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Rave Reviews for New Faculty Fellowship Program
By Rob Knies
April 27, 2007 12:01 AM PT

With Microsoft Research’s New Faculty Fellowship Program in its third year, the perspective of time now can be applied to measure the effort’s success.

And, say recipients of the program’s initial awards, the verdict is a hearty thumbs-up—welcome news for the five 2007 recipients just announced.

“The Microsoft fellowship,” says Frédo Durand, who in 2005 was named one of five inaugural recipients, “really gave a huge bonus of energy to my research and my research career.”

The New Faculty Fellowship Program, administered by Microsoft Research’s External Research & Programs group as part of its mission to support and collaborate with the academic community, is designed to identify and assist exceptional first-, second-, and third-year professors who are advancing the state of the art of computer-science research.

“New faculty is really the lifeblood of the field of computer science,” says Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research. “They bring a lot of the new ideas; they bring a lot of new excitement and new technologies into the field.”

Microsoft Research recognizes, however, that until young professors can build a reputation, they typically struggle to secure adequate funding for their research work, hence the need to nurture outstanding young faculty members early in their careers.

“What we’re trying to do,” Rashid explains, “is make sure there’s a really healthy ecosystem, that we’ve got great people going into the field of computer science, becoming professors, and then themselves producing great students that are going to keep the field going into the future.”

It seems to be working, from the testimonials from 2005 recipients included in a recent video.

“This award is really nice,” says Radhika Nagpal, an assistant professor of Computer Science in Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, “in that it is an unrestricted gift from Microsoft Research to support whatever research the faculty would like to do.”

That will be music to the ears of the 2007 recipients:

“Microsoft wants to see computing advance over many years to come,” says Harold Javid, the program manager who runs the New Faculty Fellowship Program. “What better way to do that than to identify those who are the future leaders when they are still young and give them an incentive for their career and their research?”

Each recipient receives $200,000 and a host of other resources, including software, attendance at academic and professional conferences, and an opportunity to engage with researchers from Microsoft Research. Another benefit of the award—perhaps the most important—is that recipients gain the freedom to plan their research agendas to transform their chosen disciplines and to advance the state of the art in their particular fields of interest.

Eric Grimson, professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is among those who appreciate the assistance Microsoft Research provides.

“We want our faculty to really reach out a long ways,” Grimson says, “and things like this fellowship program give them a chance to do that.”

Durand, an associate professor within the Computer Graphics Group of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, cites the freedom the New Faculty Fellowship Program enables as one of the keys to its value.

“Most sources of funding tend to be rigid,” he says. “You have to find a box where you fit. You have to find the right agency. I think that the flexibility of the Microsoft support was really important in this regard.”

That, says Tom Healy, External Research & Programs lead program manager, is the whole idea.

“It empowers them,” Healy says, “to pursue novel directions that could have the potential for high impact and great results over the long term.”

In these days of waning interest in the field of computer science, particularly among women, the program plays an important role.

“I’m particularly delighted,” Grimson says, “that young women are being selected for these fellowships, because it helps set a role model that I think is really important in this country.”

You won’t get an argument on that front from Nagpal.

“It’s like instant recognition,” she smiles. “People know you. People know that your work was chosen amongst a bunch of other people’s work. I think that receiving this fellowship early on in my career made a huge difference.”

Eligibility criteria state that just one nominee per university may be entered into the program’s rigorous, multiround selection process, which culminates with 10 candidates being interviewed face-to-face by a distinguished panel from Microsoft Research and the academic community. From the 10 semifinalists, five recipients are chosen.

Approximately 100 young faculty members from the United States and Canada applied for the 2007 awards. The five recipients:

Magdalena Balazinska

Magdalena Balazinska
  • Institution: University of Washington.
  • Title: Assistant professor.
  • Department: Computer Science & Engineering.
  • Reaction to award: “I am thrilled and deeply honored to have been selected as one of the Microsoft Research New Faculty Fellows! This $200K gift will allow me to fund two graduate students over two years. We will be able to work together on riskier projects without having to worry about funding these projects through long-lead-time grants.”
  • Current focus: “I aminterested in building data-management systems for monitoring the physical and digital worlds. In particular, I am exploring techniques to combine real-time data streaming in from geographically distributed sensors with rich historical data that accumulates over time. The goal is to provide users with a more accurate, detailed understanding of the environment they are monitoring. This work has the potential to significantly improve our ability to accurately monitor our world.”

