Each student spent 10 weeks this summer working in faculty labs as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). In the program, students are paired on a specific research project with both a faculty investigator and another mentor, typically a postdoc fellow or graduate student.
“One of our goals is to enable undergraduate researchers to be a part of the laboratory,” said Mriganka Sur, the Paul E. and Lilah Newton Professor of Neuroscience at MIT and director of the Simons Center. “It is important that they be involved in laboratories that are at the cutting edge of research on neuroscience, brain development, and brain disorders.”
Encouraging undergraduates to join a lab team is “a win-win,” Sur said. The students gain an understanding of how to conduct advanced research, while working on real-world problems that further the mission of the Simons Center, he said.
For example, Danielle Penny ’16 took a unique approach to investigating how cognitive flexibility — the ability to switch between different thoughts and perspectives, depending on the situation — is impaired in autism spectrum disorders.
“We’re not tagging along with something that’s already been studied to get a replicated result,” Penny said. “We’re really trying to drive forward autism research.”
The mission of the Simons Center — which is supported by a grant from the Simons Foundation for Autism Research Initiative — is to understand the neural mechanisms underlying social cognition and behavior, and to translate this knowledge into better diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders.