“The Best Place in the World” for Interdisciplinary Research: A Talk with Microsoft’s Jennifer Chayes

After publishing my story yesterday about the opening of Microsoft’s newest research lab in Cambridge, MA—where social scientists and computer scientists will work side by side to understand technology-mediated phenomena such as social networking—I attended a Microsoft-sponsored launch symposium at MIT and had the opportunity to meet with the lab’s director, Jennifer Chayes. Though Bob has spent a bit of time with Chayes and her husband and deputy director, Christian Borgs, this was my first time meeting her, and I have to say that Microsoft could hardly have picked a more dynamic and outgoing person to lead its first formal research facility in the Hub.

Chayes labels herself as “loud, crazy, and intense,” and jokes that she’s probably a headache for her boss Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research. If so, I’m sure it’s one of those worthwhile headaches: Chayes is clearly one of those exhilarating, exhausting types who just can’t stop making connections between ideas and people.

Jennifer Chayes, managing director of Microsoft Research New EnglandShe’s no stranger to the Boston area, having done her postdoctoral work in mathematics and physics at Harvard in the 1980s. But she’s been away for a while, serving as a professor in the math departments at UCLA and the University of Washington and, for the last 11 years, as part of Microsoft Research, where she gained recognition for her work on game theory, the modeling of random graphs (of which the Internet and the Web are examples), and “phase transitions,” or sudden changes in the properties of a graph as it grows.

Chayes says it’s good to be back—and that Cambridge is the perfect place for a Microsoft lab. “Being located right next to MIT makes a huge difference,” she says. “We have faculty and students coming over all the time. We have major relationships going with Harvard, BU, and MIT—and I’m going out to speak at Northeastern and Tufts. Things are taking off so fast, it’s unbelievable.”

The Microsoft lab’s newest hire, announced yesterday, is also a Boston returnee: the deliberately uncapitalized danah boyd, a Berkeley-trained ethnographer who is famous in the blogosphere for her ethnographic studies of teen behavior on social networks like MySpace and Facebook. Currently a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, boyd will start at the lab full-time in January.

“I just love the way she looks at the world,” Chayes says of boyd. “I’ve already started talking with her about how we can modify some of the standard models of online networking to account for the kinds of behaviors she observes”—for example, the fact a social networker’s universe of online friends tends to shrink as he or she ages. “If we had more accurate models, we would be able to much more effectively come up with things like recommendation systems that give you recommendations based on the strength of your ties and the number of ties you have to others,” says Chayes.

Over lunch, I asked Chayes about a range of issues, from the genesis of the interdisciplinary focus she and Borgs have outlined for the lab to how she plans to measure the success of the new group over time.

Xconomy: You’re just celebrating the official opening of Microsoft Research New England with this symposium today, but you’ve actually been in business since mid-summer, right?

Jennifer Chayes: We’ve been in operation for about two and a half months now, so we’ve already got a lot of research projects going, but we waited until now because we wanted the universities to be in session and we wanted to draw in people who didn’t already know that we were here or what we were doing. And the vast majority of the people here today are from the university community. It’s very interesting for me, because some of them I haven’t seen in 23 years, since I was a postdoc.

X: Considering that your own background is in game theory and cryptography, I’m wondering where the idea for the Cambridge lab’s interdisciplinary focus came from, where you’re bringing together people from economics, the social sciences, and traditional computer-science theory.

JC: Well, if you look at my resume, I’ve changed fields every few years. My undergraduate degree was in biology, my graduate work was in physics, I was a professor of mathematics, and then I ran a theoretical computer science group. And over the last three or four years, I have become very interested in networks. I see them everywhere. It has just become clear to me that mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists have done about all that we are going to be able to do without … 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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