Job title: Senior Director, eScience Research Group, Microsoft Research
David Heckerman is a pioneering medical researcher, but his office is not at a hospital, lab or university campus. For the last 20 years, Dr. Heckerman has worked for Microsoft Research (MSR).
Heckerman uses graphical models for data analysis and visualization in biology and medicine. His special focus is on the design of HIV vaccines. Yes, that’s right, he’s using computing to help scientists find a solution to one of mankind’s greatest medical problems. And, amazingly, he is using strategies to search for the virus’ weaknesses similar to the spam filter he designed and created for Hotmail and Outlook (read the Fast Company article on Dr. Heckerman’s research here).
With a dual MD and PhD in Artificial Intelligence, Heckerman could have taken his career any direction of his choosing. We sat down with him to find out why he picked Microsoft Research (MSR).
Dr. Heckerman, why MSR and what has kept you here for 20 years?
When I came to MSR, it was just 20 people, but it held so much promise to do things in new and innovative ways. And that promise has been realized. We now have some 850 experts working at MSR.
I didn’t imagine that I’d be here for two decades. However, there was never any reason to leave. We have freedom to work on what we want to work on and have unparalleled resources. For example, we can utilize 3000 computers to focus simultaneously on a single experiment. Very few have that kind of computing power at their fingertips.
It is also a unique opportunity to work with 850 other experts who function as consultants in their various cutting-edge fields. At no other institution do you have that many top researchers as colleagues. And we also have access to all of Microsoft’s many product groups – which is icing on the cake.
What career advice would you give to top university students?
I’d tell them to combine a biology degree with computer science.
We are living through a great moment in human history caused by the exponential growth in computing. It is a “wave” moment. The next exponential growth is coming in DNA sequencing. Ten years ago, it cost $100 million to sequence a single genome. Now it costs just over $1,000. It is the genomics wave and is completely synergistic with the computing wave.
In a situation like this, big life-altering opportunities will happen and we will learn many actionable things from data. Every day we hear reports on the nightly news about how “scientists have discovered a gene involved with X.” That is just going to speed up from here.
But why work at Microsoft versus a tech-savvy hospital or research institution?
Hospitals and foundations are great places to work, but the broader brain power and access to the essential technology here are unmatchable. The scientific community is on the verge of many dramatic breakthroughs, but it is the ability to compute on massive amounts of data that is crucial to make them all happen. This is the place to be.