IQ Biology graduate student, Taisa Kushner, spent her summer as a Microsoft Research intern in Bangalore, India, working on a global mental health platform.
Can you tell us about your internship experience at Microsoft Research?
I interned at Microsoft Research (MSR) in Bangalore, India this past summer. MSR is under the umbrella of Microsoft, but it is separate from Microsoft corporate, where they do product development and engineering. The work that comes out of MSR does influence products at Microsoft, but MSR is focused on basic research and functions more like academia than industry. MSR has multiple labs throughout the world, and each lab focuses on a different broad area. The Bangalore lab houses their "Tech for Emerging Markets" (TEM) group, which does computational social science, fieldwork, and tech development focused on working with and for individuals in developing countries. I have been interested in the work coming out of the TEM group for a couple of years and applied to be a Ph.D. intern at the lab. Luckily, after a few rounds of interviews, I got the position!
I worked with Dr. Amit Sharma in the TEM group, whose primary research focus is on causal inference and the societal impact algorithmic interventions can have. My project centered around a global mental health platform, Talklife, which seeks to provide a peer-to-peer support network for individuals suffering from psychological distress. When considering interactions on this platform, some end up being helpful, while others are not. Broadly, my work this summer focused on answering the questions, "What makes a certain series of interactions helpful to users?" And, "Are there actions individual users can take to improve their experience on the platform?"
What surprised you about the experience?
I knew MSR functioned more like academia than industry, but I was surprised by the extent to which there is not any hierarchy. Everyone is very humble despite being brilliant. The lab director, Sriram Rajamani, is very kind and collaborative. Despite being busy, he takes time to get to know everyone, including all the interns. I was able to have lunch with Sriram and discuss research ideas for my work back here in Boulder. I appreciated being treated as a research equal by all the full-time researchers.
Did your IQ Biology experience play a role in this experience?
Yes! It is such an interdisciplinary environment. For my project, in particular, we had to communicate with the company Talklife, which provided us with data, physicians from both the US and India, and other researchers who work on societal differences in mental health care and communication across the US and India. Through IQ Biology, I have gained a skill set of being able to effectively communicate with people from different backgrounds and also critically think through all of the aspects of a research problem. For this project, I had to consider how to identify causal relations within the data (math), identify and understand biases that might be present in the data (health care, social science), how to think about and handle them, and how to bridge computational work with medical care. With mental health, in particular, the stigmas are very different in the US and India, and people utilize different words and descriptions to discuss symptoms and how they manifest. You need to understand the human aspect of these nuances to deal with the data effectively.
Would you recommend doing a summer internship as part of grad school? Why/Why not?
Yes, 100%. Working at MSR is still very academic-focused rather than a traditional industry internship, so I can only speak to my experience. Still, I appreciated the opportunity to branch out from my doctoral research, which focuses on artificial pancreas controllers for individuals with type-1 diabetes. I had a lot of freedom to explore the data, and I learned techniques in causal inference, natural language processing, and I learned about how mental health care differs across the globe, which I feel will be beneficial to future work I do.
I would also recommend doing research in an eastern setting, if possible. I thought the experience provided a critical exposure to have as a researcher. I appreciated the opportunity to hear about the differences in culture and opinions and the needs of people in India. MSR brings in a lot of collaborators, and the Bangalore lab does a significant amount of social science focused on working with impoverished people across India, in their language. MSR identifies the needs they have in terms of life stressors and how technology may help rather than taking research done in the west and assuming other people want the same thing.
Did anything happen during your internship outside of the research/work experience that made an impression on you? Any lessons learned while abroad?
MSR brings in lots of researchers and doctoral interns from across the world. As a result, I was able to befriend people who come from different backgrounds. I appreciated embedding into the Indian culture through working and living there rather than just as a tourist. One of the other interns, who is a professor at the University of Cincinnati, is originally from the Indian state of Kerala. I visited her family's rubber and pineapple farms and experienced parts of India that I don't think I would otherwise get to see.
What will happen to the work you were doing during your experience?
We have submitted a paper on the work, and we have a second paper in progress. Related work on the project is being continued at MSR now, and I'm assuming they will have new interns on the project in the future. If anyone wants to talk more about the project or my experience, I'd be happy to connect!
Did this experience affect your current career plans?
It was very helpful in making me feel more competent as a researcher, which is nice to be able to say. I feel like I was able to approach a pretty loosely defined project and complete a substantial amount of work on it. I had a lot of independence in the process, along with excellent mentoring, which made it a great experience overall. In terms of working at MSR again, I would love to work at MSR Bangalore, though there is a lot about living in India that would be tough long-term. It's also a challenging position to obtain.
What is your favorite memory from this experience?
Oh, so many! All of the people I was able to meet and befriend. Everyone was so kind and welcoming. I learned so much about India, the local politics, climate problems, and social structure. It was fascinating to see US news from the Indian perspective and to listen to the thoughts and opinions of people who are not from the west.
We did have one very ridiculous series of events where we almost got stuck in the Indian Himalayas and, as a last resort effort, ended up going to Kashmir during the peak in military occupation and unrest surrounding the split of the state and removal of article 370. This adventure involved classic Indian twelve-passenger van travel for 17 hours straight with people I had never met. The van was a classic sight: completely falling apart, the exhaust poured in from the gear shift, yet it was decorated with LEDs and cheesy phrases. We had tea in the middle of nowhere in Kashmir at 2:00 am. I genuinely thought we would fall off the mountainside on this incredibly steep and narrow dirt path, and we had a run-in with the Indian Army 30km outside of Srinagar when our driver didn't have his driver's license. Thankfully, they let us through because we all had our proper documents.
I miss being in Bangalore with its almost 13 million people living there. It was overwhelming at times, but by the end, I loved it. I enjoyed being able to safely walk around at any time and see people congregated around tea shops and street food at all hours of the day. It's a lively city. The cows wandering the streets are also very fun. They are the only ones who obey traffic signals.
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