Reinventing at IBM Research

By Emily Ray

I usually start the story of the reinvention of my professional research by telling about the “lunch that changed my career” where my now manager described to me the most exciting job I could think of and then agreed when I insisted that it should be mine.

emily ray

The short version of this story leaves out all the other lunches, coffees, and hallway discussion with some of the most brilliant and talented people I have had the pleasure to say I work with. These deserve as much credit as my final lunch for enabling me to go from researching hardware reliability test methodology development to hierarchical structuring of linked information and finally to cognitive computing applications for transforming learning.

The longer version of this story goes like this: I excitedly accepted a postdoc at IBM in a hardware testing position after finishing my PhD in physics. I couldn’t help but get interested in all the other exciting things going on in the building. I volunteered in other groups in my free time to try out other fields and build up new skills. I knocked on doors and asked advice about important resources, useful skills, and new applications. Every person I contacted quickly made time for me and offered wildly helpful insights. My new hobbies were taking online courses, reading papers, and manipulating data sets. After another postdoc in a natural language processing group and a new programming language, I was at the fated lunch where I ended up working two jobs for a few weeks while I transitioned to a group that studies the way humans learn and how technology can augment that process.

The culture of excellence and openness at IBM Research fosters deep multidisciplinary collaborations across many skills. I used it to reinvent my career, and it is used all the time to keep relevant in new fields. You can literally knock on someone’s door or strike up a conversation in the coffee line. I reached out to maybe a hundred people and not a single one turned me down. I’ve had a tour of the particle accelerator, chatted with the team who beat Kasparov about language learning, imaged through a whole chip at the subwavelength level, used motions instead of a mouse to move images from one screen to another, discussed algorithms with the person after whom it was named, helped the team who miniaturized semiconductors plan an ideation session, and just last month I met one of the inventors of Lasik. It’s easy to incorporate new ideas into your research when this is your inspiration.

I’m comfortably settled in my new research field, and I don’t have to go out of my way to stay abreast with my colleagues’ work. But when I’m lucky enough to work in the same building as the team who brought us Watson and 7 nm FinFETs, why would I ever stop?


Emily Ray is a Research Scientist and Informal Learning Lead on Cognitive Computing for Education Transformation at IBM Research USA.

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