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Students get taste of MIT research

If history repeats itself, some of the students from around the country who were at MIT this summer may be returning as graduate students, continuing work they began in the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP).

The 11-year-old program, which is sponsored by the Graduate Education Office and planned by Associate Dean Margaret Daniels Tyler, aims to attract more minority graduate students to the Institute. MSRP introduces these students to the research environment, helping them gain confidence about their capacity to succeed in a high-performance environment, and it also exposes faculty to budding minority scientists. Twenty-two African American, Mexican American, Native American and Puerto Rican undergraduates came from other universities to MIT for a summer of research with graduate students and faculty mentors, meetings with fellow minority researchers and other members of the MIT community, and advice on applying to graduate school.

Leticia Bustamante of Fremont, CA, who will be a senior in aeronautical engineering this year at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, has been studying a technique called particle image velocimetry in the Gas Turbine Laboratory with Professor Alan Epstein and principal research engineer Gerald Guenette. She hopes to return as a graduate student in the fall of 1997 to continue work in that lab.

Although her parents were unable to continue their education beyond elementary school because of financial hardship, they encouraged her and her three brothers to go farther. However, "they could only encourage us-they couldn't guide or advise us on the procedures for enrolling in a university, the course curriculum or the fields available, or help us in the homework assignments," she said. "I think many bright young kids don't attend college or pursue graduate studies for the same reason: they have no one to guide them or even encourage them to achieve their dreams."

"I've been really impressed; I've really liked it here," said Anibal Bohorquez, who is working in Professor Maurice Fox's lab in the Department of Biology. Before beginning his senior year as a biochemistry major at the University of California at Riverside, he is helping with research on E. coli, introducing mutant repair genes into the bacterial genome to see how they affect the reverse-mutation rate. After coming to New England for the first time, he said he was happy to find that two of his earlier concerns-"nerdy" MIT students and unbearable humidity-proved groundless.

This was Eric Williams's second summer at MIT-he was a participant in the MITES (Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science) program three years ago. He just finished working in the Spectroscopy Lab under its director, Professor Michael Feld, investigating methods of using lasers to perform non-invasive analysis of blood components such as glucose and electrolytes. A native of Brooklyn, NY, he will be a junior in applied physics at Cornell this fall.

"The [MSRP] program is really well structured," Mr. Williams said. "Faculty and graduate students are very approachable. In the lab, I almost feel like an equal-graduate students ask me for my input and ideas." As for applying to graduate programs, "I'm not shy about it-MIT is my first choice." He also noted that MITES was a big help in preparing him for college. "I didn't doubt myself like a lot of other freshmen," he said.

"Eric is doing an excellent job and we're glad he's here. We clearly see him as a potential member of our group," Professor Feld said.

Twenty-three former MSRP participants have enrolled at MIT as graduate students. One of them is Erik Handy, who came here to study materials science in 1993 while a student at Hampton University. He expanded on his chemistry education by learning about nuclear magnetic resonance techniques, and he is now a doctoral student studying polymer science in the lab of Professor Michael Rubner of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Meeting minority graduate students who'd enrolled before him was a major factor in pointing him toward MIT, Mr. Handy said. "That was very encouraging to see they'd made it. I was pretty much sold on coming here-it was going to take a lot to make me go elsewhere."

The inaugural National Summer Research Conference, where students in MSRP and more than 200 others in similar programs gave presentations, was held at MIT in July. MIT's students gave final presentations of their research on August 14 and 15.

MSRP is supported by grants from the Alfred P. Sloan, Camille and Henry Dreyfus, and William Randolph Hearst Foundations, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Proctor & Gamble Corp.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 11, 1996.

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