EECScon 2013 - first undergraduate research conference at MIT is a success

May 7, 2013

Research posters and displays lined the walls of a large conference hall at the Kendall Square Marriott on Tuesday, April 16, as invited industry guests along with self-registered MIT students (graduate and undergraduate), staff and faculty came to the three hour event that featured the work of nearly 30 EECS undergraduate students. The conference, titled EECScon 2013 marked the launch of a new, professional-level venue to showcase to the general MIT public the original and innovative research conducted by both UROP and SuperUROP students in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.

EECScon co-chair Dylan Hadfield-Menell (SB ’12, MEng ’13) opened the event attended by over 120 and introduced the first two of six oral presenters. Each speaker had been selected on the basis of his/her elevator pitch (basically a five-minute speed talk on their project). Speaking quality and substance of research progress and contribution formed the basis for their selection.

The 22 other (poster) presenters at EECScon were selected on the basis of their research abstract. Co-chair Frank Li (’13) explained, “We accepted everyone who provided evidence there was a legitimate research-oriented project that showed significant progress and/or results.”

SuperUROP student Denzil Sikka (’13), the first speaker, discussed her work under Professor Rob Miller, titled “Facilitating the peer review process.” Based on the online concept that no one works alone (NOWA), Sikka developed an online peer review game to motivate high school and college students to evaluate the quality of work done by their peers. Following six months of project development, Sikka has been able to test her prototype concept with CSAIL students.

Although a concrete research outcome was not required, the presentations were praised for the high level of work. Dr. Stephan Kolitz, Director of Education at Draper Laboratory, attended the conference (along with Draper colleague Dr. Milton Adams). Dr. Kolitz noted: “We were impressed with the quality of the technical work, as well as the communication skills of the students." Dr. Adams followed with: "All of the students were well prepared to discuss their work from 50,000 feet down to a few millimeters.”

John Sun, EECS graduate assistant in the MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), was formerly an undergraduate student at Cornell University. He noted that his experiences to present at a couple of student conferences strongly influenced his decision to go to graduate school. “I think EECScon will have the same effect on a lot of the presenters,” Sun said, “which makes me glad EECS organized this event.”

Poster presenter and SuperUROP student Minshu Zhan (’13), who has worked with advisor Stefanie Shattuck-Hufnagel, Research Scientist in RLE, on modeling variations of acoustic cues in speech production, was encouraged by her experience at EECScon. Besides finding the event well organized and advertised, she noted that the experience was not intimidating to her as an undergraduate and made her feel more connected to the research community.

EECS Department Head Anantha Chandrakasan noted that the new undergraduate workshop evolved directly from the 2012 EECS Strategic plan with the goal of highlighting the exciting research done by EECS undergraduate students. Chandrakasan said: “EECSCon, a student-led conference, provided an excellent forum for our undergraduates to present their research related to EECS themes and network with other students, faculty and industry members. The students did an outstanding job presenting their research contributions to the community.”

EECScon was unique not only because it focused on undergraduate research, but also because a student organizing committee set the format, selection processes and all the other details that made it a success. EECScon faculty advisor Joel Voldman noted that EECScon used an approach similar to graduate-student-run conferences in EECS such as the Microsystems Technology Laboratories’ MARC or the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab’s CSAIL Student Workshop (CSW). “Faculty have more experience than students and can help avoid some known issues. But other than that,” Voldman noted, “the student committee came up with format, selection processes, etc.”

EECScon organizing committee co-chair Hadfield-Menell (S.B. '12, MEng '13) decided to take part when Prof. Voldman first sought student committee interest because he wanted to get experience in organizing and running such a conference. “I learned an incredible amount about the process of orchestrating a big event like this.” Other Course VI students on the organizing committee included Jonathan Birjiniuk (’14), Ashwini Gokhale (’13), Andres Lopez-Pineda (MEng ’13), Radhika Malik (EECS graduate student), Jenny Shen (’15), Luis Voloch (’13), and Rebecca Zhang (’15).

EECScon co-chairs Dylan Hadfield-Menell (left) and Frank Li (right) flank the three winners for the oral presentations (from left) Pratheek Nagaraj, Gustavo Goretkin and Duanni Huang









The organization and flow of the EECScon presentations — several oral deliveries alternating with time for guests to freely visit with poster presenters — allowed for judges to select three winners from the six oral deliveries as well as four poster presentation winners and several raffle winners from the guests.

Pratheek Nagaraj (’15) was selected as the first place winner for presenting a comprehensive discussion of his work “Dissecting complex phenotypes using Web 2.0 social networks.” Working with Dr. Yaniv Erlich in the Whitehead Institute, Nagaraj integrated data mining, social networking, and crowdsourcing to overcome typical limitations in genetics research. “What stimulates me most about my project is that it draws together seemingly distant and unrelated research areas into a cohesive and elucidating study with a broad range of applications,” Nagaraj said, calling the project a “beyond-the-textbook experience.”

The two other winners for best oral presentation were Gustavo Goretkin (’13) in second place for his work titled “Optimal sampling-based planning for linear-quadratic kinodynamic systems,” and Duanni Huang (’13) in third place for his work titled “Digital communication using low-power, high-efficiency LED.” [Photo: EECScon co-chairs Dylan Hadfield-Menell (left) and Frank Li (right) flank the three oral presentation winners (from left) Pratheek Nagaraj, Gustavo Goretkin and Duanni Huang.]

Winners for best poster presentations included Joey Rafidi (’13) for his work “Real-time trip planning with the crowd”; Ryan Fish (MechE ’15) for his work “Blicycle – a bike for the blind”; Edwin Ng (Physics ‘13) for his work “Efficient free-space multi-spatial-mode optical communication”; and Caelan Garrett (’14) for his work titled “A data structure for rapidly testing reachability for robotic motion planning.”

MIT Visiting Scientist and Distinguished Member of Technical Staff at Maxim Integrated’s design center in Chelmsford, MA, Dr. Brian Brandt was impressed with the conference particularly the research. “The level of research these undergraduates are pursuing is remarkable and will clearly set them apart as they enter their professions or graduate school.” He also noted EECScon’s uniqueness, saying, “This was a great idea that was executed very well.”

Noting that the inaugural EECScon event went very well, Prof. Voldman said that increasing industry attendance would be a goal. He added, “We implemented a mentoring program between the undergraduate presenters and graduate students, which was a success, and we should further strengthen that program in the future.”

Hadfield-Menell agreed that EECScon was a success but said that he would like greater attendance from undergraduates, particularly those not involved in UROP. “My hope,” Hadfield-Menell said, “is that this conference can serve as a starting point for students who have considered doing a UROP in Course 6 but either don’t know what they would like to work on or don’t know how to start the process.”

Poster presenter, Jesika Haria (’14) described her EECScon 2013 experience “as awe-inspiring.” Endorsing future EECScon events, she said: “The environment was supportive; the faculty gave constructive feedback and the very process of poster preparation was instructive. Anyone interested in learning about research that pushes the limits of technology at one of the premier institutions in the world will greatly benefit from attending!”

For a complete list of the presentations, see the EECScon 2013 conference guide (pdf).