New Microsoft Lab in Cambridge to Combine Math and Social Science; Already Besieged By Potential Research Collaborators

There isn’t any shortage around here of potential collaborators and job seekers eager to work with Jennifer Tour Chayes, managing director of Microsoft’s newest research outpost, Microsoft Research New England. Chayes tells Xconomy that by 11:00 am Eastern time today, less than five hours after news of the lab’s creation hit the New York Times and the Boston Globe, she had already received more than 100 e-mails from the East Coast—about 80 percent of them from researchers at MIT, Harvard, Boston University, Brown, and Yale “telling us how excited they are and that they want to interact with us,” in her words.

Microsoft already has a major presence in Cambridge and greater Boston: in addition to the Boston-area employees of recently acquired companies such as Groove Networks, Softricity, and Fast Search & Transfer, the company is hiring staff for a new product-oriented “concept development center” adjacent to the MIT campus under the leadership of former Eons CTO Reed Sturtevant. But when Microsoft Research (MSR) comes to town, the academic world pays attention.

Chayes, 51, is the first woman appointed to lead a Microsoft Research lab and is a pioneer in areas of mathematics and theoretical computer science—such as network and graph theory, recommendation systems, and search filtering—that have increasing relevance in a world of Web-based communication and commerce. Chayes and her husband and close collaborator Christian Borgs, who will be the lab’s deputy managing director, have already begun to outline a vision for an interdisciplinary research center that will link experts in economics, psychology, and sociology with computer scientists who can translate their insights about human behavior into algorithms that will improve the growing range of products that Microsoft delivers over the Web.

“I think that putting the basic mathematics together with basic research in sociology, psychology, and economics will allow us to come up with the insights that we need to deliver a much better experience to our customers online,” says Chayes, who was formerly the research area manager for mathematics, theoretical computer science and cryptography for MSR Redmond and has been named as the Cambridge lab’s managing director.

The new group, to open in July in newly renovated space at One Memorial Drive, will be only a few stair-steps away from the product development groups that can translate its research findings into real software features—and from the new concept-development group headed by Sturtevant. “We’re really excited about that,” says Chayes. “We do long-term research and we come up with basic insights, but if there is some of that that can actually be turned into products, there is nobody better in the world to do it than Reed.”

Sturtevant, for his part, says the decision to open a Cambridge branch of Microsoft Research is “a real step forward for our emerging ‘vertical campus’ in Kendall Square…Having basic research, concept development and incubation, and full product development together at one site will bring great creative energy.”

To ensure communication between the groups, Chayes says the construction plans at One Memorial Drive include a space large enough for MSR staff and Sturtevant’s group to gather every afternoon for tea. “I’m a big believer in breaking bread,” says Chayes. “Probably a quarter of the projects in our theory group have started over our daily teas. People who wouldn’t ordinarily talk to each other start talking to each other, and before you know it they are writing on the walls and modeling.”

Chayes says she and Borgs haven’t yet identified the exact projects the new lab will pursue—that’ll have to wait until they can brainstorm with new staff members face-to-face. But it’s fair to predict that some of the work will reflect … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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