Luis Voloch investigates how sources of information, including viruses, can be concealed or revealed in computer networks. Lyne Tchapmi Petse develops a heart-monitoring device that transmits vital signs to a smartphone in real time. Sebastian Leon mines user data from the online education platform edX to create a predictive model of learners’ progress.
These researchers aren’t professors or postdocs. They’re not even graduate students. They’re MIT undergraduates who, through a new initiative called the Advanced Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program — or SuperUROP — are deeply involved in some of the world’s leading-edge research.
On Dec. 6, these students and several dozen of their peers gathered in the Grier Room to present their work in a poster session attended by MIT faculty, Boston-area venture capitalists and representatives of companies who support the research.
“This is an amazing experience as an undergrad,” says Voloch, a senior studying mathematics who grew up in Brazil and attended high school in New York. “SuperUROP is a special arrangement, because there’s a high level of expectation from the students. It creates a setting in which professors and students take a project very seriously and for a long term. I think it’s a good preview of what graduate school can be like.”
“The exciting thing about MIT is the number of revolutionary ideas that develop here,” says Fairhaven Capital founder and electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) alumnus Rick Grinnell, who attended the poster session to meet the program’s students and offer them advice.
“I think it’s important to encourage [the students] — for them to see that people from the real world who invest are putting in the time to see what they’re working on and that [research is] not just academic,” Grinnell says.
Standing next to her poster, Petse explains how her heart-monitoring device senses vital signs from just behind the ear, where the device is worn, and transmits them via Bluetooth radio signals to a smartphone app for analysis and display.
“You have Bluetooth on your smartphone, so you can basically have a device that you can wear at home and that can help you monitor your heart,” says Petse, a senior in EECS.
The Cameroon native says her technology could improve on others in development partly because it replaces high-power radio signals with low-power Bluetooth, and partly because the app she is developing can provide the user with instantaneous and continuous readouts.
Leon’s work is equally cutting-edge in a completely different field. He explains that edX — which offers free online courses from MIT, Harvard and other universities — has hundreds of thousands of users whose interactions with the platform generate a “gigantic mass of raw data. The idea is to create a predictive model of student behavior based on all of this data.”
Leon, a junior in EECS who is from Ecuador, is among the first researchers to investigate edX’s user dynamics. “SuperUROP offers me an independent project that I can really own and really take control of,” he says.
MIT Chancellor Eric Grimson, who is also an EECS faculty member and the Bernard M. Gordon Professor of Medical Engineering, came away from the poster session inspired. “The level of research being conducted is remarkable, and the articulate manner in which students talk about their research and the excitement they communicate are impressive,” he says.
SuperUROP is a logical progression of UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program), which itself launched in 1969 as a bold experiment bringing younger students into the laboratory for the first time. More than 80 percent of the Institute’s undergraduates now participate in the program, and typically they spend a semester experiencing what it’s like to work in a research laboratory.
But many students participate in UROP for a longer period — often a year or more — indicating that there is a demand for greater exposure to the rewards and complexities of scientific investigation. EECS Department Head Anantha Chandrakasan responded to that demand, working with his department’s undergraduates and the UROP office to launch SuperUROP in September.
“Many students desire a more in-depth research experience — one that culminates in results that could be published in a journal or top conference, or advanced prototypes that could be commercially developed,” says Chandrakasan, who is also the Joseph F. and Nancy P. Keithley Professor of Electrical Engineering.
MIT students have responded enthusiastically to the new opportunity. There are 86 participants during this pilot phase, and Chandrakasan expects greater numbers from departments throughout the Institute to enroll in the coming years. The program is open to junior and seniors.
In addition to working closely with a faculty member for at least a year, participants take a two-semester class, “Preparation for Undergraduate Research,” that covers topics ranging from industry best practices to presentation skills to ethics in engineering. The program also gives undergraduate researchers access to MIT’s sophisticated nanofabrication facilities (through the Microsystems Technology Laboratories) — a privilege typically reserved for graduate students.
SuperUROP students receive a significant stipend of $3,000 per semester for 10 hours per week of work, and their faculty supervisors receive $4,000 to support the student for the entire academic year. In addition, on completion of the program, SuperUROP scholars will receive a certificate that will serve as an additional takeaway as they proceed in their career paths.
Rui Jin, an EECS senior who is developing a wireless charging technology for medical devices, explains why his research requires the time, training and technical facilities that the program provides.
“With my project, I need to first build a prototype, but that’s not the end of it. I need to test the prototype and make improvements. But the ultimate goal is to actually fabricate silicon and design a chip that will support all the features that are in my prototype. All of that work combined together will take far more than one semester — more than even one year,” he says, adding that he will expand his project into his graduate thesis next year as part of a five-year EECS Master of Engineering (MEng) program in which students earn a bachelor’s and a master’s.
Jin’s project is a specialized adaptation of a wireless mobile phone-charging technology developed by Texas Instruments, which supports his work through SuperUROP’s Research and Innovation Scholars Program. Representatives of the company attended the poster session to hear about the project. “They’re pretty enthusiastic,” Jin says.
Many other participating students are working on research aligned with the interests of industrial sponsors that — along with individual donors including (EECS) alumni Dr. Erika N. Angle and her husband Colin A. Angle, and Dinarte R. Morais and Paul Rosenblum — provide support through the scholars program. Besides Texas Instruments, the industrial sponsors include Analog Devices, Basis Technology, Denso, Draper Laboratory, eBay Inc., Facebook, Foxconn, Google, Intel, MediaTek, Qualcomm, Quanta Computer and VMware.
Stan Reiss of Matrix Partners, another EECS alumnus and venture capitalist who attended the poster session, thinks undergraduates can gain a lot from the program.
“They can get to some real results, and that’s the kind of experience you really need,” he says. “Even if [the students] have no intention of commercializing their work, this is a great program. It’s an opportunity to do something relevant to the real world — to whatever they’re going to end up doing when they graduate.”
Whether they go on to graduate school, a startup or an industry career, SuperUROP gives MIT students a valuable head start on generating the revolutionary ideas of the future.