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MIT's much-imitated UROP turns 30

This year, the MIT community celebrates the 30th anniversary of its Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), the first program of its kind, now widely imitated throughout the country and abroad.

A reception will be held in Lobby 7 tomorrow (February 3) from 1-3pm, featuring music by Professor Jay Keyser and the Intermission Trio Plus, and a cake-cutting ceremony led by Dean Rosalind Williams and Professor Paul Gray, president emeritus. All members of the MIT community are invited.

Established by the late Dean Margaret MacVicar in the 1969-70 school year, UROP was the first program to allow undergraduates to work with faculty on real-life research problems by offering opportunities broadly -- in the sciences, engineering, arts and humanities, architecture and management -- to students of any major and any class year. And though widely copied by other institutions in some respects, the program's breadth of discipline and accessibility continue to be unique.

"To my knowledge, UROP still has not been duplicated," said Norma McGavern-Norland, who in 1999 retired as director of UROP after working directly with Dean MacVicar from 1976 until the dean's death in 1991.

While the two worked with representatives from dozens of institutions over the years -- including Harvard, Stanford and Johns Hopkins Universities -- to help those universities create undergraduate research programs of their own, none has duplicated what MIT considers to be the best attributes of UROP: breadth and accessibility.

But many did copy the name.

Boston University, the University of Delaware, the University of California at Irvine and the Royal Institute of Melbourne (Australia) all have programs called UROP. The University of California at Berkeley's School of Engineering and Stanford University have "URO" programs. Johns Hopkins offers Undergraduate Research Opportunities in the biological sciences, the University of Delaware has an Undergraduate Research Program, and the list goes on.

Some of these programs are limited to students of one college, honor students in a specific area or are offered only during the summer months.

At MIT, where more than 80 percent of students participate in the program during their college career, any undergraduate may apply to work on specific advertised projects in any discipline, either for pay or course credit. UROP doesn't try to hold students to research in their declared majors but leaves them free to explore.

That's because UROP at MIT operates under the same theory as much of the research at the university -- that an interdisciplinary approach enriches the researchers and improves the results.

"UROP is a unique and unusually effective part of the MIT undergraduate experience that is specifically designed to put students on the front lines of research, in projects that range from one-on-one faculty/student teams to interdisciplinary collaborations with faculty, graduate students and other undergraduates that reflect the increased interdisciplinary nature of much of today's frontier research," said President Charles M. Vest.

Loved by students

"When I was deciding which college to go to, UROP was a big factor," said Helen Chuah, a sophomore in biology. "UC Berkeley has a similar program and when I talked to students there, they said 'Yeah, you can probably get a research job as a senior.' But it's not exciting to do a research project when you're a senior and leaving in a year.

"Students at MIT told me that it's very common for freshmen to do UROPs. And I thought, 'Now that's cool.'"

Ms. Chuah's first UROP was in the lab of Professor Herman Eisen in the Center for Cancer Research during the spring of her freshman year. She had her own project, inserting a bacterium vector into mammalian cells.

"I pretty much got it to work," she said. "I learned a lot and that's what I was looking for."

Her current UROP at the Whitehead Institute in Professor of Biology Peter Kim's lab has taken her from molecular biology to a structural biology project on protein folding. Her job there is to purify and mix peptides, then do X-ray crystallography to compare the lab team's predictive computer models with the real thing. The first model was pretty accurate, she said -- nearly identical to the actual "coiled coil" peptides she made.

"Whitehead is like heaven for biologists," said Ms. Chuah. "You don't have to make media for cultures or anything. That's all done for you."

Ms. Chuah works 8-10 hours a week during the semester for course credit, and during the summer gets paid for putting in a full week. "My friends were dragging me out of the lab last summer," she said. "I could work 12 hours a day, I was so enthusiastic."

In Professor Kim's lab, she works with postdoctoral fellows from physics and computational chemistry, biology, biochemistry, chemistry and computer science. "I thought that was the greatest thing in the world -- bringing different disciplines together to help solve problems," she said. "A biologist looks at problems in one way while a chemist or a computer scientist has a different perspective. It was important for me to learn to attack problems from different angles.

"That's what UROP is all about. You can learn biology from a textbook, but not what to do when something goes wrong. The book can tell you how something will look if it works, but not what to do if it doesn't.

"The feeling I get here is that professors are totally willing to take on freshmen. I think that's a better way to learn -- through mentoring," said Ms. Chuah.

