Researchers Cherish University Roles
July 18, 2011 9:30 AM PT

For the past 11 years, the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit has brought academic and government research professionals together to share perspectives on new research, the challenges facing the research community, and ways to break new ground. The 12th version of this popular annual event, to be held July 18 through 20 in Redmond, Wash., provides an opportunity for collaboration across the full range of computing disciplines, one of many activities Microsoft Research sponsors to help advance the state of the art within the computer-science and scientific research communities.

Less well-known is the role numerous Microsoft Research staff members take at universities. Call them visiting professors, affiliate professors, adjunct professors, consulting professors, external professors, or affiliate faculty—the Ph.D.s who give their time and expertise to computer-science departments around the world play a vital role in enabling Microsoft Research to engage with academia.

Win-Win

Feng Wu, senior researcher and research manager at Microsoft Research Asia, leads a busy life. In addition to his research work with the facility’s Internet Media group, he finds time to contribute to technical committees, serve on standards committees, and carry out editorial duties for numerous scientific journals.

Feng Wu
Feng Wu

“It’s important to share our work,” Wu says, “and make contributions to the academic community. I truly believe that working in the academic community provides a win-win for the universities and also for Microsoft Research, because it helps push the state of the art in computing science.”

Wu has served for the past four years as an adjunct professor and Ph.D. supervisor in Electrical Engineering at the University of Science and Technology of China and at Xidian University, as well as an adjunct professor of Computing Science at Harbin Institute of Technology. Over the last two years, he has added adjunct-professor and Ph.D.-supervisor roles at Tianjin University and has served as an adjunct professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology and at the Institute of Computing of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

How does this dedicated researcher manage his time?

“An academic role also benefits my work at Microsoft Research,” Wu says. “The lab recognizes this and is very supportive, so I am able to control my schedule and balance my projects at the lab with external activities at universities. Sometimes, the work I do in academia takes up my spare time on weekends, but I find the work very satisfying and worthwhile, so I don’t mind.”

‘Immense Satisfaction’

Luca Cardelli, principal researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge, also would affirm that engagement with academia is integral to research.

Luca Cardelli
Luca Cardelli

“My academic work and research at the lab are not in conflict,” he says. “I need such external interactions to advance my research within Microsoft. I do not consider it something extra.”

Cardelli has lent his insights in concurrency theory and in type theory and operational semantics as a visiting professor in Imperial College London’s Department of Computing since 2004 and at the University of Oxford’s Computing Laboratory since 2010.

“The role at Imperial College interested me because it provided an opportunity to contribute to a Centre for Integrative Systems Biology biotechnology research initiative in systems biology,” he says. “At Oxford, the attraction was the opportunity to participate in ongoing funding proposals in molecular programming.”

What has been the most enjoyable aspect of working in academia?

“The students,” Cardelli says without hesitation. “I get immense satisfaction from advising young researchers. To mentor young talent is to contribute to the future of computing science. ”

Environment Extended

Henry Cohn, principal researcher and one of the founding members of Microsoft Research New England, always has been active in teaching. He has been an adjunct professor in the Department of Mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for the past year, and before leaving Microsoft Research Redmond to move to the Boston area, he was an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Washington.

Henry Cohn
Henry Cohn

“I took the role at MIT to have more interaction with their mathematics department,” Cohn says. “We’re right next door, so the more collaboration, joint seminars, and courses we can develop, the better. It’s also a lot of fun teaching and working with students.”

Cohn enjoys all aspects of mentoring students. Although there are many similarities between supervising graduate students and working with interns at Microsoft Research, the timescales are quite different.

“Teaching a course is quite a bit broader in scope than even a substantial lecture series,” Cohn says, “and working with grad students extends over years rather than just a few months. It’s gratifying to take on larger-scale education or mentoring projects and watch students grow.”

Like Cardelli and Wu, Cohn finds it easy to incorporate his academic role into his research.

“Ultimately, we’d all like to do the best research we can,” Cohn says, “and that requires finding the ideal environment. It’s part of why Microsoft Research is such an exciting place to work. I have the most amazing colleagues and a very supportive research environment. An affiliation with academia extends this environment even further by including students and colleagues from a broader range of research fields.”

New Challenges

Martín Abadi, principal researcher at Microsoft Research Silicon Valley, was already a visiting professor at Stanford University and a professor on leave from the University of California, Santa Cruz when the Collège de France approached him about an unusual opportunity: to serve as professor and holder of the chair Informatique et sciences numériques—Information Technology and Digital Sciences—for the 2010-’11 academic year. In September 2010, by a French presidential decree, Abadi became only the second holder of this recently created annual position.

Martín Abadi
Martín Abadi

“This was totally unexpected,” Abadi recalls. “The Collège de France is rather unique in the academic world. It was really an honor, and also a chance to be part of a remarkable academic enterprise and to interact with excellent faculty from other disciplines.”

The Collège de France selects its professors from the sciences and the humanities; the only requirement is that individuals should be recognized as leading experts in their fields. It was established in 1530, during the Renaissance; its spirit of curiosity and freedom contrasted with those of older, Middle Age universities. What makes the Collège de France unique is that it is a research and teaching institute with an ambitious agenda and curriculum, but with no fixed subjects and no fixed students. The lectures are open and free to the public; they aim to attract professors and researchers, but also to interest a much broader audience.

Abadi’s appointment as chair of Information Technology and Digital Sciences recognized his expertise in computer and network security, programming languages, and specification and verification methods. But when your students might include both your peers in the research community and curious tourists, are there special challenges?

“For my teaching, I found I had to reflect deeply on what I know,” Abadi says, “and organize my thoughts and words for presentation to a demanding and diverse audience. Lecturing in French was required, but it was rather fun, in its own way. I also organized a seminar with guest speakers, including luminaries such as Ron Rivest, Butler Lampson, Leslie Lamport, and Adi Shamir.

“My management was extremely supportive throughout, and so were my colleagues. Since my teaching was concentrated over a small number of months, I could do a lot of the preparation work from my office at Microsoft Research Silicon Valley, which really helped. ”

What these researchers hold in common is the firm belief that engagement with the academic world is a worthwhile, highly desirable activity. They are able to take on these external commitments thanks to support from their own organizations, which believe just as strongly in the value of reaching out to the academic community. The benefits accrue on both sides.

As Cohn says, “An academic role helps put my work in perspective and context.”