Jennifer Tour Chayes, Computer Scientist, on Creating the Tech of the Future

The NextWomen Career Theme: Computer Science

For this month’s theme, we will be interviewing a number of women from around the globe who have reached the top of the world’s most prestigious and/or male dominated professions. This is the story of Jennifer Tour Chayes, Distinguished Scientist, Co-Founder & Managing Director of Microsoft Research New England and Microsoft Research New York City.

Jennifer has recently been the recipient of many leadership awards including the Leadership Award of Women Entrepreneurs in Science and Technology, the Leading Women Award of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts, the Women to Watch Award of the Boston Business Journal, and the Women of Leadership Vision Award of the Anita Borg Institute. 

Before her current role, she was Research Area Manager for Mathematics, Theoretical Computer Science and Cryptography at Microsoft Research Redmond. Jennifer joined Microsoft Research in 1997, when she co-founded the Theory Group. Her research areas include phase transitions in discrete mathematics and computer science, structural and dynamical properties of self-engineered networks, and algorithmic game theory. She is the co-author of over 100 scientific papers and the co-inventor of more than 25 patents.

Jennifer was for many years Professor of Mathematics at UCLA. 

We spoke to Jennifer about the joys of interdisciplinary research; how her role satisfies her creative streak; and the importance of breaking the stereotype of those working in science & tech.

TNW: What are the main responsibilities of your current role as Distinguished Scientist & Managing Director of Microsoft Research New England?

JTC: My main responsibilities consist of my role as Managing Director of Microsoft Research New England in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which I co-founded in 2008, and Microsoft Research New York City, which I co-founded in 2012.

I’m guiding these labs to establish new fields at the boundaries of machine learning, mathematics and theoretical computer science with economics, sociology and anthropology.  These new fields provide the intellectual framework necessary for web-scale technologies, such as online social networks and cloud computing. 

The research in our labs is enabling us to anticipate and create the technologies of the future, and to provide a venue to train a new generation of interdisciplinary STEM researchers. 

Additionally, I continue to pursue my research aspirations in areas that include phase transitions in discrete mathematics and computer science, structural and dynamical properties of self-engineered networks, and algorithmic game theory.

TNW: What do you enjoy most about what you do?

JTC: I am incredibly passionate about the interdisciplinary nature of STEM.  I have a varied past: a B.A. in biology and physics, a Ph.D. in mathematical physics, post-docs in mathematics and physics, and a professorship in mathematics. 

Fifteen years ago, I moved to Microsoft to cofound an interdisciplinary group in theoretical computer science, math and physics.  And, in the past five years, I co-founded two labs combining mathematical and social sciences.  Along the way, I’ve found time to expand my research in computational biology and have had the privilege of training over 100 grad student interns and over 50 post-docs in interdisciplinary STEM fields. 

I am constantly inspired by the opportunity to take insights from one discipline and use them to fuel discoveries in another. 

TNW: What is the biggest challenge you face in your role and how do you tackle it?

JTC: When you bring the insight in one research field to bear on another research field, you often get very interesting outcomes, because you’ve brought the accumulated wisdom of years to bear on another field. I get to bring all these insights from my background into mathematics, physics and computer science, and those efforts tend to have a real impact in creating an environment where unique connections will continue to be made across disciplines and knowledge advanced.

However, many academic fields are based in siloes right now, and that’s getting in the way of doing the research that needs to be done. Microsoft Research is creating a research environment that allows for incredible interaction across disciplines. We want to help to create new fields at the boundary of computer science and other fields of research like social science and economics. Being able to come in to the lab each day and see how these different views of the world come together is incredibly exciting.

I also still find challenges in recruiting women in more technical fields. Unless we can recruit a diverse group of scientists, the technologies we create will be much more limited in their approaches and their impact.  Obviously,

I am always on the lookout for talented women researchers, and I’m actually pretty successful in recruiting the ones I find.

But I also spend time talking with younger women and encouraging them to go into technical fields.  Unless we increase the pipeline, we’ll never have a diverse enough talent pool to create the most exciting and impactful technologies.

TNW: What three pieces of advice would you give to someone starting a career as computer scientist?

JTC: 1. Along with mastering their technical skills in computer science, mathematics, and statistics, I would recommend exploring courses in an unrelated field, such as sociology, economics or biology to create a curriculum that mirrors the needs and direction of today’s workforce and research initiatives. 

Ideally, a student should graduate with the confidence to dive into fundamental real-world problems with the skills to reshape the world for the better.

2. Truly care about the people with whom you work, and let them and others know it.  Be there for your people when they need you.  These relationships are more important and impactful than anything you will create on your own.

3. Don’t hold so tightly to your path that you miss the magic – always be willing to grab the brass ring, to take a left turn if great opportunities present themselves ( …which, by the way, almost never happens at opportune times).

TNW: Have you always aspired to a career in computer science? If you hadn’t chosen computer science, which other career paths might you have taken?

JTC: When I was younger, I was trying to choose between art and science. I loved visual arts. Now, I feel that I’m so lucky that I chose to go into the sciences.  I can be creative in so many ways in the sciences.

Surprisingly, I feel that I have a much richer palette from which to paint the world than I would have had as a visual artist.

Ironically, I always believed in doing multidisciplinary work, but I wasn’t at all focused on computer science research.  I started as a biology undergraduate, and spent my graduate school years in physics, earning a Ph.D. in mathematical physics at Princeton, doing postdoctoral work at Harvard and Cornell, and teaching and doing research in mathematical physics at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

A friend and grad school colleague, Nathan Myhrvold (former CTO at Microsoft), lobbied hard for me to leave academe to enter the world of computer science research. The opportunity to start an interdisciplinary research group intrigued me, so I left academia to start the theory group at Microsoft Research which brought together mathematicians, theoretical computer scientists and physicists. For over 10 years, I saw the impact of computer science in an interdisciplinary environment at Microsoft, exploring technologies that advance the state of the art for computing to solve some of the world’s toughest problems. I wanted to extend this vision and philosophy in Microsoft to social science fields as well, so five years ago, I co-founded the Microsoft Research Labs in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and just last year I cofounded Microsoft Research New York City.

TNW: Is your current role the result of a carefully planned career strategy, or have you made the most of opportunities as they have presented themselves?

JTC: As I shared in my advice to those starting out in a career in CS, I truly believe that you shouldn’t hold so tightly to your path that you miss the magic.

You have to always be willing to grab the brass ring, to take a left turn if great opportunities present themselves.

When I came for my first interview at Microsoft, I kept saying to people, “I don’t understand why you want me.” But, later Bill Gates said don’t worry about it, because they knew much more than I did how deeply theoretical the questions are that Microsoft has to answer.

So I joined the Microsoft Research team in Redmond and brought in the first theoretical computer scientists and physicists. For over 10 years, I saw the impact of computer science in an interdisciplinary environment at Microsoft, exploring technologies that advance the state of the art for computing to solve some of the world’s toughest problems.   Then, five or six years ago, I began to see how important it was to extend our expertise to the social sciences as well, which was my motivation for cofounding Microsoft Research Labs in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and more recently, in New York City.

TNW: Who do you most admire, both within your own field and as a role model in life?

JTC: Someone I very much admire and adore, and who has made a huge difference in my life, is Maria Klawe. Maria is my best friend, my co-mentor (we mentor each other) and a tremendous inspiration. Maria has a PhD in mathematics, has been a professor of computer science, a leader of industrial research groups at IBM, a dean of engineering at Princeton, President of the Association of Computing Machinery, and President of Harvey Mudd College. So she’s a very impressive woman! But she’s also someone who is always concerned about bringing other women into science and technology, who acknowledges her weaknesses and insecurities, and uses these to convince other women that their weaknesses and insecurities are no reason to limit their ambitions. She always “leans in” and encourages other women to lean in as well.  Maria never misses an opportunity to give inspiration and support to others.

TNW: Tech is a notoriously male dominated field. How (and how much) does this affect your working life, both on a daily and a long-term basis?

JTC: I’d like to take this opportunity to focus more on what we can do to assure more women leaders in STEM.

Numerous studies have shown that girls are tremendously excited about math and science until early adolescence when they begin to see themselves pursuing non-scientific careers.

Why do we lose them?  I contend that one reason is that we do not properly represent STEM careers to young women.  The media portrays STEM careers as less collaborative and creative than those in the arts and humanities – we see the image of the solitary, nerd sitting in front of his computer.   However, the reality is much richer.  Each and every day, I get to be creative and collaborative doing science and envisioning new technologies.  We need to amplify this message to everyone who doesn’t fit the standard STEM stereotype, and embrace people who can work collaboratively and design the future. 

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you would like to share with our community?

JTC: One of America’s greatest strengths has been its ability to creatively use science and technology to provide solutions to the challenging problems of the day, and in the process create the businesses of tomorrow.  Today, this inventive spirit fuels new ventures from Silicon Valley to Silicon Alley, from web-scale technologies to biotech to environmental start-ups.  But many of the nation’s high-tech jobs are going unfilled by graduates of U.S. colleges and universities.  We need to train more scientists and technologists to model complex systems and perform large-scale computations on huge data sets. 

We also need a scientifically educated citizenry to understand the choices that face us, and to make wise decisions for ourselves and our children.

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