SuperUROP: Showcasing students' research work in progress

If one overarching message emerged from the 2018 SuperUROP Showcase, it was this: MIT undergraduates can do just about anything.

The lively poster session, which marked the halfway point in the annual Advanced Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (SuperUROP), featured more than 130 poster presentations by students on topics ranging from DNA-based memory storage to adaptive flight control and from image recognition to the automated correction of grammatical errors in Japanese.

About 130 undergraduates discussed the progress of their yearlong research projects at during the SuperUROP Showcase poster session. Photo: Justin Knight

Capping the event was the SuperUROP Community Dinner, which featured a keynote address by Tom Leighton PhD ’81, the CEO and co-founder of Akamai, a $2.5 billion technology company that was born at MIT. Leighton’s talk, “The Akamai Story: From Theory to Practice,” was designed to inspire the undergraduates in attendance. It centered, as Leighton put it, on “taking a UROP project and forming a company and having some success with it.”

SuperUROP builds on the success of MIT’s flagship UROP program. While traditional UROP experiences last just one term, SuperUROP involves research projects spanning the full academic year and includes a two-term class on conducting and presenting research, including writing journal-style papers as their final assignments.

Typically, the impact of SuperUROP experience extends well beyond the course, says Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

“We expect to see the results of many of these projects presented at major conferences and published in top journals,” says Chandrakasan, who founded SuperUROP when he was head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS). “We are also thrilled to see our former SuperUROP scholars moving on to top PhD programs and making impact in industry.”

“The fact that it’s yearlong is crucial,” says EECS senior Faraaz Nadeem, who is trying to automate the transcription of music featuring multiple instruments, a task he finds quite time-consuming. “The extra time and the way the class is structured, with deadlines, is pretty helpful.”

Launched in 2012 within EECS, SuperUROP later expanded to the full School of Engineering. In 2017, thanks to a generous grant from an anonymous donor, the program began supporting research involving the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS). Nadeem is among this year’s nine CS+HASS Undergraduate Research and Innovation Scholars, who work on projects combining computer science with the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

“SHASS is so excited to have students involved in SuperUROP,” says Agustín Rayo, associate dean of SHASS, who attended the December 2018 poster session. “I think our undergraduates are really at the vanguard.”

This year, SuperUROP also included eight scholars funded by the School of Engineering and the MIT Quest for Intelligence, a campus-wide initiative launched in February 2018 to advance human understanding of intelligence.

“The research goes beyond EECS. We have a really broad spectrum,” says Piotr Indyk, the Thomas D. and Virginia W. Cabot Professor of EECS and one of three faculty members who teach the SuperUROP class 6.UAR (Seminar in Advanced Undergraduate Research) with the support of eight teaching assistants.

EECS faculty member Thomas Heldt, who has served as an advisor for several SuperUROP students in the past few years, pointed out that the year-long program enables undergraduates to really dig into their topics.

“Usually it’s a more meaningful experience than a regular UROP because we’re working with students for nine months and there’s a formal program of classwork,” noted Heldt, who is the W.M. Keck Career Development Professor in Biomedical Engineering and an associate professor of electrical and biomedical engineering. “The experience is fantastic.”

Students agree.

“This is usually something graduate students would do,” says Patrick Tornes, a senior in mechanical engineering and School of Engineering/Quest scholar who is creating adaptive controls for drones so that the devices can better navigate the variable conditions of the real world. “It’s really awesome to be able to work on this as an undergraduate. In the spring, I’m looking forward to implementing the controller on a hexacopter and seeing how it actually performs.”

EECS senior Sky Shin, also a School of Engineering/Quest scholar, says SuperUROP is helping her decide what path to take in her future.

“I think [SuperUROP is] testing how I’ll fit in grad school,” says Shin, who is working in the Computational Cognitive Science Group to enable computers to classify images based on just a few examples. “This is very extensive research.”

The poster session gave students the chance to practice presenting technical material to a technical audience — one of the key skills taught in the SuperUROP program, says Dina Katabi, the Andrew & Erna Viterbi Professor of EECS and another 6.UAR instructor. “This is a very different class from anything other universities do. It’s a class that believes that research and presentation should go hand in hand,” she says.

Austin Garrett, a senior double-majoring in EECS and physics, says the SuperUROP class assignments — from developing a research topic to creating a poster and giving a presentation — have been useful in helping him plan his research.

“I’ve realized how difficult it is to develop a project,” says Garrett, a School of Engineering/Quest scholar whose research goal is to embed an intuitive understanding of physics into artificial intelligence. “It’s easy to get lost in the sea of possibilities.”

What many students say they like best about SuperUROP, however, is the chance to pursue independent research in an area that really interests them. “I’ve been given a lot of freedom in how I approach the problem. It’s really self-driven,” says Alex Kimn, a senior double-majoring in EECS and physics and another School of Engineering/Quest scholar. Kimn is using neural modeling to address grammatical errors to aid students of Japanese — work motivated by his interest in education.

Ronit Langer, a junior in EECS, meanwhile, has pursued her interest in “how we can take biological knowledge and, using computer science, develop things that can be deployed to help people.” Specifically, she’s trying to develop a protein sensor that will alert first responders to the presence of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, in possible drug-overdose cases. “What I’ve been able to accomplish in one semester is inspiring,” says Langer, a CS+HASS scholar.

The December showcase gave just a taste of things to come; students will next present the results of their research at the April 2019 SuperUROP Showcase poster session. However, it was clear that MIT undergraduates have the potential to produce great work, as Leighton underscored in his keynote dinner presentation.  

As Leighton recounted the story of Akamai’s founding at MIT, its meteoric rise during the era, and its near total collapse in 2001, he attributed much of the company’s success to the work of MIT students. Teams of students worked to get the company launched and later helped it rebound from disaster, he said.

“We got through it, led by people just like you: MIT undergraduates.”