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Faculty Fellows: the Magnificent Seven
May 23, 2012 6:00 AM PT

Juan Carlos Niebles was a first-year computer-science graduate student in 2006, on his way to a Ph.D. from Princeton, when his Ph.D. adviser, Fei-Fei Li, was named a Microsoft Research Faculty Fellow in the second year of the fellows program.

Now, Niebles himself has been awarded one of the prestigious fellowships. He is one of seven researchers to receive this year’s Microsoft Research Faculty Fellow awards, and he credits Li with helping get his career off to a successful start.

“She definitely had a crucial role in helping me shape my scientific interests and research visions,” Niebles says. “After my graduation, Fei-Fei has also been tremendously helpful and supportive, providing friendly advice for my academic career.”

Moreover, Niebles has gone on to become a mentor in his own right, returning to his native Colombia to teach and inspire a new generation of students.

“That makes Juan Carlos a trailblazing generation in Colombia and Latin America in general,” Li says. “He returns as one of the first generation of students who have obtained prestigious degrees in the best universities in the U.S. and Europe. This underscores the very spirit of the fellowship.”

Niebles’ research, she adds, demonstrates his potential to make significant career contributions.

“Juan Carlos is a recognized young leader in the area of human motion recognition and analysis in computer vision,” she says. “His very first paper as a Ph.D. student has been cited more than 600 times in the field. It was a pioneering work in this area of research, igniting an important trend in computer vision. This is a rare achievement by a graduate student.

“Since then, Juan Carlos has demonstrated his excellent technical skills and creativity in a series of high-impact work, amounting to an impressive volume of Ph.D. publications.”

This year’s Microsoft Research Faculty Fellow honorees span the physical globe as well as the world of computer research. They also underscore how valuable these awards can be—as demonstrated by the critical role Li played in helping Niebles gain recognition.

2012 recipients of the Microsoft Research Faculty Fellowship Awards
Recipients of the 2012 Microsoft Research Faculty Fellows awards: (from left) Andreas Krause, Miriah Meyer, Juan Carlos Niebles, Emma Brunskill, Stephen Gould, Ashutosh Saxena, and Constantinos Daskalakis.

Each fellowship includes a cash award, which enables the Faculty Fellows to increase the amount of research occurring during the critical years of their careers and includes access to other Microsoft resources, such as software, invitations to conferences, and engagements with Microsoft Research personnel. Microsoft’s annual outlay for the program is more than $1 million annually, and the aggregate total since the awards were instituted is more than $8 million.

This year’s fellows were recognized for their computing research in areas such as robotics, machine learning, human-computer interaction, and social networking—most of which are significant focus areas for Microsoft Research.

The 2012 Microsoft Research Faculty Fellows officially receive their fellowship awards during the Faculty Summit, to be held July 16 and 17 in Redmond, Wash. Niebles will be recognized during the Latin American Faculty Summit, May 23-25 in Riviera Maya, Mexico.

The 2012 Faculty Fellows:

  • Emma Brunskill, assistant professor, Department of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University. Her research focuses on creating automated decision systems that interact with people, a challenge that spans artificial intelligence, machine learning, and human-computer interaction.
  • Constantinos Daskalakis, assistant professor, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Daskalakis studies the interface of computer science and economics, with a focus on computational aspects of the Internet, online markets, and social networks.
  • Stephen Gould, fellow, ANU College of Engineering & Computer Science, The Australian National University. He was recognized for his research in developing mathematical models that enable computers to learn how to interpret scenes from images.
  • Andreas Krause, assistant professor, Department of Computer Science, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. Krause's research is in learning and adaptive systems that actively acquire information, reason, and make decisions in large, distributed, and uncertain domains, such as sensor networks and the web.
  • Miriah Meyer, assistant professor, School of Computing, University of Utah. Her current work focuses on nimble, intuitive visualization tools that support research in genomics and molecular biology.
  • Niebles, assistant professor, Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Universidad del Norte. Niebles works on designing novel algorithms for automatic recognition and detailed understanding of human motions, activities, and behaviors from images and videos, all of which can be used in robotics.
  • Ashutosh Saxena, assistant professor, Department of Computer Science, Cornell University. His research is focused on the development of new machine-learning algorithms that enable robots to process massive amounts of sensory input data in real time and learn how to perform tasks in unstructured environments.

The criteria to become a Microsoft Research Faculty Fellow are demanding. Researchers are sought who are advancing computing research in novel directions with potential for high impact on the state of the art. Recipients also must demonstrate the likelihood of becoming thought leaders in their fields.

The recipients were exhilarated and surprised to receive the awards. By achieving this recognition, they’ll be able to expand their research and try new directions in their work.

A typical reaction came from Meyer.

“I feel incredibly honored to be named a Faculty Fellow and join the ranks of some truly amazing computer scientists,” she says. “This award will give me a huge jump start on building my research group and lab at the University of Utah at a time when resources are scarce and difficult to come by.

“But even more important to me, on a personal level, it is a strong show of support from leaders in our field that the direction I'm taking my work has the potential to really make an impact in computer science, biology, and how we think about dealing with the avalanche of data. I'm absolutely thrilled!”

Brunskill had a similar reaction.

“One area that very much interests me is creating and formally analyzing algorithms that enable artificial agents to perform lifelong learning across a series of tasks, leveraging prior experience to increase later performance,” she states. “In addition to being a fundamental aspect of intelligence, such approaches could help us develop applications such as self-improving educational software that teaches better as it interacts with more students.

“The Microsoft fellowship will greatly help me to build a group passionate about pursuing this research by providing funds for student support and postdocs.”

Academic Attention

Over the years, the Faculty Fellows program has gained significant notice within academia.

“The Microsoft Research Faculty Fellowship is prestigious,” Gould observes. “It recognizes the value of my research and the direction that I am taking in tackling challenging problems in computer vision and machine learning.

“Plus, it gives me great opportunities to work with other top international researchers and exchange ideas about solving big problems. The financial component of the fellowship is obviously of enormous help in funding many research-related activities, including visits to other institutions and access to computational infrastructure.”

Harold Javid, a director with Microsoft Research Connections, says the fellowships help important researchers further their careers and gain assistance in exploring new research.

“The main thing you hear again and again from past recipients is that this gives them instant recognition within their field,” Javid says. “They are recognized at conferences, younger researchers ask them about the process, and they get a chance to network in a way they could not before.

“And, of course, the funds are a big help. They can go down more risky paths, because they don’t have to make a promise at the start that they will achieve a certain result. This lets them be bold, and that can really help them with their career.”

Li, now an assistant professor in Stanford University’s Computer Science Department, confirms this.

“When I started as a young faculty member, the most important decision I made was to follow my passion and curiosity to conduct the most interesting research I wanted to do, instead of following trends of funding,” she says. “This was a lofty goal and, frankly, risky. But a prestigious fellowship from Microsoft Research was a blessing. The funding gave me both practical and psychological reassurance that I could insist on my research passion.”

Tony Hey, vice president of Microsoft Research Connections, notes that the fellowship program addresses Microsoft Research’s broader vision for the future of computing.

“Of course, we want to see an exciting future for computing,” he says. “One of the keys to that is to create high-quality research and have a positive influence on young researchers. This award is one way we can accelerate change and bring new people into computing.”