Microsoft (including the Microsoft Research Connections group). Last week, FIRST announced that Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox 360 sensor and the Kinect for Windows SDK beta software will be included in the standard robotics Kit of Parts for the 2012 FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) season.

    Dean Kamen, an American entrepreneur, inventor, and founder of FIRST, reveals Kinect as part of the 2012 FRC competitionDean Kamen, an American entrepreneur, inventor, and founder of FIRST, reveals Kinect as part of the 2012 FRC competition

    FRC is a unique “Varsity Sport for the Mind,” which is designed to help young people discover the interesting and rewarding aspects of engineering and research, while challenging teams and their mentors to solve problems in a six-week timeframe by using a standard Kit of Parts and a common set of rules. The 2012 kit will include Kinect technology, enabling competitors to not just control the robot, but to “be the robot.”

    By combining the Kinect technology with robotics, competitors will be able to control their robots by using a natural user interface—with potentially no joystick, game controller, or other input device required. Teams will have the option of programming their robots to respond to custom gestures that their human teammates create, or by using default code and gestures. Kinect will be beta tested by using robots built by FIRST students in the coming weeks in preparation for the 2012 competition.

    Kinect for Windows SDK beta
    “This is an awesome capability to incorporate into a robot,” said Bill Miller, director of FIRST Robotics Competition. “By working with Microsoft, we are able to provide FRC students with an additional high-level sensor capability, adding to the options for our students’ strategy on the field as well as delivering a unique robotics experience. This experience will take the competition to a new level, while also helping equip students with the skills and tools to innovate in the twenty-first century.”

    During the 2011 season, 2,072 FRC teams, totaling 51,800 students, competed at 59 events in the United States, Canada, and Israel. Participants are eligible to apply for nearly US$15 million in scholarships at more than 140 colleges and universities. An estimated 60,000 competitors will have access to Kinect technology in the 2012 competition.

    “By putting the amazing capabilities of the Kinect sensor in students’ hands, FIRST is able to provide a compelling and powerful new technology for the teams,” said Tony Hey, corporate vice president, Microsoft Research Connections. “With so many students already familiar with Kinect for Xbox 360 at home, in school, and lately even on their PCs via the Kinect for Windows SDK beta, I’m sure it will be a popular choice.”

    We are honored to partner with the amazing FIRST organization and their thousands of student, educator, and parent participants. It is exciting to see so many young people inspired by these technologies and we look forward to being amazed by their creativity during the upcoming competition!

    Stewart Tansley, Director of Natural User Interface, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Microsoft Biology Foundation Evolves into New Toolkit: .NET Bio

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    .NET Bio logoThe Microsoft Biology Foundation (MBF) has undergone a significant transformation since it was first released. Over time, it’s become clear that a new name was also in order. So today, I am pleased to announce that MBF will now be known as .NET Bio. In addition to the new name, .NET Bio will also have a new location: the Outercurve Foundation. This move is the next logical step in the life of the project: transferring its ownership to a nonprofit foundation that is dedicated to open-source software underscores our community-led philosophy; while Microsoft will continue to contribute to the code, it will do so as one among a growing community of users and contributors.

    About .NET Bio

    .NET Bio is a bioinformatics toolkit that was built using the Microsoft 4.0 .NET Framework. It is designed for use by developers, researchers, and scientists, making it simpler to build applications to meet the needs of life scientists. This open-source platform features a library of commonly used bioinformatics functions plus applications built upon that framework, and can be extended by using any Microsoft .NET language, including C#, F#, Visual Basic .NET, and IronPython.
     
    Users can perform a range of tasks with .NET Bio, including:

    • Importing DNA, RNA, or protein sequences from files with a variety of standard data formats, including FASTA, FASTQ, GFF, GenBank, and BED.
    • Constructing sequences from scratch.
    • Manipulating sequences in various ways, such as adding or removing elements or generating a complement.
    • Analyzing sequences by using algorithms such as Smith-Waterman and Needleman-Wunsch.
    • Submitting sequence data to remote websites (for example, a Basic Local Alignment Search Tool [BLAST] website) for analysis.
    • Outputting sequence data in any supported file format, regardless of the input format.

    Like other frameworks (for example, BioJava and BioPython), .NET Bio can help reduce the level of effort that is required to implement bioinformatics applications through the provision of a range of pre-written functionality.

    In addition to enhancements to the performance and capacity of the basic features contained in the previous version, the new version will provide a range of new features and demo applications. This includes:

    • Access to advanced math functions by using Sho scripting
    • A comparative DNA sequence assembler sample application
    • A range of command-line utilities

    .NET Bio is now in use by both academic and commercial organizations—including Microsoft—worldwide.

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


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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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