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

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Chayes’ and Borgs’ own interests in using graphs to model the Internet and the Web, and, in particular, social interactions over these networks.

In one recent paper, for example, the couple focused on analyzing graph structure on the Web to defeat the “link spam” created by so-called search engine optimization services to artificially inflate various websites’ search-engine rankings. “We’re trying to use our understanding of graph structure to identify suspicious sites and come up with search algorithms that avoid ranking those sites higher than they should be ranked,” explains Chayes.

Related mathematical techniques could lead to better ways to guide Web users toward useful content, based on feedback from peers in their social networks. “We are just overwhelmed right now by everything that’s on the Web and what we really need are search engines that understand us and our social networks and are able to predict what we might like to see,” says Chayes. “If we can get sociologists and psychologists and economists interacting very closely with algorithms people and combinatorialists and people in graph theory, they’ll be able to build accurate models for things like recommendation system and filtering engines.”

Chayes says that she and Borgs have a unique relationship that should help them as co-managers. “We work about 16 hours a day, and we’re really enthusiastic about what we do—in fact, I think if our spouses were not as enthusiastic as we are about science and technology and we didn’t want to talk about it all day, we would drive each other crazy,” Chayes says. “But we do have different styles. I talk really quickly and I jump from one problem to the next trying to make connections from one field to the next. Christian goes deeply into problems and gets totally absorbed until he really understands the connections. And he has great intuition about people while I’m off making lots of connections between people. So as collaborators we are really complementary.”

Christian Borgs, Chayes’ husband and deputy managing director of the new Microsoft Research New England facilityBut while Chayes and Borgs have similar academic backgrounds and research interests—both came from graduate programs in mathematical physics, Chayes at Princeton, Borgs at the University of Munich—they also share a belief in the value of collaboration across disciplinary lines. “People sometimes tend to think that only their subject is important, but the older we get, the more we realize that all of these different areas have so much to bring to problems, and these problems are not going to be solved unless we have deep understanding and deep respect for all these different disciplines,” says Chayes. “So that is a value we really want to see in everybody in the lab.”

It shouldn’t be a difficult value to inculcate, given the variety of researchers already contacting Chayes about potential collaborations and interactions. “I’ve already gotten several offers from faculty at MIT to have joint weekly seminars,” she says. “And here in Redmond we already have more student interns from MIT than from any other school; now we can have students from MIT and Harvard working with us year round. ”

A bigger Microsoft footprint in Cambridge could even become a magnet for researchers from other centers of science and technology. “I’ve already gotten a few notes from amazing people who are not in the Boston-Cambridge area but are hinting to me about how much they would love to be there,” says Chayes. “Which is just as we hoped. It’s really just a tribute to all the great universities there, but we think can leverage that to bring more great people into Microsoft Research.”

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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