A chat with Jennifer Chayes, 2013 Catalyst Award Honoree

jennifer chayes
Science Club for Girls is pleased to recognize Dr. Jennifer Chayes, Distinguished Research Scientist and Managing Director of Microsoft Research New England and Microsoft Research New York City, as a 2013 Catalyst Award recipient. Dr. Chayes is a relentless innovator who has been advancing interdisciplinary research and applications across the fields of mathematics, computer science, social science, business and more. Her dedication to creating an inclusive organizational and societal culture is evidenced by a staff of more than 40 percent women at the Microsoft Research lab in Cambridge. Through her public speaking, writing, mentorship and as a role model, she breaks down stereotypes about STEM and its practitioners.

What drives you to increase diversity in STEM?
My motivation is twofold: Personally, I am constantly inspired by the new disciplines being formed at the boundaries of existing disciplines: urban informatics, systems biology, healthcare economics, etc. I feel incredibly lucky to lead two labs that participate deeply in the founding of such new fields. Both personally and as a representative of Microsoft Research, I am tremendously inspired and motivated by the diverse young scientists who work with me in helping to found these new fields—by their creativity, originality and amazing talent.

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 the teens and what do you suggest we do about it?

I contend that one reason is that we do not properly represent technology careers to young women. The media portrays technology 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 technologist stereotype and embrace people who can work collaboratively and design the future.

Who is your role model and why?
I’ve never really sought out individual role models, which may be one of the reasons that I succeeded at a time when there were relatively few successful female scientists. I’ve always felt that I have a lot to emulate in many people I meet: I’d like to be creative like A, compassionate like B, and brave like C; I’d like to have Y’s work ethic and Z’s commitment to other people. This way, I better recognize the qualities in others, and also get to learn from people who are real masters in different things.

What do you do to relax?
My online bio ends with the sentence, “In her spare time, she enjoys overworking.” Although I wrote this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there’s a real element of truth to it. I want to do so much—math, physics, computer science, economics, biology; I want to impact science, society and technology. So, to ‘relax,’ I often envision one of the many new things I’d like to do. Recently, I’ve been thinking about how big data and machine learning can impact online journalism, neuroscience and urban life. When I dream like this, it’s not really work; it’s relaxing, like taking a virtual trip to a possible future.

Read more about Dr. Chayes’ accomplishments and the official award announcement.

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