a tall building lit up at night

Microsoft Research Lab – Asia

A story that has lasted twenty years, a fellowship that has changed a group of people

May 28, 2020

He was the first Chinese scholar to become a “complete” fellow at all the following organizations: ACM, AAAI, IEEE, AAAS and IAPR. He was the first Chinese scholar to serve as the program chair of AAAI. He was elected as a foreign academician of the European Academy of Sciences, and he received the National Science Fund for Distinguished Young Scholars at the age of 29. This individual is Zhi-Hua Zhou, a professor from the Department of Computer Science and Technology at Nanjing University.

Over twenty years ago, in 1999, Zhi-Hua Zhou was still a first-year PhD student in computer science studies at Nanjing University. At the time, Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA) was still called “Microsoft Research China” and had only been established in China for less than a year.

It was also in 1999 that the Microsoft Research Asia Fellowship linked Zhi-Hua Zhou to MSRA. In the following two decades, the Microsoft Research Asia Fellowship went on to discover and support a large number of outstanding PhD students majoring in Computer Science in the Asia-Pacific Region. Their growth has become an important driving force for the development of computer science research in the region.

Group photo of winners of the 20th Fellowship in 2019 with Hsiao-Wuen Hon and Tie-Yan Liu

An investment in young talents

In 1999, the Microsoft Research Asia Fellowship was formally established. The winners would receive research funding, MSRA internship opportunities, and a chance to meet with Turing Award winners.

The Fellowship is specifically designed for junior PhD students in the Asia-Pacific region. It is an investment in young talents. As they are at their initial stage of research, Microsoft strives to help them make academic achievements by offering great opportunities and resources.

Group photo of winners of the 1st Fellowship in 1999
Zhi-Hua Zhou is the fourth person from the left in the back row

Although twenty years have passed, Zhi-Hua Zhou still vividly remembers his Fellowship interview. “I talked with Dr. Ya-Qin Zhang, Dr. Harry Shum, and Professor Changning Huang about my previous research experience and my values and methodology in doing research. Dr. Baining Guo asked me to write a small program on a whiteboard. I even had hamburgers for lunch with Dr. Kai-Fu Lee, and we talked while eating.” The interviews for the first Fellowship consisted of one-on-one talks between candidates and MSRA researchers.

Winning the Fellowship when he was a junior PhD student brought Zhi-Hua Zhou great benefits. He participated twice in international academic conferences using  funding offered by the Fellowship. “At the time, domestic research funding was scarce. Even teachers rarely had the opportunity to travel abroad for conferences, let alone students.” Zhi-Hua Zhou said that even after he started as a teacher at Nanjing University, the available funding was only enough to let him attend one international conference a year. Under the support of the Fellowship, Zhi-Hua Zhou was able to broaden his horizons, and this boosted his aspiration to work in academia after graduation.

“At that time, there were few people in Nanjing University who had the chance to travel abroad to attend conferences, so I was asked to give a talk at the university after returning to the country. After listening to my report, Kai Yu (the founder of Horizon Robotics) went to my dormitory to talk with me, which let him started his journey into artificial intelligence research.” It is conceivable that the opportunities granted to Zhi-Hua Zhou through the Fellowship also indirectly influenced an entire group of young people.

During the summer of 1999, through the opportunity provided by the Fellowship, Zhi-Hua Zhou worked as an intern at MSRA for two months. His mentor was Dr. Hongjiang Zhang. “The pay in MSRA was decent, and the researchers we worked with were big names.”

The two-month internship was short, but he reaped its benefits for several years. “It was very difficult to access foreign literature in schools at the time. Without the Internet being as convenient as it is today, available documents were often on research results from four or five years ago. What research was being done after that could only be guessed.” Zhi-Hua Zhou said, “I came into contact with the IEEE Digital Library for the first time at MSRA, which was really eye-opening, and I bring a lot of papers to school. Nanjing University probably didn’t establish its own IEEE Digital Library until 2004. Before that, those disks became my most important ‘nourishment for the mind.'”

Tao Qin, past Fellowship winner and current Principal Researcher at MSRA, also has a vivid memory of his experience after winning the fellowship. Soon after becoming a Fellow in 2006, Tao Qin was named the best intern at Microsoft Research Asia, which led to a visit to the United States and a barbecue at Bill Gates’ house. Tao Qin can still recall the relaxed atmosphere at the time. Gates wore casual clothes, and everyone gathered around him asking questions. Tao Qin raised a question about the “Red Sea Market” and “Blue Sea Market.”

