Jaime Teevan, PhD ‘07

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Jaime Teevan, PhD '07
Senior Researcher, Microsoft Research in Context, Learning and User Experience for Search Group

Jaime Teevan is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research in the Context, Learning, and User Experience for Search Group, an Affiliate Assistant Professor in the Information School at the University of Washington, and a graduate of the MIT EECS Department. She enjoys doing research because she thrives on exploring open-ended unanswered questions. She says, “One trait that I have found advantageous is a willingness to jump headfirst into things — be it starting a new line of research or helping my son publish a book.”

When Teevan decided to attend MIT for her graduate work, she chose the school because she “connected at a gut level with the quirky, adventurous, smart people she met when visiting” – including the faculty, graduate students, and her future advisor David Karger. These connections grew while she was at school, with her advisor playing a particularly important part in her graduate experience. “David provided an excellent model of how to tackle hard problems with his supernatural ability to ask deep, insightful questions when presented with something new.”

Teevan is also a mother of four boys (ages 6 to 10), three of whom were born while she was at MIT. She appreciates the support that Karger, the lab and MIT provided, and believes this allowed her to establish a pattern for combining work and family that has become routine for her as her children grow. Her oldest, Griffin, attended daycare in the Stata Center, where she joined him for lunch every day. When the two of them visited MIT last year, they were thrilled that his teacher, Diana, recognized him with a huge welcome.

Teevan is known for her integration of parenting with a research career that includes a lot of travel. “My children force me to allocate my time productively, prioritize sleep, and approach problems creatively,” she says, and “escaping” to the office sometimes gives her an out from “the noise, mud and chaos at home.” She has written several articles about traveling with children to conferences and worked with conference organizers to provide additional assistance for attendees who are also parents.

Teevan admits that having children while in graduate school made her experience somewhat unusual. As she wrote her thesis, she says her twins kept her company “in utero”. Though on bed rest by the time of her defense, her doctor gave the ok to go ahead. The defensewent well, but she is pretty sure the questions were limited so she could get back to bed. She notes that during the time between the births of her first child and the twins, MIT became one of the first graduate programs to implement a maternity leave policy.

To support women pursuing top-level careers in computer science, Teevan urges institutions “to create diverse paths to excellence while rewarding long-term outcomes and seeking broad representation.” She suggests that institutions study and address the challenges women face, build opportunities for women to contribute and support environments where everyone is heard. And she suggests her own mantra for women and men who want to do big things in computer science: “Relentlessly pursue the problems you find interesting. Be brave, jump at opportunities and then see them through.”

Teevan was one of MIT Technology Review’s TR35 in 2009 for her work in improving personal search results based on personal search histories. She developed the first algorithm used by Bing to personalize search result ranking and is still actively doing research to push the field forward. “As our ability to capture online behavioral data expands, so does the opportunity to create tailored information experiences,” she says.

Although web searchers expect search engines to return results instantaneously, Teevan is interested in figuring out how to support search tasks that extend over time. She knows this will take a carefully designed approach, as research suggests that people perceive results that are delivered quickly as higher quality and more engaging than those delivered more slowly.

“People already engage in slower, in-depth search experiences when they do things like ask questions of their social networks,” she says. (See her 2012 TEDx talk on question asking. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gZ-FD-HzxQ). She wants to slow down the search experience to allow searchers to take the necessary time to learn as they search, gather information from multiple sources and explore tangents. “During this process,” she notes, “high quality, personally relevant information can be identified via algorithms that are slower than traditional search engines.” A general overview of the work she is doing in this space can be found in this CACM article (http://aka.ms/slowsearch).

In fact, Teevan believes we are in the middle of a revolution in how people perform information work. “Research shows that concrete plans with actionable steps enable people to complete their tasks better and faster,” she says. In her work, a new way has been devised to algorithmically break complex tasks into microtasks that take as little as a few seconds each. By breaking information tasks down, Teevan explains, it becomes possible to pull out the repeatable subcomponents from these tasks to be performed by the task owner (i.e., selfsourcing) or the crowd (i.e., crowdsourcing).

The transformation of information work into microwork will change when and how people work, Teevan notes, enabling individuals and automated processes to efficiently complete tasks that currently seem challenging. A summary of Teevan’s current research focused on supporting this transition can be found in this co-authored article (http://aka.ms/selfsource).

In 2014, Jaime Teevan received the Anita Borg Early Career Award. Reflecting on the award, she says, “We spend almost all of our time in research looking into the future. I am always thinking about what I want to figure out next or what I want to help make happen. Receiving this award encouraged me to also pause and reflect a little on the past. It was surprising to realize that I actually have already accomplished a lot, and it makes me even more excited to keep pushing forward.” Read more on her blog: http://slowsearching.blogspot.com/  

Jaime Teevan’s sons aged 6 - 10, from left, Dillon, Cale, Griffin and Brier. Information on Griffin’s book can be seen at: http://slowsearching.blogspot.com/2013/05/making-marakan-ways.html
[Photo above: Jaime Teevan’s sons aged 6 - 10, from left, Dillon, Cale, Griffin and Brier. Information on Griffin’s book can be seen at: http://slowsearching.blogspot.com/2013/05/making-marakan-ways.html]