Cecily Morrison wants to build technology that enables people to live their lives the way they want and accomplish things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to.

The Principal Researcher landed on the personal mission years before joining Microsoft Research. Experiences first teaching children robotics and then working with the United Kingdom’s National Health Service applying existing technology to healthcare scenarios ignited the desire. Since then, she’s helped develop a system for monitoring the progression of multiple sclerosis in patients and a physical programming language for children who are blind or have low vision. She’s currently working on visual agent technology, including a new project in which she’ll explore computer vision and spatialized audio to help children born blind develop social and learning skills that children with sight cultivate through visual cues.

Principal Researcher Cecily Morrison

“I am passionate about demonstrating in the real how AI can fundamentally change people’s lives,” says Morrison, who is collaborating on the work with Oussama Metatla of the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

Advancing research like Morrison’s through collaboration and strong relationships between Microsoft Research Cambridge researchers and academia is at the core of the Microsoft Research PhD Scholarship Programme in EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa). Morrison and Metatla’s “Using AI to Develop Joint Attention in Blind Children” is one of 15 projects that have been selected this year to receive the scholarship, which provides financial support for up to three years. Their work joins the more than 400 projects since the program’s inception in 2004 that have helped drive innovation in the lab’s key research areas: All Data AI, Cloud Infrastructure, Confidential Computing, Future of Work, Game Intelligence, Healthcare Intelligence, and Biological Computation. This year’s other projects include conversational user interfaces for mental health status reporting, failure detection in machine learning models, and learning local forward models in complex 3D games.


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Microsoft researchers are developing visual agent technology like the above system, which is designed to help people who are blind or have low vision find and identify people in their vicinity, as part of Project Tokyo. Principal Researcher Cecily Morrison will be collaborating with a PhD supervisor from the University of Bristol to build on that work through the Microsoft Research PhD Scholarship Programme in EMEA.

The value of collaboration

As part of the program selection process, Cambridge researchers invite a PhD supervisor at an EMEA institution to collaborate. Often, they have a preexisting relationship with the supervisor or an interest in working with them. Together, the pair writes and submits a proposal. Proposals are reviewed and selected by Microsoft researchers in a two-stage review process. The researchers and supervisors of the selected proposals then choose a PhD student to work on the project.

The collaborative nature of the program supports all parties involved in important ways. The program, for example, gives researchers a chance to conduct more exploratory research than they might normally be able to undertake in their day to day and to draw on the unique perspectives and knowledge of and students. PhD supervisors  and students—encouraged to attend meetings at Cambridge’s lab, where they get to experience firsthand the breadth and depth of research at Microsoft—are introduced to such professional opportunities as visiting researcher positions for faculty and internships for students.

The program also allows for resource sharing. PhD supervisors and students can benefit from Microsoft technology and computational power such as cloud services while academia offers facilities and equipment researchers don’t have access to.

“I see this as a way to do longer-term research than we can do in Microsoft Research, but that couldn’t be done in academia because they don’t have access to the technology,” says Morrison.

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Principal Scientist Sara-Jane Dunn

For Microsoft Principal Scientist Sara-Jane Dunn of the Biological Computation Group, who was selected to the program this year with Graziano Martello of the University of Padua, Italy, working with PhD students is particularly valuable.

“Being able to co-supervise brilliant young researchers is rewarding in many ways: being able to foster new research, mentor talent, develop new ideas, and learn new techniques,” she says. “It’s invaluable as a seasoned scientist.”

Dunn and Martello’s project, “The Pluripotency Program in Human Embryonic Stem Cells,” builds on the pair’s work in stem cell research. They’ll focus on how personalized stem cells are generated, a greater understanding of which could help inform new medical diagnostics and treatments.

Over the next several months, selected researchers and PhD supervisors will be recruiting students for their projects. For more information or to apply, visit the program home page. Positions will be posted as they become available.

EMEA PhD Award

As a complement to the EMEA PhD Scholarship Programme, Microsoft Research is excited to announce the Microsoft Research EMEA PhD Award, a new research grant for PhD students in computing-related fields who are in their third year or beyond at universities in EMEA.

Award recipients will receive the following:

  • $15,000 to put toward their doctoral thesis work for the upcoming academic year
  • an invitation, including travel and accommodations, to attend the two-day Microsoft Research PhD Summit workshop in North America, where they will present their work and be mentored by Microsoft researchers
  • an offer to intern at the Cambridge lab

Applications are due by 11:59 UTC on April 1. To find out more, including how to apply, visit the EMEA PhD Award home page.

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