In addition to visiting Gates’ house, Tao Qin’s trip to the United States also included a visit to the Microsoft Redmond headquarters. Senior researchers not only exchanged opinions on research and products with the visiting fellows, but also shared their views and thoughts on Information Technology. For young people, such experiences are indeed precious.

Foreseeing potential researchers

In the evaluation system of the Microsoft Research Asia Fellowship Program, the number of papers published is not the most important criterion for judging the applicant is qualified or not. Rather, academic potential is a more central element.

From academic rookie to veteran, Tao Qin is able to assess the scholarship from a deeper perspective. “Being awarded the fellowship back then gave me more confidence in doing research.” Now as an interviewer, he is able to understand its inner selection criteria: “What’s important is the potential impact of the research. Some students publish a lot of papers but they don’t pay close attention to a focused theme, which is not as good as those who offer a very important idea or a significant research direction.”

In line with MSRA’s mission, the Microsoft Research Asia Fellowship strives to “advance the state of art of computing.” “These students are rising stars,” said Tao Qin. “I hope they can continue to devote themselves to the academic field in the future by initiating new research directions and making further important contributions to research and to society. That is what we hope to see.”

The Fellowship has scouted out many talents with great academic potential. From the midst of the “Star Class,” the first group of Fellowship winners, renowned names such as Zhi-Hua Zhou, Xie Xing, Kun Zhou have emerged. This investment in young talents has already fed back into the global academic community.

Yuichi Yoshida was a 2009 Fellowship winner and currently serves as an associate professor at the National Institute of Information in Japan. In 2017, eight years after being awarded the Fellowship, he won the Microsoft Research (Young Faculty) Award, which is the most prestigious award for young researchers among all the awards established by the Information Processing Society of Japan (IPSJ). Microsoft Japan CTO Akira Sakakibara commented when giving the award: ” Immensely important and interesting is the research currently led by Yuichi.”

Yuichi Yoshida (middle) won the Microsoft Research (Young Faculty) Award, and Akira Sakakibara (right) presented the award

“Indeed, having a fellowship greatly helped me in building my career as a researcher,” said Yuichi Yoshida. As a President’s Award recipient, he was undoubtedly a top student at Kyoto University, but even so, he needed a boost.

“I didn’t have to worry about my budget for travels. Also, when you are applying for a research job, HR personnel are often unfamiliar with your research area. But if you have a fellowship, they assume you are strong enough.” The Fellowship even became his endorsement as a “good son.” “My mother hung it on the wall of the house to show it off to the neighborhood,” Yuichi Yoshida said.

The Fellowship has also successfully helped some students discover the direction of their research potential and what they truly love.

Jun Kato, a 2012 Fellowship winner, originally thought of himself as “a kind of person who could be happy in both industry and academia,” so he did internships at Microsoft Japan as a software engineer and a venture capital firm as an assistant during his masters course.

The Fellowship offered Jun Kato more opportunities to do research. He came to Microsoft Research Asia for an internship after winning the award. It was a special experience for him, where his research horizon was broadened. “I was fortunate to have collaborated with not only Human-computer Interaction (HCI) researchers, but also Programming Language (PL) researchers.” Such collaborations did not end with his internship at MSRA but rather continued, including another internship at Microsoft Research Redmond in 2013.

During Jun Kato’s internship at MSRA, his team members celebrated his birthday with him

The two internships resulted in academic publications at ACM UIST 2012 and ACM PLDI 2013, both of which are premier conferences in the field of HCI and PL.

Furthermore, the scholarship offered by the Fellowship was used purely for funding his research projects. The resulting paper was not only accepted by ACM CHI 2013, a top international conference in the field of human-computer interaction, but was also presented with the honorable mention award.

“The fellowship boosted my decision to become a researcher after my doctoral course,” said Jun Kato, who followed through with this decision after graduating from the University of Tokyo. Now, as a senior researcher at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan, he continues to cross the borders between research fields. He is also witnessing the intersection between HCI and PL, which is becoming more and more important both in society and academia.

Spurring the best with the best

“Inheritance” has been a key word for the Fellowship these past two decades. The outstanding achievements of senior scholars and the dazzling halo of the Microsoft Research Asia Fellowship have urged generations of fellows to follow in their steps.

At the Computing in the 21st Century Conference in 2011, Huanjing Yue, a second-year master student at Tianjin University, learned about the Fellowship for the first time. She was an intern at the Network and Multimedia Group of Microsoft Research Asia at the time. When both Cuiling Lam from her group and Qiang Hao from Tianjin University won the fellowship, awarded to them by Dean Hsiao-Wuen Hon, she shot them an admiring glance.

Huanjing Yue, still struggling with her research projects then, could not have imagined that she would receive the Fellowship herself two years later.

