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New England Lab Celebrates 5 Years of Interdisciplinary Success

October 8, 2013 | Posted by Microsoft Research Blog

Posted by Rob Knies

Microsoft Research New England

When Microsoft Research New England was founded in 2008, the lab’s leadership explained that one of its key goals was to bring together computer scientists and social scientists to pursue new, interdisciplinary areas of research for understanding and enabling the computing experiences of the future.

Now, as the lab celebrates its fifth year of existence—with a one-day symposium of talks on mathematics and theory, economics, big data and machine learning, and social media—how have Jennifer Chayes, managing director of Microsoft Research New England, and Christian Borgs, deputy managing director, fared?

Pretty darned well, it appears.

“Our goals were to bring together the more mathematical sciences with the more social sciences,” Borgs says, “from economics, which is nearer to mathematics, to social media, which is, on the surface, quite far away.”

The lab began with three transplants from Microsoft Research’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters:  Chayes, Borgs, and mathematician Henry Cohn. The original idea was to create an amalgam that combined areas such as economics, social media, and health care with more traditional computer-science research areas like mathematics and cryptography—and to do so in a hotbed of academia that radiates out from Cambridge, Mass., home not only to the New England lab, but also to such legendary institutions as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, as well as many other universities, such as Boston University, Northeastern University, and the University of Massachusetts.

“We have had tremendous progress in the social sciences,” Borgs says, “hiring four of the most renowned social-media researchers in the world.”

He’s talking about Nancy Baym, Kate Crawford, and Mary L. Gray, in addition to danah boyd, who was hired during the lab’s first year. Their investigations range from examining how social media affects personal relationships to focusing on the biases inherent in big data to investigating how everyday use of technology shapes people’s lives.

“That’s a huge success,” Borgs adds, “starting from zero.” In fact, the opportunity to serve as a visiting researcher working with the Social Media Collective has become a highly coveted prize.

“In economics,” Borgs continues, “we have built an empirical economics program, in which we bring people from academia to look at Microsoft data to try to answer economic questions.” This program is spearheaded by Markus Mobius, a well-known experimental economist who came to the lab from Harvard University.

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Hires in other areas also have been fantastic. Madhu Sudan, formerly on the MIT computer science faculty, is one of the world’s acknowledged experts in computational complexity theory, algorithms, and coding theory. Ce Liu brings a strong background in computer vision, computer graphics, and applied machine learning. Boaz Barak and Yael Tauman Kalai pursue cryptographic research, Adam Tauman Kalai and Sham Kakade study the more mathematical aspects of machine learning, and recently, the group hired two algorithmic game theorists, Nicole Immorlica and Brendan Lucier.

Then there are esteemed figures such as Butler Lampson, whose broad and varied history of research resulted in his being awarded the A.M. Turing Award, the most prestigious award in computing, in 1992.

Being ensconced in the Boston area’s acclaimed academic community plays a key role in fostering collaborative discussions.

“Our lab is fitting in very well and is well-connected with the local academic community,” Borgs says. “We have joint seminars with Harvard, MIT, and Boston University, and our researchers have advised students at several local universities. We have a joint post-doc program with MIT in which we have a probabilist who spends one year with us and then two years at MIT, visiting us one day a week.

“We also have engaged economists locally in the empirical economics program, and they can use that to further their empirically oriented research.”

Given the goals established at the outset and the results identifiable after five years, it’s safe to say that Microsoft Research New England is off to a strong start—with the promise of more to come. But, Borgs adds, there’s another aspect that makes him particularly happy.

“I’m very proud that our lab has a large percentage of women,” he says. “I come from a family in which my grandmother got a Ph.D. in chemistry before 1920. I have a family background where women were very active academically at times when that was not very common. I’m proud that we have a lab where over 40 percent of the permanent researchers in the lab are women and that our lab is led by a woman scientist.”

Given the collection of postdocs, visiting researchers, regular visitors, interns, and affiliated, Israel-based researchers who collectively constitute a lively ecosystem of associates, it comes as little surprise that, five years on, the creators of Microsoft Research New England are happy with what they have achieved thus far.

“I am proud that we have built a vibrant community of researchers from scratch,” Borgs says, “bringing together fields that normally don’t talk to each other and helping Microsoft Research get recognized in economics and the social sciences—all within an atmosphere that is amazingly friendly and collegial.”