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Young alumnus establishes UROP fund to honor his mother and father

Niel Robertson
Niel Robertson

Alumnus Niel Robertson (SB 1996) recently made a gift of $431,250 to establish the Meryl and Stewart Robertson UROP Fund to honor his mother and father.

Mr. Robertson's gift is intended to encourage other undergraduates to explore the benefits of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) to which he attributes his success. He knows firsthand the value of this program that brings faculty and undergraduate students together in research partnerships.

Recalling his early years at MIT, the 25-year-old vice president for research at Exodus Communications described himself as "myopically focused on writing software" and unprepared for the hours spent studying the math, structure and logic theory behind programming. His first UROP provided an outlet for his programming drive, in the Laboratory for Computer Science and later in the Media Laboratory. "Ultimately, UROP became almost like a retreat for me," he said. "It allowed me to go out and enjoy the guts of the subject."

Mr. Robertson oversees the Exodus Technology Research Group in Boulder, CO. The young donor explains that he "found his way" to Exodus as co-founder and CTO of Service Metrics, which was acquired by Exodus Communications in October of 1999. His first job after graduation was with net.Genesis, a Cambridge company started by other MIT graduates.

"This gift is special in two ways," President Charles M. Vest said. "The first is that it's from a very recent graduate of MIT. We're deeply grateful to Neil for sharing his good fortune with the students who will come after him.

"His contribution is also special because it supports one of the Institute's most important educational innovations," said Dr. Vest. "UROP has given generations of students their first taste of real research. Even for those who do not plan research careers, this is an experience that will pay intellectual dividends throughout their lives."

Although Mr. Robertson's interest was in software writing, the Robertson Fund has no restrictions as to field of interest. "It's the opportunity that matters, not the specific field," he said. "The most important thing for students to understand is that there's new funding support, no matter what their interests are, through this gift that I feel so fortunate to be able to make."

"A gift of this kind makes it possible for many more MIT undergraduates to succeed in the research world in a way that they've never before imagined," said Dean for Undergraduate Research J. Kim Vandiver, a professor of ocean engineering and director of both UROP and the Edgerton Center, two campus initiatives that encourage undergraduates to get their hands dirty with real-world research projects.

Dean Vandiver said the gift also would provide the UROP program with rare discretionary funds to help students improve their public speaking skills. "For instance, we might sponsor public speaking workshops during IAP or pay travel for students who want to present their UROP work at a scientific conference," he said. Students interested in learning more about improving their public speaking skills with support from the Meryl and Stewart Robertson UROP Fund may contact the UROP office at x3-7306 or

One of the hallmarks of UROP projects is the confidence they often instill in young students, according to Dean Vandiver. "When a faculty member expresses confidence in your abilities, especially when you don't have it in yourself, that can take you a long way," he said.

Mr. Robertson maintains that the best way to thank those who have believed in you and who helped you achieve success is to "hand it down" by providing similar support for others.

"My parents moved mountains, financially and emotionally, so that I could go to MIT, and they know how much I appreciate that," he said. "But having their name associated with the creation of similar opportunities for other people -- I think that's a really nice way to thank them."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 27, 2000.

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