Big, burly challenges: Rane Johnson-Stempson

When you talk to Rane Johnson-Stempson, it’s not too long before you hear her talk about “bold” goals and “big, burly” challenges. Words and concepts like these seem to be an integral part of how she takes on the world and what drives her to come to work each day.

The ability to change the world is what drew Rane to her current position as principal research director of Education and Scholarly Communications at Microsoft Research (MSR). In this role, Rane is responsible for identifying those big, burly challenges in education and technology – whether they’re staring her in the face or lying in wait a few years down the road – and forging partnerships with think tanks and research centers that have the sheer brain power to overcome them.

It’s a job that Rane seems ideally suited for. At the age of 14, Rane was legally emancipated from her parents and had to tackle the challenges of life head-on. Fortunately, a handful of concerned teachers stood in to help her navigate through that stage of life and encouraged her to believe in her own potential. Those teachers, along with lunch breaks spent at Software Etc. learning about computers and software, proved instrumental in guiding Rane to where she is today.

Along the way, Rane got a vision for how technology and education could change the world. She also recognized that young girls and students who are disadvantaged need a persistent nudge to pursue careers in technology. The desire to make a difference is what eventually led to her become IT director for a school district in California. That’s where she first worked with Microsoft and got an idea of what it would be like to work here.

“Looking at how the company thought, the software they were making and the breadth of their capabilities, I felt as if Microsoft was the only technology vendor that could really make a difference in the world,” says Rane.

So it didn’t take much thinking when given the opportunity to join the ranks here in Redmond.

Ten years later, Rane still believes in the company’s potential to change the world, and one of the things that gets her most excited is the ability to combine her passions with her everyday job.

“What I love about Microsoft is that if you have a big idea, then you have the ability to pitch that idea. And if you have supporting data, then you’ll get the support to turn that idea into reality,” says Rane.

One of the areas Rane is currently working on is the shortage of women working in the tech industry. Right now, fewer women in the U.S. graduate each year with degrees in computer science (CS) than there were in 1985, and at the current rate we’re lucky to get 1,600 each year.

Rane believes this gender imbalance could make it difficult to tackle some of the big issues that face the world, so she helps spearhead MSR’s work with organizations such as the Anita Borg Institute’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the National Center for Women & Information Technology, and the Graduate Women’s Scholarship Program that MSR offers to outstanding women graduate students.

Rane’s team also spends a lot of time in local schools and science academies where she rubs elbows with young girls from a background similar to hers, talking about what she’s done and the hurdles she’s overcome to get where she is today. Rane says that the typical response is one of amazement, but helping these girls to see what’s possible can be all it takes for them to persevere.

When she’s not visiting students or recruiting research partners, Rane can be found working on one of a handful of pretty amazing research projects. One that’s especially relevant to education is ChronoZoom, a joint project that’s being spearheaded by the University of California, Berkeley, and includes the work of Microsoft Research and Moscow State University.

With ChronoZoom, you can browse through history all the way back 13.7 billion years ago, to the point in time when scientists believe the universe began. Rather than providing a piecemeal look at history, it lets you search through an overwhelming amount of online research material related to virtually any event in the history of the universe – something that hasn’t been possible to this scale before. What’s even cooler is that ChronoZoom uses Big History, a new, multi-disciplinary approach that seeks out common themes in history and ties the humanities and sciences together. The project is in close partnership with the Gates’ Big History Project and the International Big History Association.

Ultimately, the goals of ChronoZoom are two-fold: to provide both a more holistic view of universal history and a common framework that helps researchers work together across various disciplines. The potential is absolutely mind boggling.

For Rane, the value of ChronoZoom doesn’t stop there. It’s also an application of computer science that could get students interested in computing because of its ability to help teachers take a more integrated approach to history, which allows students to learn it in a different way that could prove to be more meaningful.

It’s also a really good chance to make a difference in the world, and, as Rane can attest, opportunities like that are what get her excited.