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Intern Program Exceeds Expectations
August 3, 2009 12:28 PM PT

With six labs around the world and a policy of active collaboration with academia, it’s only natural that Microsoft Research also has a strong intern program. In 2009, the labs took in a total of 1,007 interns, in some cases doubling their headcount—a reflection of their commitment to mentoring potential researchers. Interns are expected to participate in the lab as full-time team members, working on real problems and collaborating with other researchers and developers.

Some interns come back for another term, and as summer comes to a close, we asked six returning interns to share their thoughts on the experience of working at Microsoft Research. They represent a diverse range of technical disciplines, and some have traveled to another country for their internship. Each entered the program with different personal and professional goals, but in discussing their time in the labs, they all agreed on one thing: The intern program at Microsoft has far exceeded all expectations.

A Corporate Lab with Academic Freedom

Zareen Syed has spent her internship at Microsoft Research Redmond. A Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland, Syed’s doctorate thesis topic is about as current as you can get: Wikitology.

Zareen Syed

“Wikis were meant to be used by humans,” Syed says. “But I am working on approaches to make wikis more understandable to computers, so that machines can also exploit the knowledge contained in wikis in an automated way.”

Syed is exploring ways to develop an approach for the automatic acquisition of semantic relations between entities, working with mentor Evelyne Viegas, a senior research program manager. Syed has been pleasantly surprised by the work environment.

“The thing that has been surprising to me is that interns are treated like full-time researchers, rather than as students,” Syed says. “I am able to get all the help, support, and guidance I need for conducting my research, and we are given a lot of freedom in selecting research projects, as well as the approach to solving problems.”

Eran Chinthaka agrees completely. A Ph.D. student at Indiana University, he is on a second internship with Microsoft Research Redmond, working under Dennis Gannon in the Cloud Computing Futures group. His research focus is on improving the performance and cost efficiency of job executions, with particular focus on jobs related to scientific workflows, on large-scale systems such as grids, clouds, and local high-performance-computing clusters. During his first internship, Chinthaka worked on Project Trident, studying how workflow evolution can be used to enable reproducible results in scientific research. This year, he is looking at scalability and performance issues in current scientific applications, applying existing distributed and parallel computing techniques to improve them, and finding the current problems that should be addressed in the design of future data centers.

Eran Chinthaka

“When I started, I was given a few problems to select from,” says Chinthaka. “The freedom I got to work on these problems and also the guidance I got whenever I needed was wonderful. Whether it’s an algorithmic, hardware, software, or other issue, all the people on my team were helpful and did their best to help me solve these problems. I never expected such a friendly, encouraging environment with so much freedom to do the work. This was simply much better than I could ever have imagined in a research setting.”

Madhur Tulsiani

Madhur Tulsiani echoes this sentiment. Tulsiani’s chosen field of study is computational complexity, and he has finished his graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley. After his internship, he will begin post-doctorate work at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. During his time with Microsoft Research India, he has been working with mentor Ravi Kannan of the lab’s Algorithms Research Group. This line of research attempts to quantify the inherent computational difficulty of various problems, and Tulsiani has been examining the complexity of some of the problems that arise in designing networks and in finding approximate representations for high-dimensional data.

“Working at Microsoft Research was my first work experience outside a university,” Tulsiani says. “At Berkeley, I had always been completely free to pursue my own research projects, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was exactly the same here! Even though I was just an intern, I was given the freedom to pick problems to work on rather than being assigned to one.”

A Productive Work Environment

At Microsoft Research Cambridge, Marshini Chetty has been impressed by how much emphasis the lab places on productivity.

Marshini Chetty

“During both my internships at Microsoft Research,” Chetty says, “I was amazed at the lengths to which everyone – researchers, administrative assistants, and IT – will go to ensure that interns have all the resources they need. Whether you need particular equipment for a field study, or software, or people to chat to when things don’t always go as planned, there’s always someone willing to help. Consequently, with all these resources, it’s actually possible to make even complicated projects happen within the allocated 12 weeks – which is fairly short in research terms.”

Chetty, who is working on a Ph.D. in Human-Centered Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is receiving guidance from Richard Banks and is concluding her research project with the lab’s Computer Mediated Living group, a field study of home-watcher tools, which help people manage bandwidth contention within their homes. Home watchers show how much bandwidth each computer in a home uses and enables household members to limit bandwidth on a per-machine basis.

“I was particularly interested in seeing how households responded to seeing who the biggest bandwidth hogs were!” she says, laughing. “This project is very relevant to my research focus at university, which is about making home-resource systems more inspectable by providing households with real-time resource-usage information and seeing how access to that information changes behavior. One end goal is to inform the design of resource-management systems for the home.”

Scott Golder

The supportive attitude toward interns also exceeded Scott Golder’s expectations; Golder has spent the summer at Microsoft Research New England under the guidance of Social Media researcher danah boyd. At Cornell University, where he is pursuing a Sociology Ph.D., Golder studies patterns in social networking, in particular how one’s connections to others affect how one sees the world. He is working on two projects this summer: understanding how large corporations are using social media to do marketing, public relations, and customer service; and a laboratory experiment that examines how the structural characteristics of a large social network can be used to predict which users might be interested in one another.

