For the first time, MIT freshmen had the opportunity to delve into Course 1-ENG research for credit and explore the myriad of disciplines offered within the department as part of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Mini Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (Mini-UROP).
The program, debuted during the 2015 Independent Activities Period (IAP), was spearheaded by Course 1 graduate students Fatima Hussain and Julia Hopkins with the mission to provide freshmen with direct research experience and a comprehensive introduction to Course 1. Each of the 19 participating freshman spent a total of four weeks, or 40 hours, conducting individual research projects under the guidance of graduate and postdoc mentors.
Described by Hussain, who herself was an undergraduate Course 1 major, as a “crash course UROP,” the Mini-UROPs focus on the emphasis of in-depth research into one particular project and feature weekly social events, or Chalk Talks. “Only through research did we [as undergraduates] find out what exactly Course 1 really means,” she continued. “[Hopkins] and I feel it is really important to introduce freshmen to Course 1 research, in an engaging way.”
According to Hussain, Course 1 is best defined as a department of diverse people with distinctive interests collaborating to solve complex, large-scale global problems such as sustainable infrastructure, development and climate change. “This is what we call Big Engineering,” added Professor Markus Buehler, CEE department head.
“The Mini-UROP program is an exceptional way for undergraduates, particularly freshmen, to familiarize themselves with the breadth of research opportunities represented in Course 1,” said Buehler. “CEE is an innovative and unique community that engages students in hands-on and real-world problem solving, and this program truly epitomizes these values.” For many students, the Mini-UROP program sets the stage for longer-term involvement in Course 1 research and the 1-ENG undergraduate program that allow them to pursue their passion and change the world.
The Mini-UROPs were kicked off in December with 20 three-minute presentations from graduate students and postdocs interested in mentoring a freshman on their individual projects. Hopkins, who also was an undergraduate major in Course 1, said the high number of graduate students and postdocs who volunteered was unexpected.
“In Course 1, we all have our special focuses: biology, fluid mechanics, things along those lines,” said Hopkins. “It was really impressive to see people from disciplines within Course 1, that even I wasn’t particularly familiar with, present to an entire audience.” After the pitch presentations, attending freshmen were paired with one of their top three picks.
Clio Macrakis ’18 said the Mini-UROP experience has been a catalyst for networking opportunities with other students as well as for providing a taste of full-time research and lab work.
“I’ve developed a better understanding of the scope of Course 1, in environmental engineering specifically,” said Macrakis. “It’s been a really good opportunity to meet other freshmen who are interested in Course 1.” She explained the opportunity to have a short introduction to research with the option of pursuing it further in the spring semester is invaluable.
For Jae Hyun Kim ’18, mentee of postdoc Filippo Menolascina PhD ’11, it was the physical research aspect of the program that drew her in, as well as “the opportunity to engage in a wet lab experience.”
“Having a hands-on component makes theory more accessible,” said Kim. “It makes you feel like what you’re studying through papers really matters.”
19 freshmen tackle complex research
Mini-UROP projects included a wide array of research such as soil behavior, sediment transport, coastal processes, smart wireless-sensor systems, and gas-consumption monitoring.
One Mini-UROP student, Mikayla Murphy ’18, opted to study the identity of marine viruses that infect certain bacterial hosts off the coast of Massachusetts. Along with Hussain, her mentor, Murphy made frequent trips to the coast in order to collect water samples and analyze the microbes in those samples. Ultimately, Murphy concluded her Mini-UROP having learned the appropriate way to characterize these viruses, or phages.
According to Murphy, the Mini-UROP program solidified her understanding of the diversity of Course 1 work.
“It was exciting to look at something we see all of the time, the ocean, and experience it and the environment around me in a new light,” she said. “Getting a taste of what life is like in Course 1 at all stages, freshman all the way up through graduate student, is worthwhile.”
For Elise Bickford ’18, listening to the other students’ research has introduced her to the global problems investigated in Course 1. For example, she said, her work designing 3-D models of methane bubbles in ocean water with mentor and CEE graduate student Ruby Fu can eventually lead scientists to have a better understanding of climate change.
Bickford intends to continue her work with Fu throughout the spring semester.
Cutter O’Connell ’18, mentee of CEE graduate student Daniel Prendergast, said the opportunity to participate in a multitude of Course 1 research has been gratifying.
“The Mini-UROP is so easy to get involved in, and so rewarding,” O’Connell said. “I know many freshmen who are trying as hard as they can to get involved in any sort of UROP, and this was just such a simple process.”
O’Connell and Prendergast’s project consisted of modeling the flow of the chemical PCB in the Duwamish Waterway near Seattle, Washington. In addition to modifying the existing hydrodynamic model to include the chemical’s physicochemical transport of PCBs, Prendergast said their results will help to better understand potential source pathways and identify the most effective cleanup methods for the river.
At the conclusion of the IAP period, faculty and mentors enjoyed the freshmen’s presentations of their Mini-UROPs. Each freshman delivered a slideshow in lightening-round fashion, relaying the different stages of their Mini-UROP research, their overall experiences, and the outcomes of their work.
“Through the Mini-UROP course, freshmen had the unique opportunity to learn what it truly means to participate in research,” said Professor Elfatih Eltahir, CEE associate department head. “The presentations were diverse, engaging, and covered exciting research topics. The enthusiasm and motivation in the room during the presentations was great. The Mini-UROP activity was a true highlight of this year’s IAP.”
Ultimately, Hussain and Hopkins anticipate a bright future for the Course 1 Mini-UROP program.
“Any freshman coming in who doesn’t know whether or not to take this program: It’s IAP, it’s a month of your time, and it will really introduce you to a lot of different topics in Course 1 and ways of looking at the world that you might not have thought about before,” said Hopkins. “It’s worth it, go for it. You will only have things to gain from this program.”