The MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) held a kickoff reception at the Stata Center on Sept. 26 for 80 of its juniors and seniors who recently started their yearlong participation in the Advanced Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (or SuperUROP).
Speakers at the reception praised SuperUROP, now in its second year, for continuing to raise the bar at MIT for undergraduate research and innovation, while fostering collaboration between faculty and industry.
In his welcoming remarks, Anantha Chandrakasan, the Joseph F. and Nancy P. Keithley Professor of Electrical Engineering and head of EECS, recollected his own experience at the University of California at Berkeley, where he was able to conduct extended research as an undergraduate. This experience not only excited and prepared him for graduate school and an academic career, but also inspired him to create the SuperUROP.
Chandrakasan went on to discuss the critical role that the SuperUROP seminar class 6.UAR (Preparation for Research), which he co-teaches with MIT professor Dennis Freeman, plays in acclimating students to the program — including introducing them to social and networking opportunities (such as the kickoff event). “We recognize how important it is for our students to get to know each other and develop a sense of community,” he said.
Chandrakasan acknowledged the generous support from the 15 companies and several donors who support the Research and Innovation Scholars Program (RISP), which funds the SuperUROP students and provides some discretionary funding for the host research group. The RISP program makes the SuperUROP possible, he said. “The industry mentors provide not only suggestions and research directions,” he said, “but detailed feedback on the technical aspects of the project.”
At the reception, SuperUROP mentor Steve Muir, director of the VMware Academic Program, was excited about returning to the program — particularly about the wide range of research projects available to the students. “We are looking forward to seeing what the VMware SuperUROP scholars can accomplish this year,” he said.
“We are also encouraged by the addition of a dedicated staff member to manage industry relationships,” he added, referring to MIT’s Ted Equi, who is serving as a SuperUROP industrial liaison.
SuperUROP is more than a ‘warm-up’
Former MIT president Susan Hockfield welcomed the SuperUROP crowd, saying, “[The program] is as obvious at MIT as the sun in the sky.” She noted that not only do 85 percent of graduating seniors participate in a UROP, but also that UROP research is more than a “warm-up” for these students — it is real.
Hockfield praised the extraordinary ability and capacity of MIT students, saying, “If it’s OK for undergraduates to take graduate-level classes, why not graduate-level research?” She continued, “SuperUROP meets our students where they are.” She also congratulated and thanked EECS and Chandrakasan for taking on the SuperUROP “experiment.”
Gustavo Goretkin ’13 followed Hockfield in speaking to encourage the new SuperUROP class. In a unique position, Goretkin was a member of the original Undergraduate Student Advisory Group in EECS (USAGE) in 2011 and 2012 that helped shape the development of SuperUROP. He was also a member of the inaugural SuperUROP class and now, as an EECS graduate student, was given the chance to speak about his experience.
“SuperUROP not only made it possible for me to apply for graduate school with strong recommendation letters, but it prepared me well to present my research,” he said. “Most useful, was hearing from the ‘rock star’ people who presented to the [SuperUROP] class members during the year.”
Gustavo’s remarks fell on eager ears, including new SuperUROP student Benoit Landry, the MIT EECS-DENSO Undergraduate Research and Innovation Scholar who is working with associate professor Russ Tedrake to build robotic control systems that will allow for contact without interrupting both feedback and control. Landry said, “The 6UAR lectures are a constant reminder that doing research at MIT makes us a part of something truly exciting.”
Similarly, EECS senior Chelsea Finn applied to SuperUROP because she wants to gain experience in conducting research under the guidance of top EECS faculty. As an EECS-Qualcomm Research and Innovation Scholar with professor Seth Teller, Finn is working to improve computer vision methods for quickly detecting text in natural environments to create a real-time system that can aid the blind and vision-impaired.
The many legs of SuperUROP
Ray Stata ’57, SM ’58, chairman and co-founder of Analog Devices, was one of the first RISP partners for SuperUROP. In his remarks, Stata enthusiastically noted that as SuperUROP embarks on its sophomore year, the program presents “lots of learning on the how and why to engage industry.” He noted that the unique way that the program pairs faculty and industry in a shared mentorship, presents incentives and opportunities for building research collaborations.
Stata gave a historical perspective on what he termed the two pillars that MIT has built so successfully over the years: education and research. Now, he noted, there is increasing focus by MIT — in a very deliberate way — on innovation and entrepreneurship. The SuperUROP program, Stata said, is contributing to this process.
He also pointed to the need in industry for cross-disciplinary teaming in order to learn from and solve complex problems — something that is at the root of the SuperUROP.
Zoran Zvonar, Fellow and senior director at MediaTek, found resonance with what he heard at the SuperUROP reception. Since MediaTek joined SuperUROP in 2012, he noted, “We are eager to leverage existing relationships with research centers at MIT such as the Center for Integrated Circuits and Systems (CICS) and Wireless@mit, and expand to building new relationships with a broader talent pool of MIT students and faculty. This year we are approaching the program with more focused projects, representing the intersection of research initiatives defined by MIT faculty and students and technology areas that interest the company.”
From the student perspective, SuperUROP represents deep research with the best possible support, and, for some of those students, it might provide the opportunity to feed this work into a startup.
Angela Zhang wants to accomplish both. As an MIT EECS-Amazon Undergraduate Research and Innovation Scholar, Zhang is working with the Database@CSAIL group under professor Sam Madden and postdoc Aditya Parameswaran. Excited about this work, Zhang said, “This fall, I hope to build out the fundamentals of the database platform so we can later experiment using different approaches to solve the problem of data visualization.” Her goal in taking on this SuperUROP, she said, “is to answer some very big unanswered questions as well as to potentially develop my research project into a startup.”
Regardless of the SuperUROP students’ goals — for graduate school, career in industry or launching a startup — the program, Chandrakasan said, “has demonstrated a new way to innovate how students, faculty and industry work together to generate ideas while building new leaders. It’s a win-win-win.”