Josh Bongard

Josh Bongard
  • Institution: University of Vermont.
  • Title: Assistant professor.
  • Department: Computer Science.
  • Reaction to award: I am deeply honored—stunned, to be honest—to receive this very generous gift. My heartfelt thanks to Microsoft Research for going out of your way to support us new academics. It's very much appreciated. My immediate reaction was disbelief. My second reaction was to slowly recall all the backlog of experiments I'd been planning, which I thought would take years to get to. With this gift from Microsoft Research, I'll be able to get most of them started this year.”
  • Current focus: Design of robot groups in simulation, adaptive strategies and self-modeling for autonomous robots, machine learning, and automation of modeling and experimentation.

Yixin Chen

Yixin Chen
  • Institution: Washington University (of St. Louis).
  • Title: Assistant professor.
  • Department: Computer Science & Engineering.
  • Reaction to award: “I am very excited. This award is very prestigious. Every young faculty in computer science knows this fellowship. The recognition, funds, collaboration opportunities with Microsoft Research, and other resources that come with this award will give a huge boost to my career at this early stage. The $200K gift will go a long way in supporting our cutting-edge research on unorthodox methods for large-scale, nonlinear optimization, which will be difficult to get funded elsewhere. I am particularly thrilled about the prospect of accelerating our research in radiotherapy optimization, which can improve the treatment quality for many forms of cancers.”
  • Current focus: “I am interested in nonlinear optimization, a fundamental problem in computational science with ample applications such as automated planning, medical operations, computational biology, and engineering design. However, its prohibitive computational complexity is a bottleneck for many areas. My work reveals that there are strong structures underlying the constraints in real-world problems and that, by exploiting such structures, many previously intractable problems can, in fact, be solved efficiently. The goal is that, by reducing the computational complexity of nonlinear optimization, we will develop fast and robust decision-making tools and significantly extend the ways that computing can be used in medical, scientific and engineering applications.”

Adam Siepel

Adam Siepel
  • Institution: Cornell University.
  • Title: Assistant professor.
  • Department: Biological Statistics and Computational Biology.
  • Reaction to award:I was blown away. This will make a huge difference in getting my research program off the ground.”
  • Current focus: “I amdeveloping new computational methods for identifying novel genes and regulatory elements in the human genome.  I build probabilistic models that describe both the structure and the evolution of genomic sequences and then develops algorithms that allow these models to be used in improving genome annotations and shedding new light on genome evolution.  I am particularly interested in identifying the changes in DNA sequences that make each species different from the others.”

Luis von Ahn

Luis von Ahn
  • Institution: Carnegie Mellon University.
  • Title: Assistant professor.
  • Department: Computer Science.
  • Reaction to award:This is extremely exciting! The NFF will allow me to jump-start my research program as a junior faculty.”
  • Current focus: “My research focuses on harnessing the computational abilities of humans and computers together in order to solve problems that would be impossible to solve by either one alone.”

Each of the five can expect to become an immediate focus of colleagues’ curiosity.

“I think people, especially junior faculty, are all aware of this opportunity,” says Wei Wang, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a 2005 New Faculty Fellow. “They also want to compete for this. When I went to conferences, that was the most-asked question to me: ‘How did you get it?’ “

Interested young faculty members must demonstrate that they are advancing computer research in novel directions with the potential for high impact and who demonstrate the likelihood of becoming thought leaders in the field. It’s a lofty bar, but it rewards the best of the best, and, Javid says, that support will continue.

“Microsoft is committed to the New Faculty Fellows and the New Faculty Fellowship Program over the long term,” he concludes. “We’ll be selecting them year after year as we go forward, and we want to see each one of them successful as their careers develop.”