by Simon Firth
Industrial research wasn't what Charles Swannack expected.
When the MIT graduate student arrived at HP Labs for a two-week
residency recently, he'd expected to find innovation strictly constrained
by business interests. Instead,
he was impressed by the freedom that HP researchers have to follow
their own intellectual interests.
"There's a lot of creativity flowing around HP Labs," remarks
Swannack, now back studying in Cambridge, Mass.
Swannack was one of four MIT
students selected to be a 2004 MIT Researcher in Residence at HP’s Palo Alto
(Calif.) Labs. The program, now in its third year, offers MIT graduate students
an intensive two-week stay at the lab, where they work alongside
HP staff researchers.
Allowing bright young students like Swannack to see how HP Labs really works is one aim of the Researcher in Residence program.
But it is designed to do much more than that.
For one thing, it offers the students a chance to display their
Swannack, for example, used his residency to explore some tough problems
surrounding video-on-demand media streaming, trying to minimize
distortion during a broadcast by using certain error-correction
All the students pursue their own research projects
while at HP Labs. After a week of exploring topics
with Labs researchers, they select a particular problem
to investigate under the direction of one or two Labs staff members.
That makes it different from the majority of programs that
place students in industrial labs, where they are typically
asked to tackle relatively menial research problems, says MIT Professor
"They go to HP to think
about some of the problems that matter in that environment," Wornell
says. "Setting that tone makes
a difference in the style of interaction and the way students approach it. The
students tend to think about these matters long after they come back because
they don't view it as just a job."
Wornell is a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer
Science and the MIT faculty lead for the Researcher in Residence
program. Along with HP’s Susie Wee, he heads up the Center
for Wireless Networking at MIT, created by HP in 2002 to bring
together researchers from the two institutions for collaborative
research aimed at revolutionizing the design of wireless systems
and the mobile appliances that use them.
The Researcher in Residence program and the Center for Wireless
Networking are just two of the collaborative projects launched
under an innovative, five-year, $25 million alliance between HP
and MIT that seeks to redefine the nature of industrial-academic
projects in the alliance span a variety of subjects -- from
pervasive computing to inkjet printing to digital asset management -- students
in the Researchers in Residence program come to HP to work mostly in the area
of wireless networking and streaming media.
"We are challenging the assumption made in today's network
design that system layers should be treated independently," says
Wee, who leads the Multimedia Communications and Networking department
at HP Labs. "We're investigating interlayer optimization technologies
that work across the physical, network and application layers to
make break-throughs in performance for next-generation wireless
For Charles Swannack, who is finishing up his master's degree work at MIT,
the HP residency was also a chance to think about where he might direct his
"In academics there are a huge set of problems,” he says. “Knowing the
ones that are actually of interest to industry was one of the main reasons
I went (to Palo Alto)."
Fellow Researcher in Residence Guy Weichenberg also used the residency to
explore possible PhD topics. While at HP, he worked with Labs researcher John
Apostolopoulos to investigate the impact of different transmission channel
models on distortion for streaming media over the Internet.
Raul Blazquez, who is nearing the end of his PhD, says the program
gave him a broader perspective on problems he's exploring in digital electronic
circuits -- the
physical base layer of a wireless communication design.
get to know what kind of information the people who are not working in
circuits need from people like me, or what kind of problems they'd like
me to solve," he says.
The fourth Researcher in Residence this year (the program can accommodate
up to seven students depending on the availability of Labs staff) was Ashish
Khisti, who was returning to the program for a second time. He worked
with HP Labs researcher Mitch Trott on frequency planning and resource
allocation for wireless networks.
Khisti, too, cited the benefit of tackling real-world problems.
taking abstract formulations and applying them to concrete engineering
settings," he says.
It’s not just the MIT students who benefit from their visit to HP Labs.
“Enthusiastic young researchers come with new ideas and without preconceived
researcher Trott. "They can really challenge a lot of the assumptions
you're making about your own problems."
Along with the opportunities the residency brings for fruitful future
collaborations, Trott welcomes the chance to simply expose some of the
brightest of the next generation of researchers to the work of HP Labs.
really is the place to be in some of these research areas," he
happy, too, if the students' time at HP influences the course of their
PhD research. It's
a bonus for the company, Trott says, if students choose thesis problems
of interest to HP.
MIT’s Wornell can attest to the effect the Researcher in Residence program
has had on research at MIT.
"Entire lines of inquiry
have sprung up and been pursued here that definitely wouldn’t have been
pursued otherwise," he says.
Although both sides agree that they will
need to regularly reassess how the program is working, no one is
looking for it to end anytime soon.
"We haven’t even
come close to exploring all the areas of common interest to us,"
says Trott. "It's
safe to say we’ll
be continuing this for some time."
Adds Wornell: "This collaboration
is as good as any industrial academic partnership that I’ve
been involved with."
It’s also become quite
a desirable assignment, he notes. "It’s got a certain cache so
the best students want to apply."