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Honorary Doctor Jennifer Chayes excels at Microsoft

‘We’ve only just begun,’ said Honorary Doctor Jennifer Chayes in her acceptance speech after receiving her Honorary Doctorate on 8 February. 'We are on the cusp of a data revolution, which will deeply impact both science and society.'


As a Leiden Honorary Doctor, Jennifer Chayes is something of an anomaly. It is very rare for Leiden University to bestow an Honorary Doctorate on an individual who is not a professor but who holds a senior position (Director of Research) within a global company. Even so, Chayes is an ideal candidate for such an award. In 1996, Bill Gates, then the head of Microsoft, hired her on account of her brilliant and pioneering scientific work that combined both maths and physics. She had the knowledge and skills that Microsoft needed. 

Major scientific breakthroughs

Professor of Probablity Theory and Statistical Physics, Frank den Hollander, whom Chayes counts among her scientific colleagues, said in his laudation: 'She is a leading international researcher in the field of statistical physics, stochastics and discrete maths.' Chayes, together with fellow researchers, has achieved many breakthroughs in the study of phase transitions, in particular percolation theory and the theory of particle systems. 'Through her research, she commands enormous respect both from physicists and from mathematicians.'  

Role model

Under Chayes' leadership, Microsoft again made some enormous breakthroughs, this time in the field of complex networks. 'Not only that,' Den Hollander went on, 'she is a role model for young female scientists who want to combine an academic career with family life; she does all in her power to support them.' This is further area where she has received diverse awards.  

Strong personality

In his laudation, Den Hollander described Chayes as a source of inspiration because of her strong personality, her drive and her courage. In her speech of thanks, Chayes in turn referred to a number of inspiring Dutch personalities, including Leiden Nobel Prize winner Hendrik Lorentz, and other leading Dutch scientists ... such as Frank den Hollander.

Top universities

Chayes’ career reads like a list of the top American universities: she graduated with the highest distinction in physics and biology from the Wesleyan University, obtained her PhD in mathematical physics at Princeton, worked as a postdoc at Harvard and Cornell, and was appointed professor at the University of California Los Angeles, a position she held until she was recruited by Microsoft. 

Research and innovation labs

In 1996, Chayes became head of the Theory Group at Microsoft Research Redmond, where she persuaded other leading researchers to join her. In 2008 and 2012 she established research and innovation labs for Microsoft in Boston and New York, broadening her horizon to include information technology, economics and social sciences. Like the Theory Group in Redmond, these labs are held in high esteem throughout the world.