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Interns Bring Fresh Perspectives
August 16, 2010 11:30 AM PT

Every summer, Microsoft Research offices are filled to bursting as a fresh crop of interns joins to tackle projects alongside full-time researchers. The intern program gives students an opportunity to work in an industrial-research environment, challenges them to explore new disciplines, and provides meaningful connections to mentors and colleagues who will become part of their professional networks.

But while the goal of the program is to give interns a sense of what a research career might have to offer, it also would be true to say that interns contribute to Microsoft Research by bringing their unique life experiences and fresh perspectives to the workplace.

Perhaps the freshest perspectives in 2010 come from Tamara Makonnen, who will be a senior at Interlake High School this September. Makonnen first heard of the Microsoft High School Intern Program through DigiGirlz, a camp sponsored by the company for high-school girls interested in technology careers.

“I applied in my junior year,” Makonnen says. “I had an interview with the Speech Technology group at Microsoft Research Redmond, and here I am!”

Tamara Makonnen
Tamara Makonnen

With guidance from principal architect Ivan Tashev, and manager/mentor Y. C. Ju, senior research software-development engineer, Makonnen has spent the summer working on a speech-enabled help system, collecting and analyzing data to determine how users would ask for help if this type of capability was embedded into phones or automotive devices. She also will use the results of this research to build an end-to-end help system.

“For me, the best part of interning at Microsoft Research has been working with great researchers in a supportive environment,” Makonnen says, “They are a terrific resource when interns run into bumps in the road.”

In contrast to Makonnen, Neil Conway, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley, is a veteran of Microsoft internship programs.

“I have interned at Microsoft twice before, but with product groups,” he explains. “This summer with Microsoft Research Silicon Valley is my first internship at a Microsoft research lab.”

Looking for opportunities that would expose him to more aspects of distributed systems, Conway found himself attracted to Microsoft Research.

Neil Conway
Neil Conway

“There are world experts from so many different disciplines collaborating together,” Conway says. “For example, my project this summer involves collaboration between experts in model checking and formal verification and experienced distributed-systems builders.”

The project keeping Conway busy this summer focuses on large-scale parallel-graph algorithms, leveraging an existing framework developed at the Silicon Valley facility for distributed computing called DryadLINQ. With mentors Yuan Yu, principal researcher at Microsoft Research Silicon Valley, and Sriram Rajamani, assistant managing director of Microsoft Research India, Conway has been investigating how efficiently and effectively DryadLINQ can analyze large graphs.

For Conway, it has been valuable learning how research results can affect a software company. His experience not only has given him the freedom to work on a variety of projects, but also an opportunity to influence real software that will be used by hundreds of millions of people—a motivating environment.

Kirtika Ruchandani’s motivation to intern at Microsoft Research India came from a fellow student. After completing three years of an intensive five-year integrated Bachelor's and Master's program at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Madras, Ruchandani was looking for a way to get a feel for research work. A senior student at IIT recommended Microsoft Research as the best lab in India for interns.

Kirtika Ruchandani
Kirtika Ruchandani

A self-confessed hardware fanatic, she was excited to work with the Mobility, Networks, and Systems group, headed by Venkat Padmanabhan, principal researcher, who is also her manager. For day-to-day mentoring, she has looked to Ranjita Bhagwan, researcher, and Krishna Chintalapudi, associate researcher. Ruchandani has been working on the problem of monitoring building-energy consumption using wireless sensor networks by studying ways to gather energy-consumption data in large corporate offices using indirect sensing.

“The thing I love most about this place,” she says, “is the openness. There is an open-door culture, and I can poke my head into almost any office, find out what they are doing, discuss what I am doing, and learn a lot about different research areas. It would be really hard to get that kind of exposure in another research environment.”

People might wonder why Omar Wasow wanted exposure to a research environment. Wasow’s internship at Microsoft Research New England is rather unusual, given that he already has a well-established Internet career. A Ph.D. candidate in African American Studies and Government at Harvard University, Wasow was a co-founder of BlackPlanet.com, a social-network site he helped grow to more than 3 million users a month. He regularly discusses technology on television and radio, most famously tutoring Oprah Winfrey in her first exploration of the Net in the 12-part series Oprah Goes Online. He also helped found a K-8 charter school in Brooklyn and is a recipient of the U.S. National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and the Aspen Institute’s Henry Crown Fellowship.

Omar Wasow
Omar Wasow

Wasow’s path to an internship started when he met danah boyd during his time at BlackPlanet.com.

“The more I learned of her work,” he says, “The more I admired her ability to offer perceptive and often contrarian analyses of trends in social media. When I became aware of the opportunity to apply for a Microsoft Research internship, I jumped at the chance. Working with danah offered me a unique chance to braid together my current work as an aspiring social scientist and my longstanding interest in social media.”

