Get to Know: Katrina LaCurts

Katrina LaCurts, Undergraduate Officer for EECS. (Photo courtesy Katrina LaCurts.) 

Jane Halpern | Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Katrina LaCurts is the Undergraduate Officer for the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. A senior lecturer for the department, LaCurts teaches 6.02 and  6.033, advises students, runs the EECCS Undergraduate Office (along with an amazing team), and serves on a variety of committees. We sat down with her to learn more.

Nice to chat with you! First off, you are an Undergraduate Officer for EECS, which sounds very official! Tell us about what your job entails, and be sure to let us know if it includes a uniform.

It does not come with a uniform, but we do have a mission statement! ‘The EECS Undergraduate Office provides a support system for students, advisors, and the Department. It is our mission to guide students through their time at MIT and help them become self-sufficient human beings. We put a particular focus on fostering a sense of community and inclusivity and encouraging intellectual curiosity both within the Department and the Institute.’

In some ways, I’d say that the Undergraduate Office is a place for students to go when they feel they need support and aren’t sure where to get it. It may be with an issue in a class they’re taking, an issue outside of a class, or even just a form that they don’t know how to fill out. Sometimes we can give them the support they need ourselves, and other times we direct the students to other offices on campus especially designed for assist students in matters that our office does not handle directly. It’s also our job to keep track of whether students are fulfilling the requirements for graduation, which in some ways is the most important thing we do and in other ways is the least important thing we do. Finally, we try to ensure students have a good and a fulfilling educational and social experience along the way to graduation.

You’re also a lecturer within the department, and I noticed that on your website, you specifically call out teaching and advising as your primary interests, above just computer science. What is it about teaching that feels “sticky” or fascinating to your brain?

I love seeing people learn new things. And I like facilitating that—I very much enjoy the cliched moment of seeing a student “get it”. That’s a very satisfying thing to be a part of, and it’s immediate in a way that research is not. In addition to that, I enjoy thinking about how to explain things to other people. I teach a lot of computer systems classes, and while I love computer systems very much, I like to think about “Why are these systems important? Why should students know this?” I like thinking about how to organize and represent those materials, and how to communicate the things that got me excited about it.

Tell me a little about the adjustments you’ve made to teaching in the pandemic—have you discovered any new tools which you love using, or techniques you’re planning on bringing back into the regular school year?

That’s a good question. There have been a couple of places in 6.033 where, to prepare students for smaller sections, we’ve put out 5-10 minute videos for them to watch ahead of the lecture, kind of a flipped classroom model, which is working pretty well. Although we were compelled to create all that content, it’s going pretty well. I have had to think really carefully about how to present material in lecture. When we’re on campus, I’m a big fan of having some things up on a slide but also using a board to spontaneously draw diagrams and write on. Remotely, planning to have that space is actually a lot harder. You have to be way more diligent about “where do things go?”, which has in many ways improved my lectures! This pandemic has forced me to think hard about a different set of considerations than normal, and a lot of the changes in response to the pandemic have been good.

Overall, however, I honestly hate the situation caused by the pandemic. The parts of the job which bring me the most joy are interactions with my students—telling if they’re really getting it or not. It’s why I do this job! And there’s nothing you can do remotely to see that; there’s no way to get truly good feedback.

When we return though, to both in-person teaching and the Undergrad Office, we will be thinking about if there’s a useful place for virtual office hours, for those late-night, 5-minute questions that students really don’t need to walk all the way across campus for. We will not go entirely virtual by any means, but we will use that technology when it makes sense.

Let’s also talk a little about pandemic life. What’s your favorite sanity-saving technique which you’ve discovered during this weird time—your favorite Netflix discovery or new hobby?

In the Before Times, one of my main hobbies was working out at a powerlifting gym with a small group; powerlifting requires equipment which I don’t have at home, and obviously gyms are out right now. I also really enjoy playing music with friends—so those are the two hobbies I cannot really do currently. I’ve been forced to branch out and explore.

At the beginning of the pandemic, all I could do was take my dog for walks, and I got really invested in the plants in my neighborhood, because all my neighbors are these amazing gardeners. That grew (heh) into my doing a little gardening myself, which was something I’d always been interested in. I also got more into paying attention to nature. I live right across the street from a huge nature preserve, and this morning our wild turkeys are back, which is huge!

Finally, I’ve valued having time to consider that maybe there were things I used to do that I don’t enjoy, or need to do, anymore. That’s definitely been valuable. I’ve always been pretty good about work-life balance, but at the start of the pandemic I realized I need the whole weekend to cope. This really dedicated period of 5 PM Friday to 9 AM Monday, I need that. I realized I could improve on my boundaries.

I’m going to ask this just because you’re a computer scientist: what’s your favorite online discovery?

I listen to a lot of podcasts, and so I’m going to recommend a podcast called “Home Cooking”. It’s got two hosts, Samin Nosrat (of “Salt Fat Acid Heat”) and Hrishikesh Hirway (of “Song Exploder”) and it’s just delightful. They’re both so amazing; they were planning to only do four episodes, but they just kept going. It’s been hard for people to not talk about the pandemic all the time, and when I discovered this podcast about what people are cooking at home, it was so lighthearted and became such a good resource.

What are the three resources you wish more MIT students knew about or took advantage of?

The first thing I wish students knew is that everyone at MIT is eager to help them and there are a lot of offices to point them in the right direction. Just as an example, a student came to us with a question about health insurance—I don’t know anything about health insurance, but our office is really well equipped to direct them to the right office. We can help guide them! So, I would want students not to worry so much about “Are you asking the right person for help?” and just ask for help. Sometimes I don’t know the answer, but it would be really useful for me personally to learn it! It’s never a burden to be asked a question.

The second resource I’d recommend would be the Student Art Association. They offer not-for-credit art classes every semester, and students, faculty and staff get to learn new art for a really reasonable rate. When I was in grad school here and started teaching, I took the same ceramics class over and over again, and hung out once a week in the ceramics studio and hand-built little monsters. You don’t have to pay for materials; you have access to all the materials in the studio, and they’re big on reuse and ways to recycle, etc.

Finally, the third recommendation I’d make is simply to make a point of discovering the public art available on MIT’s campus. There is an extraordinary amount of art around campus. My favorite one is this floor, which I stumbled upon by accident one day.  There are a lot of sculptures outside that are easy to spot, but there are also dozens of hidden art installations stashed around campus, which I think is pretty special to MIT.

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