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Nurturing a Generation of Research Talent
Microsoft Research
May 6, 2013 6:26 PM PT

For some, the best thing about winning a Microsoft Research Asia Fellowship is the opportunity to work alongside top researchers for three months at Microsoft’s research facility in Beijing and to benefit from their guidance. For others, it’s the monetary award, which helps pay for travel to international conferences and research opportunities that otherwise would be financially out of reach. For all of the fellowship winners, the recognition that comes from being named a top Ph.D. candidate in a computing-related field is a huge boost to an already promising career.

Since its inception in 1999, the Microsoft Research Asia Fellowship Program has attracted nearly 1,000 applicants from more than 50 universities in the Asia Pacific region. Of those, 351 winners have been chosen. In its 15th year, the program counts among its past winners some of the region’s top computer scientists, with international reputations and faculty appointments at leading institutions. Naturally, some of those recipients choose to stick around once completing their fellowships.

Pinyan Lu
Pinyan Lu, a 2008 Microsoft Research Asia fellow, is now a lead researcher in the Theory Group at that Beijing-based lab.

“To me, it showed that Microsoft supports basic research,” says Pinyan Lu, a 2008 fellow who is now a lead researcher in the Theory Group at Microsoft Research Asia, “even if it is not directly related to its products or profit.”

In 2013, eight to 12 winners will be named, each receiving an invitation to Hefei, China, to be introduced as recipients during the 2013 Computing in the 21st Century Conference. Winners also get an optional internship at Microsoft Research Asia, which includes one-on-one mentoring from a senior Microsoft researcher.

Applications are being accepted for the 2013 fellowships, with a submission deadline of June 30.

The program was designed to support talented researchers in the early stages of their doctoral studies—either the first year of a Ph.D. program or the second year of a combined master’s/Ph.D. program. Candidates are evaluated on the strength of their academic record, including research experience, publications, and awards, but the program’s primary goal is to recognize outstanding potential. A strong research focus, leadership abilities, creativity, communication skills, and ability to collaborate are among the selection criteria. Candidates must specialize in computer science, electronic engineering, information science, or applied mathematics, and they must be nominated by an invited institution. Each eligible university is limited to two applicants per year.

At the outset, the fellowship program was open only to students in mainland China. Since expanding in 2002 to encompass most of the Asia Pacific region—including Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore—the number of applications has soared, and competition has become more intense.

Adding to the prestige of the award is the prominence of many past winners. The first group of fellows, for example, included Zhi-Hua Zhou, who was then a graduate student at Nanjing University and has since become a top researcher in his field, specializing in machine learning and data mining. He has been on the faculty at Nanjing University since 2003 and was named a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 2013.

Zhi-Hua Zhou
Former Microsoft Research Asia fellow Zhi-Hua Zhou has been a member of the Nanjing University faculty since 2003.

Zhou took advantage of the internship opportunity at Microsoft Research Asia—the largest Microsoft Research facility outside of the United States—where he worked with Hong-Jiang Zhang and other leading researchers.

“They were all outstanding scholars, and I learned a lot from them,” Zhou says. He particularly appreciated the “collision of ideas” that resulted from interacting with other researchers—including about 20 other visiting students and fellows— and listening to each other’s presentations. That kind of engagement, he says, “can lead to exciting ideas for one’s own research or even inspiration to pursue new research topics.”

Another noted researcher who cites the internship as a formative experience is Ya-Shu Chen, a Ph.D. candidate at National Taiwan University, located in Taipei, when she was named a fellow in 2005.

Ya-Shu Chen
Ya-Shu Chen, a member of the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology electrical-engineering faculty, was a Microsoft Research Asia fellow in 2005.

“They showed me how to think out of the box,” says Chen, who is now on the electrical engineering faculty at National Taiwan University of Science and Technology and whose research interests include embedded software, real-time systems, and hardware-software co-design. “Microsoft Research Asia encouraged all creative ideas and provided rich resources to help researchers make their ideas come true.”

Chen says the collaborative culture at Microsoft Research Asia enables everyone to apply their talents fully.

“My vision was totally opened,” she says of the experience. “Even now, when I am stuck on problems, the training at Microsoft Research Asia always helps me to think in a different way and get through the bottleneck.” She still communicates regularly with Microsoft Research colleagues in Beijing.

To date, 43 fellows have been hired by Microsoft Research Asia after completing their doctoral studies, among them Lu, who was among the first group of Ph.D. candidates studying under Andrew Yao, the renowned Chinese-born American computer scientist who had joined the faculty of Beijing’s Tsinghua University. Lu says he remains grateful for the support and opportunities provided by the fellowship.

“The amount of money was quite significant for me as a Ph.D. student and allowed me to focus more on research,” says Lu, who published extensively as a graduate student and formed close ties with researchers at Microsoft Research Asia.

He did not pursue an internship as a fellow, but when it came time to choose a direction for his career, his fellowship experience pulled him toward joining Microsoft Research Asia. Since then, he has mentored two students who have won Microsoft Research fellowships, one in Asia and one in the United States.

Joon-Kyung Seong
Joon-Kyung Seong, a 2003 Microsoft Research Asia fellow, says the honor 'gives young researchers a strong motivation for their research.'

Joon-Kyung Seong, a 2003 fellow who earned his doctorate in 2005 from Seoul National University in Korea and is now on the faculty at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, says that winning the fellowship was one of the great honors of his career.

“It gives young researchers a strong motivation for their research,” he says. The cash prize was also a welcome benefit—Seong used it to pay his tuition.

The list of fellows from the past 14 years includes students from dozens of universities, with Tsinghua University accounting for the largest number from a single institution. The 10 winners in 2012, representing universities in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan, have research interests ranging from database theory and computer graphics to social-media analysis and quantum-information processing.

The program’s strength stems in part from the enormous support it enjoys from the senior leadership team at Microsoft Research Asia, as well as from the researchers and managers in the Beijing lab, says Wenxi Cai, the program lead at Microsoft Research Asia who administers the program.

“The whole lab is involved in the program,” he says. “Nearly all the senior researchers are involved in reviewing applications and interviewing fellowship candidates.”

Cai says that the internship and mentorship components differentiate the program from other graduate and thesis fellowships in the industry. Mentors are top researchers at Microsoft Research Asia who are matched with fellows based on their field of interest. Over the years, about half of the fellowship winners have elected to pursue an internship in the Beijing lab, which has 20 research groups and 150 full-time researchers.

Cai is confident that the program is fulfilling its commitment to identify, motivate, and nurture outstanding junior Ph.D. students in the Asia Pacific region. He points to young researchers such as Chen and Seong, who have appointments at leading institutions that in the past have mostly hired faculty with Ph.D.s from the United States. Chen is also among the growing number of women applying for and receiving the fellowship.

Even as you read this, the recipients of the 2013 Microsoft Research Asia Fellowships are busy polishing their applications. It is, after all, one more significant step for those in the world’s most populous continent toward becoming part of computing’s elite.