Last fall, 382 faculty members, lecturers and research scientists supervised UROP students. Supervisors over the years have included faculty whose research is widely known, such as Nicholas Negroponte of the Media Lab; Rodney Brooks, director of the Artifical Intelligence Laboratory; Professors Robert Langer and Jackie Ying of chemical engineering, Professor Nancy Hopkins of biology; and four Nobel laureates: Professors Phillip Sharp and Susumu Tonegawa of biology, and Institute Professors Franco Modigliani (economics) and Mario Molina (earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences).

"UROP students are remarkably bright and interested in learning about new methods and ideals. Their naïve questions can stimulate unusual experiments and it's just fun to have them around," said Professor Sharp. "Enthusiasm is contagious."

"Succeeding as a mentor is one of the great pleasures of being an MIT professor," said Professor Kim Vandiver, who as the recently appointed dean for undergraduate research is also the faculty director of UROP. "UROP gives us that opportunity with undergraduates."


Planning for UROP began in 1968 when Edwin H. Land, inventor of instant photography, made a large gift to MIT to fund initiatives for improving undergraduate education. The Experimental Studies Program (ESP), Concourse and UROP were all born from this gift.

Professor Gray, then associate provost, worked with a small group of senior faculty on potential uses of the Land gift. He asked physics instructor Margaret MacVicar to design a program to create closer one-on-one ties between undergraduates and faculty.

"Margaret and I began to meet in January 1969 to shape a new program, to which she gave the name UROP," said Professor Gray of electrical engineering and computer science, who was president of MIT from 1980-90. "She worked intensively on it during the spring and summer -- and for 21 years after that. The program commenced in September 1969 with a dozen or so students and faculty and grew very rapidly. The rest, as they say, is history."

Despite initial skepticism on the part of some faculty members, who feared that undergraduates would be more of a hindrance than a help in the lab, the program has grown into one of the most important aspects of undergraduate education at MIT today.

"It is important to recognize that all of the credit for the creation of UROP and its stunning growth, and the degree to which faculty and students alike value it and find it essential, should to go Margaret," said Professor Gray. "Her insistence at the start that the program be extremely nonbureaucratic -- her only rule was that work done must be seen by a faculty member to be worthy of academic credit -- was essential to the success of the program."

National acclaim

In 1986, Dr. MacVicar, who by that time was dean for undergraduate education and a tenured faculty member, received a Commendation in Higher Education Award from the Charles A. Dana Foundation for her work in establishing UROP. Foundation chairman David Mahoney said, "I can scarcely imagine a development with greater promise for the quality of undergraduate higher education in this country."

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) said this year, "Margaret MacVicar's innovative idea 30 years ago to involve undergraduates in faculty projects has helped change the face of research. By giving all students in all disciplines the opportunity to work directly with faculty, MIT has enhanced both the quality of college programs and the world of research. Many other universities have adopted UROP as well."

US Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D- MA) said of UROP recently, "MIT developed a unique and yet sensible way to inspire future science and engineering leaders in the early stages of their studies."

Program's future

Future directions for UROP include plans to involve more freshmen in the program through IAP mentorships between upperclassmen and freshmen, and a proposed student consulting firm, a sort of adjunct to UROP.

Professor Vandiver hopes to establish an internal student-run consulting company that will give MIT students additional opportunities to meet faculty and staff. Faculty with short-term technical needs could, for example, hire students for a projects in electronic design, web site development or training in the use of computer applications. Through these projects, the students could get to know faculty on a more equal basis away from the classroom, paving the way for more UROPs and improved mentorship.

The UROP endowment is currently about $7 million in a number of en-dowed funds, including the Paul Gray Fund. The Institute hopes to raise an additional $15 million for UROP during the capital campaign to help expand UROP programming.

In establishing the Paul Gray Fund in 1997, Dr. Vest said, "UROP... symbolizes well Paul's deep commitment to the MIT undergraduate experience. Paul Gray and UROP are both universally admired and respected. It's very appropriate to tie them together in this manner."

For his part, Professor Gray deflects all praise for UROP's success back onto Dean Margaret MacVicar, who died in 1991 of lung cancer.

"This special place will not soon see her equal," he said. "She was smart, wise, passionate and energetic beyond imagining, and she, by force of personality and intellect, created what future observers will regard as the most significant educational innovation of the last half of the 20th century."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 2, 2000.

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