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February, 2013

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.

February, 2013

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Women Students Compete at Worldwide Hackathon

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    Engineers Week: it takes place every February, a celebration of accomplishments in mechanical, civil, chemical, and biomedical engineering. Why, I wonder, do we hear so little about the breakthroughs powered by computer and information sciences?  And why do we almost never hear about the importance of growing more women in these vital fields, which touch almost every aspect of modern life?

    Of the 1.4 million computing jobs between 2006-2018, only 29% will be filled by women

    Like many women in computing, I’ve known the discouragement that comes from being dismissed in a male-dominated field. I’m committed to changing this situation, which is why I’m delighted to announce that this year’s Engineering Week will feature the first annual International Women’s Hackathon, a worldwide competition sponsored by Microsoft Research and the Microsoft Imagine Cup, the National Center for Women & Information Technology, the Association for Computing Machinery Committee on Women in Computing, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Women in Engineering, and Skype.

    On February 22–24, at high schools and university campuses around the world, we will kick off this first-ever, women-only hackathon, in which teams choose to solve one of four challenges. Our primary goal is to help young women feel confident of their capabilities and excited by the opportunities to solve global problems. We will provide the event organizers with tools to help them successfully organize and lead their events the way they want. Some events will involve no more than eight women, while others will have more than 150 participants. We will connect all of the events live via Skype, which will allow participants at different locations to network with peers and discuss the challenges. I will be at the University of Southern California, and I can’t tell you how anxious I am to see the solutions that these amazing young women will create.

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    Bridging the Gap

    I’m especially grateful to be part of this event when I think about my own past and how, unfortunately, many young women today are having similar experiences. When I was in high school, I was the only girl who took the technical and computer drafting class (even though it was offered in seven different periods!), which was the closest thing to computer science education back then.

    As a mechanical engineering major in college, I was one of just a handful of women taking electrical engineering and computer engineering courses. It was here that I really learned, first-hand, the obstacles young women encounter when they to break into computer science—obstacles that continue to impede female computer science students around the world today. During team projects, I was not expected to do the hard technical work. Rather, my teammates wanted me to come up with the “big” idea, to keep the project on track, and later to present our finished work. While I enjoyed these roles, I still bristled at the assumption that “as a girl” I lacked the technical chops to shoulder the difficult computational challenges.

    As I visit campuses in the United States, Korea, and various European countries, and Skype with young women from the Middle East, India, Latin America, and Australia, I get an uneasy sense of déjà vu. Regrettably, I hear these themes again and again:

    • In most of my classes, I am one of only a few women, and during projects my male teammates always assign me project management and the presentation. Why can’t I get recognized for my technical abilities?
    • When I participate in a hackathon or any type of computer science competition, I am the last chosen. This makes me feel undervalued and very uncomfortable.
    • There are no women on my department’s faculty, so I have no role models. I often wonder if this really is a field where a woman can be successful.
    • I want to make an impact and solve big world problems. Can I really do that in computer science?

    After 20 years, it’s surprising that the challenges have not changed much for women in computing, especially since the opportunities today are so plentiful. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2018 there will be 1.4 million open technology jobs in the United States, but we will graduate only enough female computer and information science majors to fill about 29 percent of them. These predictions are all the more dispiriting when you realize that the latest advances in improving healthcare, protecting the environment, and upgrading manufacturing have come from technological innovations.

    I believe that no other field offers as many opportunities for students computer science does. It is to the benefit of both women and society as a whole to have a wide diversity of professionals working in a field like computer science, which has the potential to influence so many aspects of our lives.

    Rane Johnson-Stempson, Education and Scholarly Communication Principal Research Director, Microsoft Research Connections

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    On Helium and Chocolate

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    Powerful Research Tools Shared at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting

    We love our jobs at Microsoft Research, and a big part of that is about how much we love physics and technology. And chocolate. Consider: if you place helium in a (well-made) bag and let it go, there is nothing to prevent it from ascending to the very edge of outer space; a free ride for a small payload using nothing more exotic than a canister of helium available for $39.95 at your local party supply store. The payload in our case is a GPS and a radio built on .NET Gadgeteer (more on this below), the purpose is atmospheric research, and the underlying technology is from Microsoft. This blog is about sharing our technology and tools with Earth scientists at their annual convention in early December in San Francisco.

    Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer display at the Microsoft Research exhibit booth
    Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer display at the Microsoft Research exhibit booth

    We set up our booth at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting exhibit hall in San Francisco’s Moscone Center. The exhibit hall is an enormous space where universities, specialized companies, non-profits, and government agencies (such as NASA) were displaying their own exhibits in parallel with the massive intellectual swap meet going on in the poster and lecture rooms—and in the hallways in between. The underlying subject: how does the Earth work and where is our ecosystem headed? This is serious business, and we at Microsoft Research are trying to help get answers by providing support on the technology front.

    Exhibits at major scientific meetings are a great way to show scientists some of the powerful tools that are available from Microsoft Research, and so that is what we did, mostly one conversation at a time. One of my favorite aspects of working in an exhibit booth is the look on people’s faces after I’ve shown them some technology we provide for open use and then tell them it’s free: a scientist’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed astonishment is a great reward for years spent building these tools.

