Jennifer Chayes is the Managing Director of Microsoft Research New England in Cambridge, which she cofounded in July 2008. On Wednesday, Chayes will participate in a panel discussion on the importance of STEM - science, technology, engineering, and math - to building a talent pipeline in Massachusetts. The event is part of The Boston Globe’s “Building a Better Commonwealth’’ series of discussions aimed at making Massachusetts a more desirable place to live and work. Chayes spoke to Globe reporter D.C. Denison.
For a computer science research lab, you employ a lot of nontechnical people.
We’re hoping to help found new fields at the boundaries of existing fields. We want to work with people from fields like social media, economics, and anthropology. We want to find out the ways that people are using technology, or want to use technology, that will surprise the people who are creating it.
It sounds like you’re trying to attract people from nontechnical occupations who can talk to scientists and technologists. I think that leads to incredible work, particularly when the STEM fields and the fields that are not traditionally associated with STEM come together. I think one asks deeper questions.
What does this say to people who are just starting out on careers in science and technology?
I really believe we represent STEM wrong to young people. STEM fields can be incredibly creative and collaborative. 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. Because I can be creative in so many ways in the sciences. I can paint the world in ways that I would have had a lot of trouble doing as an artist.
Do you think that STEM has an image problem?
Young women and minorities, particularly women, often turn away from science and technology. They have this image of some nerdy guy sitting at a computer, programming. I have never just sat at a computer and programmed. My work is always with other people. I love the human interaction. I love when another person’s thinking sparks something in my mind, and my thinking sparks something in others.
So that’s what you try to overcome when you talk to young women?
Yes. I try to paint this picture for them. They could be creative in so many different ways if they enter the world of science and technology. Ideally, I try to reach girls who are 12 or 13, because we know that’s when we lose them. By the time they are 20, a lot of them have already made life choices that preclude this.
Do you think there’s a point where it’s too late?
If you start learning algebra at the age of 30, you probably are not going to be a practicing mathematician. But can learning something at that age inform and change what you do? Absolutely. This is what’s happening with the very accomplished scholars in other fields who come here.
Is it important for scientists to be able to talk about their work to people outside their fields?
Your life is going to be so much easier as a scientist if you can explain to people why you’re doing what you’re doing, and why they should care. When other people understand what you’re doing, connections are made that wouldn’t normally be made. Often the real magic in science lies in those connections.
Does that multidisciplinary approach apply to technologists who are mid-career and unemployed?
Oh definitely. There’s great potential there. So much of technology really depends on this interaction of engineering and technology with social sciences. So if someone gets interested in the social sciences, and starts doing work in this space, I think they put themselves in a much better position to get reemployed. This is where technology is going, towards the interaction of social sciences and technology.
So the next frontier of science and technology could be the social sciences.
It might be.