Conversations With 2011 Leadership Awardees

Jennifer Tour Chayes
Distinguished Scientist and Managing Director
Microsoft New England Research and Development (NERD) Center

Cambridge, MA

What achievement in your career are you most proud of?
Two things jump to mind – one concerns building research institutions and the other concerns my own personal research.  First is the founding and building of Microsoft Research New England – a new lab which brings together more mathematical and theoretical disciplines with certain applied disciplines.  We have theoretical computer scientists, mathematicians and physicists working in collaboration with social scientists, economists and biologists.  It’s incredibly exciting to see the work that emerges at the boundaries of existing disciplines.  I feel fortunate for the opportunity to build my dream; not everyone has a chance to do that.

Second, I believe that many of the most interesting fundamental research questions arise from real-world problems. My most significant research achievement began five or six years ago, when – motivated by considerations of the growth of the World Wide Web – I began thinking about growing networks.  I soon came to realize that there was no existing theory of the growth of networks, in particular in the limit of infinite network size.  In collaboration with some fantastic mathematicians, we developed such a theory, which is now the subject of graduate courses at major universities.

What advice do you have for young women in science and technology early in their career who want to expand their options beyond academics?
Follow your passion!  Bring as much as you can to the table, and develop expertise in different areas.  It is critical to develop different skills and perspectives, and to find people who recognize the value of your unique perspective. For example, although I was a pure academic (a Professor of Mathematics at UCLA), I had formulated a certain theory of phase transitions which was recognized as being potentially useful to Microsoft.  I chose to study what excited me, independent of whether it was “marketable,” and ultimately this brought me both fulfillment and success. If you do what you care deeply about and do it with excellence, the opportunities will find you.

What significant obstacles did you have to overcome?
I like to delve into new areas, and it has taken time to prove I could achieve goals in areas where I did not have prior expertise.  The lesson for me was persistence.  If you have a vision and people do not initially believe in you, just be persistent and hone your vision until you gain traction.  As women, we are often conditioned to think we should do what other people want us to do; sometimes women are reluctant to be persistent and tenacious because of the negative associated connotations. But if you follow your passion, and share it with others in ways to which they can relate, you will be successful.

How are you growing and innovating the NERD Center in an environment of constrained resources? How are you being creative in your business?
One of the ways we maintain a high energy level at Microsoft Research New England is to bring in people on a short-term basis.  We hire post-docs for a year or two at a time, and we host faculty visitors for stays from a few days to a year.   This allows us to experiment with bringing together people in different disciplines and researchers at different stages in their careers.   It not only maintains a high energy level, but it also allows us to determine what types of disciplines and approaches work well together.

For example, we started an empirical economics program a year ago, and we now have approximately 20 external faculty members working on problems in various data-intensive domains.  They are doing work in online services, healthcare economics and cloud computing.  Having this dynamic mix of people, disciplines and questions has allowed us to develop an incredibly exciting and successful program.

What mentor had the biggest effect on your career and why?
For much of my career, I was not good at asking for help; I did not let people mentor me.  But about 15 years ago, I met Maria Klawe.  She is now the President of Harvey Mudd College and a member of the Microsoft Board of Directors.  Maria and I became close friends, and she helped me to understand that it’s OK to accept help and mentoring.  Since then, Maria and I have worked together on mentoring programs for younger women, whom I hope will be more open to mentoring than I was at their age. 

Do you have any trusted corporate partners who have given you a competitive advantage?
Over the years, I have developed partnerships with many universities.  I have mentored graduate students and post-docs who are now faculty members at various institutions, and they send me their best students.  These relationships are built on trust, and that is a tremendous competitive advantage.

Can you describe your career progression and what roles were significant in getting you to where you are today?
Many of us have followed strange paths, and with an undergraduate degree in biology, a graduate degree in physics, and a post-doc in mathematics, I am no exception. At 30, I was a tenured math professor at UCLA.  Then I joined Microsoft to follow my passion, developing new ways of applying fundamental science and mathematics to real world problems.  Despite – or maybe because of – my unconventional career path, I have by now become a leader in industrial research. 

I can work with people from academia and from industry, and I can relate deeply to both perspectives.  My background fosters a different type of relationship with my colleagues, which is quite rewarding.  I try to impress this upon the younger generation:  I often tell graduate students, “You can do everything — you just can’t do it all at the same time.”

How do you balance your work and life?
Not very well, and, as you might imagine, my work dominates.  However, when you are living your passion, you do not see an imbalance.  I am fortunate that I work with my husband, which allows us to be together a lot in spite of working long hours.  We collaborate on research and writing papers, and we also sometimes travel to conferences together.  There was a period, when my stepson was a teenager, when I traveled less, but these days, I say yes to far too many commitments. That’s just me.

I get restless if I am on vacation for more than a few days. I love what I am doing professionally, and, when your work equals your passion, there is no imbalance.