This is the first in a series of articles from the MIT Undergraduate Research Journal (MURJ), a student-run publication
MURJ: Can you tell us a little about what your roles are as the Dean of Undergraduate Research?
I took this role on about 10 years ago. At the time, Margaret MacVicar was essentially the first faculty member who basically built the UROP program and was essentially the first dean for undergraduate research by 1991. Between 1991 and 1998, there had not been a faculty director of UROP and so I got recruited by the chancellor. We needed some faculty involvement in certain policy and things like that in the office and so I said I’d like to do that.
It also happened that I created the Edgerton Center in 1992, and I’m a big believer of hands-on, experience-based education. I had long thought about the combination of the two things, as Edgerton involved hands-on research and UROP was a great program that students already knew about and that allowed them to get out there and build things. It was a great combination for me to have both of those resources that I could coordinate together for the benefit of the students. That’s how I got to be where I am. My real role in it these days is that I’m basically the faculty director of UROP. The day-to-day operations are run fantastically by Micheal Bergren and Melissa Martin and the people of the UAAP.
More recent things that I’m interested in are what I call IROPs, because the Edgerton center is home of D-Lab. D-Lab gets students involved in international development projects and UROP is a nice mechanism for students being able to continue to work on projects that they might start in D-Lab. If students wanted to spend their summer in Ghana pursuing a project that was started on alternative fuels that they learned about in D-Lab, IROP is a way for students to apply for funding and get involved and do things that were international. In the last few years now, there has been a lot more interest in giving MIT students more international experiences. The creation of this IROP concept was something I was hand-in-hand with Julie in developing.
MURJ: So what has been your influence on the program as the dean?
Early on when I took on this role 10 years ago, the question came up regarding just what are students’ intellectual property rights. It’s pretty clear if you are a UROP student working on a sponsored research project for a faculty member, then the Office of Sponsored Programs rules apply and basically that means for most sponsors the IP belongs to MIT and the sponsors have royalty-free license to use any intellectual property that comes from the project. If they want to have exclusive rights to it, they have the right to negotiate with MIT to make it happen. What happens though when you apply to the UROP office for funding to work on something that’s maybe even your own idea that you want to pursue? It’s not sponsored-research money but actually MIT money and we’re going to give it to you to work on a new energy invention or something. Who owns the IP? MIT has clauses about things like this. It’s process and procedures that mostly applies to employees and it says that if you make substantial use of MIT resources then MIT has an ownership interest in the IP.
We came to the conclusion that in the case of UROP students, even if you got funding from the UROP office, UROP students should own the IP. That’s the sort of thing that comes up. If you invent something, even though you were paid by the UROP office, we still want you to have the IP. The why about that is actually interesting. I think in the long run that if you invent this new energy device and you go off and build an industry around it, MIT will benefit more from your interest in paying back and supporting the next generation of UROP students then we would if we exacted our licensing rights. That’s why you need a faculty hand in the guidance of a program like UROP.
MURJ: So you addressed this a little already, but can you discuss the impact of UROP on MIT students?
Well, I had a phone call many years ago. I think it came into the office as an e-mail and not right to me. It was a past student, and at the time a relatively recent student, only five or six years out. He basically contacted the office and said, "I wouldn’t be where I am today without my UROP experience, and my company was just bought out for $100 million and I want to do something to ensure that UROP is safe for the next generation." He gave us a million dollars and we had conversations about what made him feel this way. I think his story is an interesting one and it’s not just interesting, but also very typical. This was in the software boom of the mid-90s and he got out and did something that made him a big chunk of money. In my conversations with him afterward, I asked why and what it had to do with his first UROP.
He went in and knocked on the door looking for that first UROP, which is hard to do. This guy asked him if he could program in C and he said no. To his great surprise, the response of the faculty member was that it didn’t matter and he could learn it in a couple weeks. It wasn’t that he did a particular UROP and learned exactly how to do A-B-C and went out to build his company on A-B-C. What he got from doing that UROP and having a faculty member saying, “No big deal, you can learn it in a couple weeks,” is that it built his confidence in himself that he could do just about anything if he put his mind to it and that a faculty member at MIT basically endorsed and gave him permission to go do those kinds of things. He had a sequence of two to three different UROPs in the course of being an undergrad here and they just set him up in the right frame of mind that he could go out and do things and so he went out and built a company.
That’s a story way of telling what UROP does for students. I think it gives you a place where you can actually solve unstructured problems and do hands-on stuff. You find out that it isn’t just book learning and there’s no right answers necessarily. You get what I call experiential learning. Maybe all you learn from it is you take on your first UROP and work in a biology lab and discover you don’t really like working in a biology lab. That’s a heck of an important lesson to learn at a relatively small cost and you go on and try something else so that when you leave here you make the right decision about where to go for grad school and the right decision about what career to pursue. You really have to do something to know whether or not you like it or if it excites you.
Continue reading the rest of the interview at the MURJ website.