Huanjing Yue, the Fellowship winner in 2013

Her mentors provided critical support. Xiaoyan Sun, a senior researcher then at MSRA, encouraged Huanjing Yue to settle down and tackle her work one step at a time. They discussed questions and designed experiments together, staying up to work until midnight. Feng Wu, who was then the Principal Researcher at MSRA, helped revise her paper afterwards in the early hours of the morning. Finally, Huanjing Yue delivered remarkable results in the first year of her PhD: she proposed the cloud-based image coding and processing method, which has exerted significant influence in the field of Multimedia Computing.

Huanjing Yue still remembers the words that were said to her while having lunch with Turing Award winners after being awarded the Fellowship: “I believe that if you can get this award now, you’ll do well in the future no matter what kind of work you go into.” The Fellowship gave her more confidence and courage in pursuing science, and this also indirectly influenced her ultimate decision to return to her alma mater, Tianjin University, to continue her research.

Over the years, Bohyung Han, an associate professor at Seoul National University in South Korea, has continued to encourage his best students to apply for the Microsoft Research Asia Fellowship. “It is a pure fellowship program without any conditions and restrictions to students and/or their advisors. Rather, it provides the awardees with great opportunities, including the internship at MSRA.” Bohyung Han explains why he continues to recommend students to this program: “This is the only fellowship sponsored by a top-tier international company that is intended to support Korean graduate students in computer science.”

Bohyung Han attended Academic Day 2019 as a panelist and discussed talent cultivating

Seunghoon Hong is one of the students recommended by Bohyung Han who eventually went on to win the award. He said that what was valuable about the fellowship program was that while writing his research statement to apply to it, he thought deeply about his long-term research goals for the very first time and discussed this with his advisor. “That was a great experience as a junior Ph.D. student, and it has helped me to think about my research as part of a larger picture whenever I’ve worked on new problems,” he said.

Seunghoon Hong applied twice before finally getting the award, which is not a rare case. In 2013, his application ended with a failure. In 2014, he tried again with his new work, after pulling through a period of frustration in his research.

He still remembers his nervousness and embarrassment at the interview, though it was his second time to attend it. “I read the wrong script until I realized it on my third slide. The interviewers laughed about it and helped me start over.” In the end, he felt that the interview was more like a research discussion, during which he listened to insightful comments from MSRA researchers on some of the thoughts he shared, even though many of the thoughts were still unorganized at the time.

Seunghoon Hong’s success in receiving the Fellowship in 2014 helped him convince himself that he was making progress and working on meaningful research problems. “The MSRA fellowship encouraged me to pursue further challenges with new research problems and in new environments, and that has eventually led me to where I am now.” Currently, he is an assistant professor at the Korea Academy of Science and Technology (KAIST).

Seunghoon Hong won the Fellowship in 2014

There are many similar stories. Seven of Zhi-Hua Zhou’s students won the Fellowship, and his wife Jiang Yuan was also a Fellowship winner in 2002, painting a lasting story between him and the Fellowship.

Yingce Xia, a 2016 Fellowship winner, and Lijun Wu, a 2018 Fellowship winner, both interned in Tao Qin’s group and were also joint Ph.D. students between MSRA and, respectively, the University of Science and Technology of China and Sun Yat-sen University. “We also recommend interns at MSRA to apply to the fellowship program, and our expectations for them are even higher,” said Tao Qin.

Tao Qin (left) and Yingce Xia (middle)

The Fellowship is awarded to students who are “the best of the best.” These young scholars in the Asia-Pacific region have infinite power to stimulate each other, so MSRA established a community for them, hoping to significantly lengthen the time in which they can benefit from this program. MSRA has also organized PhD student forums, where they have invited Fellowship winners, nomination award winners, and other outstanding PhD students recommended by universities to participate, establishing a platform for these extraordinary peers to exchange innovative thoughts and ideas.

In the past two decades, 429 outstanding PhD students from more than 50 universities in the Asia-Pacific region have been awarded the Microsoft Research Asia Fellowships. “We are proud to see generations of the Fellowship winners growing and making dazzling achievements in the field of computer science. We are looking forward to witnessing the development of the Microsoft Research Asia Fellowship and the computer science field in the Asia-Pacific region for the next two decades. ” Dr. Hsiao-Wuen Hon, corporate vice president of Microsoft, chairman of Microsoft’s Asia-Pacific R&D Group and managing director of Microsoft Research Asia said. Discovery, empowerment, and inheritance: the initial values of the Fellowship have never changed, and the names of these fellowship winners gaining fame in the field of Computer Science are the best affirmation of the Microsoft Research Asia Fellowship.