“I’ve appreciated how plentiful work resources have been,” Golder says. “I’ve had no downtime due to requiring things to get my work done, such as software, servers, and so on. Internship time is precious and short, so you want to be as productive as possible. It’s been great both for me and for Microsoft that I’ve been able to spend all my time on the substance of my projects.”

Getting Close to the Stars

Yue Dong, a Ph.D. candidate from Tsinghua University in Beijing, says that access to top researchers has been one of the key reasons why Microsoft Research Asia has exceeded his expectations.

Yue Dong

“The all-star research team was not a surprise,” says Dong, whose research area is computer graphics. “But the open academic environment is remarkable. Interns can talk to researchers as though we are their equals. We have the opportunity to discuss our topics with anyone, from our mentors to the managing director of the lab, freely expressing ourselves with some of the ‘great masters' in our fields.”

During his time at Microsoft Research, Dong has been pursuing his passion for light, or rather, for getting computers to understand light. The key to generating photo-realistic images in computer graphics is light; his work focuses on enabling computers to understand light transportation in the real world. Dong has already co-authored a technical paper, Kernel Nyström Method for Light Transport, presented during SIGGRAPH 2009, and continues to explore nonlinear coherence in the light-transport matrix, collaborating with his mentor, Xin Tong, and other colleagues at the lab.

Meeting some of their heroes in computing research has definitely been a bonus for the interns.

As Syed puts it, “Working in the company of world-renowned researchers and knowing that you can approach anyone to get advice or opinions makes you feel that you have all you need to turn your ideas into reality.”

The same goes for Chinthaka.

“Getting to know some of the leaders in the field was a great experience,” he says. “I could—and I did—schedule short meetings with these people to talk about the work they are doing or to get their input to my research. They were very approachable and willing to make time for me. In fact, just the opportunity to work with Dennis Gannon and Roger Barga has been a highlight of my internships.”

“One of the highlights for me has been interacting with researchers who are at the top of their field,” Chetty says. “We also get to attend cool talks given by outside experts.”

The labs organize talks by research staff and interns, and bring in distinguished guest speakers. The talks are just fantastic, Golder notes.

“These events have been among the highlights of my summer,” he says, “because they have been opportunities to be exposed to the most recent and influential research in several fields.”

Chinthaka knows that he will miss those talks after he leaves.

“There were lots of renowned speakers,” he says, “both from Microsoft Research and outside research groups, who spoke on a wide range of topics. These were great opportunities for any grad student.”

Work Hard, Play Harder

But there is more to life at the lab than working on projects, and Microsoft Research is well-known for making sure interns get the most out of their time in new surroundings.

“We can attend the lab’s social activities,” Syed says, “And, of course, there are always fun intern events that are organized to allow interns to get to know each other and experience some of the local culture. It is a great opportunity to meet and network with other interns from different parts of the world.”

Chinthaka, who brought his family to Redmond with him via an epic, seven-day road trip from Bloomington, Ind., also appreciates all the effort that Microsoft Research puts into making interns feel at home.

“The lab in Redmond organizes intern events almost every week,” he says, “and sometimes on weekends. I have been able to take my family on trips to beautiful places in Washington state. It was amazing to see the large number of interns who turn up at events. They have been wonderful, and my mentor and team encouraged me to participate, even if the events overlapped with work hours. I really couldn’t ask for more.”

At the Beijing lab, Dong obviously has thrown himself into the social scene.

“There are numerous special events for interns, such as weekly tech talks, wind down celebrations, and lots of sports events,” he says. “Maybe that is why our intern program chose the slogan 'Work hard, play harder!' ”

But Dong also points out that getting to know fellow interns, researchers, and outside experts is actually a networking activity that contributes to his future career, as well as to his current research.

“We work hard, since learning what kind of effort it takes to succeed in a research career is part of the internship experience,” Dong says. “But we also play hard and get the opportunity to make friends with the 'great masters' and with our fellow interns, who are the 'masters-to-be'. We learn from each other, much more than what we could learn just working on projects.”

Golder also values the time spent interacting with colleagues.

“The researchers at this lab come from different academic backgrounds—computer science, the social sciences, mathematics, and so on. Many are studying the same kinds of questions relating to social structure and decision-making, but taking different approaches. Some are interested in describing what the world looks like empirically, and others are interested in discovering ways of making things better; but each of us has something to contribute, and our conversations always reveal many interesting connections.”

Final Words of Advice

An academic research environment with the freedom to choose research projects, the resources and privileges of a full-time researcher, the opportunity to work with leaders in the field and listen to their talks, an active social calendar—all these factors contribute to an experience that has exceeded the expectations of these six interns.

But have there been any negatives at all for the interns? Golder managed to cite one.

“Microsoft is well-known for offering employees an unlimited supply of sodas and coffee,” he says. “Now, my plans for the immediate future include breaking a serious caffeine addiction.”

Any words of advice for first-time interns or those considering an internship with Microsoft Research?

“Have fun,” Dong says. “Research is full of unknowns. Approach research like a detective story, and it is full of fun. But work hard, too. This internship is a priceless opportunity, and if you work hard, you will learn and grow much more than you expect.”