Wasow’s decision to intern at Microsoft Research came late in life compared to Christo Wilson‘s. A Microsoft Research Cambridge intern, he claims his path toward Microsoft Research began when he was just 13.

“My uncle does scoring and timing for world-class sporting events,” Wilson explains, “such as the Tour de France and the PGA Tour. I got a job working for him and ended up writing a new scoring system for tennis’ U.S. Open, which is how I got started as a programmer. They just retired my software last year, after using it for a decade.”

Christo Wilson
Christo Wilson

Interest in programming at a young age led Wilson to a master’s degree in Computer Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He had planned to leave school at the end of his master’s program.

“But I was introduced to so much amazing research,” he says, “that I got hooked and decided to stay on for a Ph.D. From there, Microsoft Research was the natural place to try to get an internship. When you’re a young researcher, you’ve got to aim high!”

Working closely with researchers Thomas Karagiannis and Hitesh Ballani at Microsoft Research Cambridge, Wilson is studying the problem of why networking protocols designed to work on the Internet don't necessarily work well in the data center—and looking at ways to solve the problem.

Meanwhile, Down Under, Ashnil Kumar learned about Microsoft Research Asia’s intern program while working on a Ph.D. at the University of Sydney’s Biomedical and Multimedia Information Technology Research Group. Kumar participated on a team that helped establish a tele-medicine and medical-IT demonstration lab at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and he is engaged in ongoing research with Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

Ashnil Kumar
Ashnil Kumar

“I heard about the intern program when I was awarded the Microsoft Research Asia fellowship,” Kumar says. “The opportunity to work with the eHealth team was just too good to pass up.”

Kumar has been working with mentor and senior researcher Wenwu Zhu. Their research focuses on the automatic analysis of e-health records, with the goal of mapping health records to body parts based on the medical conditions described, enabling health conditions to be monitored and visualized by the body regions affected.

Working with researchers at the top of their field has been a highlight of Kumar’s time in Beijing. What has made his experience really special, however, has been his interaction with these elite researchers.

“They are always willing to discuss the finer aspects of the work.” Kumar says. “They treat me like a fully accredited researcher. I always feel that my opinions and comments are valued, and they have supported my choices for the research problems I wanted to solve.”

Examples of thoughtfulness and the collaborative working relationship arise frequently when interns are asked about highlights of their internships. Conway’s comment is typical of the enthusiastic responses offered.

“I really enjoyed the ability to collaborate with anyone at the lab, not necessarily just your mentor,” he says. “During my internship, I've had the chance to interact with five or six different researchers at one time or another, which has been a great learning experience.”

Wasow agrees that his highlight has been the lab environment itself—and exposure to experts from multiple disciplines.

“The other interns and researchers at the New England lab,” he says, “never ceased to push my own thinking about how technology is transforming society, how it will transform education, best practices in nurturing online communities, and numerous other topics. I received great feedback from danah about how to refine my central research question. I've reveled in the interdisciplinary community here. The leadership at the lab does a phenomenal job of curating a group of incredibly bright and friendly folks so that cross-disciplinary interactions and collaborations arise organically.”

A highly supportive work environment has been a common experience for all the interns. Many, including Kumar, confess astonishment.

“From computing resources to IT and administrative support to social events that made me feel welcome, it was amazing,” he says. “The level of support was very high, and it meant I could work effectively and efficiently. Plus, the many sources of free caffeine meant I could always recharge my energy without having to go very far.”

All interns gave high marks to the special talks they attended, given by the research staff or by distinguished guest speakers. For most interns, the talks were an opportunity to expand their horizons. But for Ruchandani, a talk delivered by Satnam Singh, senior researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge, became a huge source of inspiration.

“It exposed me to something I was really keen on pursuing,” Ruchandani remembers. “I asked a lot of questions. After the talk, Sriram Rajamani got me 10 minutes with Dr. Singh—even though he had a flight to catch and I had to be pulled out of a reading-group session. This gesture amazed me, and those 10 minutes were the highlight of my internship.” 

The interns also made the most of opportunities to socialize and go sightseeing with fellow interns. Kumar, for one, thoroughly appreciated spicy Chinese food, explored the Ming Tombs, walked atop the Great Wall, and hiked the Longqing Valley. He has one word for his time in Beijing: incredible.

Challenging technical work, a rich learning environment, supportive colleagues, plenty of caffeine, and a lot of fun social activities. Is there anything else that adds to the Microsoft Research intern experience? Makonnen says there is one other factor.

“Everyone is from everywhere!” she says “I think having a global community here at Microsoft Research contributes to its success.”

Certainly the interns themselves, coming from diverse life experiences “everywhere,” add to that success.