#NERD10: Research Lab’s Interdisciplinary Approach Benefits from Region’s Intellectual Horsepower

2017 marks 10 years that Microsoft has hosted one of its Global Development Centers in Cambridge. The Microsoft New England Research & Development Center, fondly referred to as NERD, is celebrating its anniversary with stories and events year-round. Please join us in the celebration on the ground and online using #NERD10.

Jennifer Chayes, NERD Co-Founder

I’ve been here for most of the #NERD10 journey. Nine years ago, Christian Borgs and I co-founded Microsoft Research New England with the goal of establishing the lab as a leader in interdisciplinary research. To accomplish that goal, we’ve brought together computer scientists with researchers from the social sciences and facets of the biomedical sciences. Our work has included projects in areas such as economics, social media and health care, as well as more theoretical projects in areas such as cryptography, theoretical machine learning, mathematics and statistics.

When we established our lab, I knew Cambridge was one of the places in the world where this unique approach to interdisciplinary research could be most successful. The reason: Our lab’s proximity to so many world-class universities and access to such a large community of scientists.

But our ability to form tight bonds with the region’s academic and research institutions has exceeded even my initial, most optimistic expectations.

Through 2016, we’ve had more than 2,500 visitors to our lab here, including interns, and consulting and visiting researchers, with nearly 20 percent of these visitors coming from area colleges and universities.

From the very beginning, we wanted to establish economics as a key discipline within the lab, given that two of the top five schools for economics (Harvard and MIT) are in our backyard, along with the National Bureau of Economic Research. Since then, our economists have contributed to many strategic projects for Microsoft and the industry. A new project that I’m especially excited about is ALICE, a research project focused on incorporating artificial intelligence into economic decision making. This is a quintessential example of interdisciplinary research, as we’re bringing together economists and computer scientists specializing in artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve economic research while pushing the frontiers of AI development.

Christian Borgs, NERD Co-Founder

Another area where we’ve invested is our study of social media. We established the Social Media Collective in 2010 and it’s now expanded to our New York City lab as well. Locally, the team has expanded and now comprises such brilliant researchers as Mary Gray, Nancy Baym and Tarleton Gillespie, each of whom is doing fascinating work on how social media is affecting ethics, public discourse and the future of work. One reason for the team’s success: Our proximity to the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard.  The Social Media Collective started here with amazing work by danah boyd, who has gone on to found and be the executive director of the Data&Society Research Institute in New York City.

Still another area of pursuit has been biomedical sciences. One example is the amazing work by Jennifer Listgarten and Nicolo Fusi at the intersection of machine learning, computational biology and medicine. One high-profile project by these amazing researchers is the direct result of Jennifer and Nicolo becoming excited about working on the powerful gene editing tool CRISPR after attending a lecture given by John Doench, associate director of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard. Jennifer, Nicolo, John and collaborators developed a system called Azimuth that uses machine learning to predict which part of a gene to target when a scientist wants to knock out, or shut off, a gene. The research team, which includes collaborators from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Washington University School of Medicine, published their findings earlier this year in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Machine learning is one of the hottest areas within the computing industry these days, and a focus within our lab as evidenced by our upcoming sixth annual New England Machine Learning Day that’s taking place on May 12 at NERD. The event brings together researchers and local academics, such as Tina Eliassi-Rad from Northeastern University, Roni Khardon from Tufts University and David Sontag from MIT, among others. This program is being chaired by Adam Kalai, whose work on biases in computer algorithms with colleagues at Boston University received popular press coverage within the past year from NPR, MIT Tech Review and other outlets. The day before our Machine Learning Day we’ll be holding the New England Machine Learning Hackathon: Hacking Bias in ML in partnership with colleagues from Harvard, MIT, Boston University and UMass Amherst.

More than 30 years ago, I did my post-doctoral work in mathematics and physics at Harvard, and came to appreciate just how intellectually exhilarating the Cambridge area can be. The work within our lab in recent years has only heightened my appreciation for the intellectual horsepower that exists here. It also has confirmed my belief that establishing a lab here focused on interdisciplinary basic research would benefit Microsoft, our industry and society more broadly. We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible and I’m looking forward to the many great collaborations that will form in the decade ahead.

Jennifer Tour Chayes is Distinguished Scientist and Managing Director of Microsoft Research New England in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which she co-founded in 2008, and Microsoft Research New York City, which she co-founded in 2012. These two laboratories are widely renowned interdisciplinary centers, bringing together computer scientists, mathematicians, physicists, social scientists, and biologists, and helping to lay the foundations of data science.

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