    Steven Johnston chats with visitors to the Microsoft Research booth as the weather balloon hovers above.“But where do the helium and the chocolate come in?” you might ask, a fair question. We spent a lot of time prior to the AGU Fall Meeting pondering, “What do people respond to?” because we wanted them to have a positive experience at our exhibit. Well, for me, chocolate and toys are good, and happily, our .NET Gadgeteer team sent their lead technologist and jack-of-all-trades Steven Johnston to join us from Great Britain. .NET Gadgeteer is a whole passel of rapid prototyping technology “toys” [think computer plus sensors plus radio—all modular] supported by a free software development toolkit. Steven's backpack was packed with .NET Gadgeteer devices plus a weather balloon; one quick stop at Ghirardelli and another at the local party supply store and we had chocolate for the booth visitors and helium to inflate the weather balloon. We were ready for business. (The balloon stayed safely tethered, though Steven regularly releases them into the atmosphere back home.)

    The AGU Fall Meeting ran December 3–7 with more than 22,000 attendees. Our (welcoming!) booth ran four of those days, during which we collected surveys on data challenges, handed out a metric ton of chocolate, and engaged countless stoppers-by with our ensemble of technologies. This growing ensemble today includes .NET Gadgeteer, Layerscape for data visualization, CLEO, DataUp, Bing Maps, FetchClimate, and more. On a whim, we also brought in an ersatz campfire to conjure up fireside chats, and, to our delight, these were a huge success, thanks to our scientist collaborators (and Kris Tolle’s inspiration). Of particular note: Matthew Smith from the Microsoft Research Cambridge Computational Ecology group presented his research on improving Earth models via data integration—work that is vital to understanding and improving how our predictive models show where we are headed in coming decades.

    Fireside chats at the Microsoft Research booth were a huge success, thanks to our scientist collaborators.
    Fireside chats at the Microsoft Research booth were a huge success,
    thanks to our scientist collaborators.

    To cap off the event, Tony Hey, vice president of Microsoft Research Connections, gave a session talk on who we are and how we can help academic researchers. Tony’s presentation brought in lots of additional visitors, almost all of whom came away with a deepened appreciation of Microsoft’s collaborative work with the academic community. To get a sense of some of what we talked about, check out Getting Started with Layerscape and its many links.

    Rob Fatland, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Celebrating Excellence at POPL 2013

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    Arrivederci, Roma: As the 40th ACM Principles of Programming Languages conference (POPL 2013) drew to a close on Friday, January 25, 2013, I was struck by how much it was a celebration of excellence, and I was pleased that Microsoft Research could play a big part in that. With three of our labs represented—Cambridge, India, and Redmond—Microsoft Research attendees presented 10 of the 43 papers in the main conference and 11 more throughout the week, hosted a new workshop, and lent a substantial hand in the conference’s organization. 

    Just getting in to POPL—with its 18 percent acceptance rate—signifies excellence, but as the following highlights demonstrate, the level of achievement among this year’s attendees was off the charts.

    Judith Bishop (left) of Microsoft Research Connections and Natarajan Shankar (right) from SRI, on the Verified Software Initiative, present Xavier Leroy (center) from INRIA with the Verified Software Milestone Award 2012.
    Judith Bishop (left) of Microsoft Research Connections and Natarajan Shankar (right) from SRI, on the Verified Software Initiative, present Xavier Leroy (center) from INRIA with the Verified Software Milestone Award 2012.

    Georges Gonthier from Microsoft Research Cambridge presented the opening keynote address. In a rousing manner, he described how he and a team at INRIA (France’s national institute for computational sciences) spent six years chasing a proof in group theory, and how they finally managed to solve it by using Coq, a language and tool that is available across various platforms, soon to include Windows 8. Group theory has been used to explain how atomic particles combine and serves as a base for cryptography, itself an important part of security, a theme that recurred throughout the conference. I spotted Georges chatting with students at the Microsoft table during the breaks, carefully explaining his work and encouraging his listeners to go further. I felt proud to have him as a colleague.

    INRIA was mentioned again when I presented the second Microsoft Research Verified Software Milestone Award to Xavier Leroy, architect of the CompCert C verified compiler and the leader of the INRIA team that implemented it. This award, initiated by Microsoft Research’s Tony Hoare and offered by the Verified Software Initiative, honors true milestones in verifying software. Xavier was a very popular choice, and I reflected on how important it is to engage in such research as we face increasing cyber attacks on every program we write.

    From celebrating the present we went to looking at the past. POPL began in 1973, and Dartmouth’s Doug McIlroy, who had been at that first conference, gave a humorous account of the topics that were covered and how they differed—and yet did not differ—from what we discuss today. Then there was a true moment of excellence: the most famous Italian computer scientist, Corrado Böhm, was recognized with the presentation of a scroll by Roberto Giacobazzi, general chair of POPL. In 1953, before FORTRAN and ALGOL were even specified, Corrado wrote a thesis on compiling a language in itself, using lambda calculus. He went on to train generations of computer scientists in Italy. With his wife and family by his side, he received a standing ovation from the POPL community.

    Back at the Microsoft Research table, the 22 researchers at POPL had many interesting chats with students and faculty, focusing on how we face the challenge of making our research and teaching—in the words of Corrado Böhm—“simple, general, and abstract.” Better languages, with better security and wider applicability, help us achieve those goals. I’m certain that the next POPL will find us another step further along in the pursuit of excellence.

    Judith Bishop, Director of Computer Science, Microsoft Research Connections

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