Graduate Alum Profile: Min Wang

From the Fall 2010 issue of Threads

Min Wang

If catapulting from a fresh-faced PhD graduate to director of a major research laboratory for the world's largest IT company within a single decade sounds like a challenge, then Min Wang has certainly achieved a significant accomplishment.

Born in China, Wang earned both her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in computer science from Tsinghua University, the best engineering school in China. Eager to share her love of computing, Wang stayed in China for several years teaching as a young faculty member at Tsinghua.

In 1994, to continue her education, Wang set her sights on the U.S. Out of a pool of prospective universities, she picked the Duke Department of Computer Science due to its strong algorithms group and her interest in algorithms and theory. Once on campus, the enthusiastic teacher-turned-student approached Department Chair Jeff Vitter and asked to join his group. She happily began planning a dissertation on algorithms, Vitter's specialty, until a summer internship with IBM auspiciously altered her direction.

"When I came back, I told Jeff I wanted to do my dissertation in databases," recalls Wang. But there was a catch -- Vitter didn't do database research, and neither did any of the other Duke CS faculty at the time.

"Luckily, Jeff was open-minded," laughs Wang. After some discussion, Vitter and Wang dove into the unknown waters of applying wavelets techniques to database systems, and it wasn't long before it paid off. In 1999, Wang took home the Duke CS Outstanding PhD Dissertation Award for her work. She has since published over 50 technical papers in the fields of database systems and information management.

Right after graduation, Wang took a job in the Database Research Group at IBM T. J. Watson Research Center in New York. There she excelled for ten years, publishing broadly and climbing the ranks to become Manager of the Unified Data Analytics Department at IBM Research. "It was a really rewarding job," says Wang. "I really grew up, became familiar with industrial research and developed into a mature researcher."

Then, in 2009, Wang received surprising news: Part of her dissertation work that she presented at the 1999 ACM SIGMOD International Conference on Management of Data (co-authored with Vitter), had won the SIGMOD 2009 Test of Time Award, a tribute to a single paper that has the most impact over the intervening decade. "It was amazing," says Wang. The award garnered not only praise from colleagues, but also caught the attention of HP Labs, the company's central research organization who coincidentally was headhunting for a talented, energetic researcher to lead HP's research lab in China.

It wasn't long before HP offered Wang the coveted job, and she took the post as the new Director of HP Labs China, a bustling new laboratory in Beijing focused on analyzing and extracting data from the Web. "It's a pretty big change for me," says Wang. "It's all very new and exciting." In January this year, Wang settled into her new job and is now guiding the Beijing team in several new directions, including IT informatics, networking, and web content analysis.

"HP Labs China is a much younger and smaller lab compared to several well-established research labs in Beijing, but we are growing," says Wang. "With HP's unique position in IT industry and the top talent we are attracting from all over the world, I am confident that the lab will become a top industrial research lab in Asia in several years. And I am looking forward to seeing some Duke graduates join us," she adds with a smile.