I remember that winter night, back in 2004, sitting in front of my computer. I was a PhD student in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev when the Intelligent Systems track was just formed. At that point in my life, I had visited several European countries, sometimes for vacation, sometimes to present a paper at a scientific conference, but I had never been to the United States.
The United States always seemed to me like a distant, unreachable place where major advances to humanity occurred. Advances in computer science, transportation, medicine, and communication—many of the most significant discoveries and innovative technologies were taking place in the United States.
As a student, and with the encouragement of IE faculty at BGU, it seemed valuable to identify research opportunities outside of Israel in the form of a fellowship (six months to a year during the PhD) to get exposed to new technologies, work with other scientists, or live in another culture. But how would I identify these opportunities?
Let me pause for a moment as I want to make a cup of coffee; a good coffee that I brought back from my vacation in Israel this past October. [Coffee is here]. Today is December 31, the last day of 2014, and I am writing this post from my Cambridge apartment. It is pretty amazing and quiet here. I live within walking distance of Harvard Square, and I can see now from my window several impressive buildings including the Fogg Museum that was re-opened a few weeks ago, the Memorial Church at Harvard Yard, and the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. I am a research fellow at multiple institutions including the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. I very much enjoy the projects I am part of, which usually involve applying machine learning and data mining techniques on massive databases of electronic medical records.
Note, however, that the main objective of this post is not to describe what I do or what I plan to do next, which may come in other posts or in the form of a research statement or a publication. Instead, my intended audience for this post includes young scientists or engineers similar to the younger student version of me in 2004, unrestricted by any specific research interest. My purpose is to provide them with information about my independent journey from Israel to the United States so that my actions might be generalized and might help others obtain an international experience. My personal experience is only one way to achieve that, but I wish to encourage and help others so as to increase the likelihood good people have the opportunity for an international experience, either industrial or academic, and not necessarily in the United States.
What I did then, that winter night, was purchase some Web crawler software for $15. I, as the user, could specify a keyword or an expression, and the software scanned Google to provide a list of email addresses that corresponded with the search term. For example, if I typed “virtual reality robotics university,” the software provided a list of emails extracted from web pages that contained the combination of these words.
By using this software, I collected a list of 2,500 email addresses. I noticed that the majority of the extracted addresses came from American institutions, but many also came from Europe, and many I could not identify. Obviously some of these addresses were not useful, as the crawler could not distinguish, for example, between the email of a professor offering a position and the email of the department’s web developer. It could only blindly collect emails associated with the specified keywords.
It was not really feasible to manually send 2,500 emails asking if a position is available. What made more sense was to use a different software to automatically send my inquiry. Instead of buying an email marketing software that was more or less capable of doing that, I wrote a program. It was not that difficult to create a program to import email addresses from a text file, insert generic content (“Dear Madam/Sir… My name is… I am a student… My research interests are… Are you familiar with research fellowships? Can you help me?”), then use a generic email library to send the emails. One challenge was to not overuse the BGU servers to send the emails, but that was easy to solve by using random pauses in my code and having the program run slowly over a weekend.
I received about 200 human responses. Some replied that they would forward my resume to relevant departments or professors, sometimes a secretary would reply that the professor was deceased, and I even received one angry reply that instead of using “Dear Sir/Madam” I should use “Dear Madam/Sir.” One German institution and one U.K. institution sounded interested, but the Washington Hospital Center was first to send a serious formal offer. At that time, WHC had launched an innovation lab that was part of the $6.5 million research grant awarded to Georgetown University and MedStar Health by NIH’s National Library of Medicine to enhance emergency preparedness in Washington, D.C. It was a pleasure to accept a one-year fellowship at WHC working with mobile robots, being exposed to new technological advances, and working with smart people. That year was one of my best years.
That fellowship was only one building block in my career, but it opened other doors later on. After I obtained my PhD, I was offered a job working at Microsoft with the same people from WHC, along with additional folks from the robotics group at Microsoft Research. I went through a variety of immigration processes. Actually, I haven’t met anyone who has received as many U.S. visa types. In my case, I applied for and received the J1 (training-based), H1B (employment-based), O1 (“extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, or business”), and finally the EB-1 (“outstanding researcher”) visas. Microsoft opened other doors and opportunities for me as I was exposed to what became a major personal interest, working with real-time streams of EMR data. Microsoft generously funded my green card and served as another building block in my career as my experience working with Microsoft helped me to obtain my current fellowship at Harvard/MGH.
I do not remember the name of the Web crawler software that I used, and, actually, it does not matter. What matters is that the reader of this blog will absorb the concepts of this post and potentially come up with better ideas to collect contact details of people of interest or labs.
I encourage the young generation of future scientists (including Americans) to identify opportunities abroad. You can use existing software, or you can develop your own as I did, at least in part, or you can use LinkedIn, its API, or other social networks to identify relevant future co-workers. Compared to 2004, I believe that it is easier now, in 2014, to identify opportunities. The world has become more global, the internet has become faster, and information, especially personal information, has become more visible.
I wish you a happy New Year, anywhere you are!
Uri Kartoun, PhD