SuperUROP connects student creativity with tough challenges
by Lauren J. Clark
photos by Neal Hamberg
What do you do when you’ve just completed your first deep dive into advanced electrical engineering and computer science research at MIT—head confidently to graduate school? Get recruited by a prominent tech company? Launch a startup? Yes, yes, and yes. First, though, you celebrate.
Over 70 EECS majors recently commemorated their completion of the Advanced Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, or SuperUROP, at a festive reception in the Media Lab’s Skyline Room. They spent the past year working several hours per week alongside faculty, postdoctoral associates and PhD students on projects in areas ranging from artificial intelligence to biologically based computation to nanoengineered optical networks.
MIT President Rafael Reif mingled with the graduates, congratulating them and encouraging them to continue on the path of discovery through research.
EECS Department Head Anantha Chandrakasan, the Joseph F. and Nancy P. Keithley Professor of Electrical Engineering, started SuperUROP in 2012 at the urging of undergraduates. As he presented the young researchers with certificates of completion, he told them, “You should be proud of the great progress you have made individually towards the overall goal of SuperUROP—to generate publication-worthy research results.”
Ishwarya Ananthabhotla, a junior, conducted research on self-folding miniature robots—robots that start out as two-dimensional structures and assemble themselves into three-dimensional structures—with Daniela Rus, EECS professor and director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). The work led to Ananthabhotla winning first place at EECScon, the Course 6 undergraduate research conference.
“Being a SuperUROP this year has shown me how exciting and rewarding focused research can be,” she says. “I plan to use this as a stepping stone for my future studies.” Ananthabhotla’s goal is to complete a master of engineering degree at MIT before applying for PhD programs.
Some of the world’s most innovative companies sponsor SuperUROP scholars.
Debashis Saha ’98, Vice President of Global Data Infrastructure for eBay. Inc., says that the company’s partnership with SuperUROP not only connects it to the next generation of visionary engineers, it also offers students a “playground” outside of academics. “University students tell us that they crave context in which their creativity can have real results in a finite period of time,” Saha says.
His colleague Max Metral ’93 (EECS) ’95 (Media Arts and Sciences), serial entrepreneur and chief engineer of eBay subsidiary PayPal, attended the SuperUROP graduation reception.
Metral says that eBay wants to revolutionize commerce by “trying to change large elements of consumer behavior”—for example, eliminating the need for credit cards through automated payment, even in a physical store. “To do that, you have to have technical ability as well as understand the human side of technology. SuperUROP students have that combination. They see the big picture.”
Discussing her EECScon win, Ananthabhotla echoes Metral’s remarks. She says that while all the competitors worked hard and did top-notch research, placing first resulted from her ability to “highlight the big picture implications of my work—the need for such innovations in the world around us. I’m extremely passionate about my research and am absolutely fascinated with the thought of self-folding structures redefining the way that we think about robotics.”
Ananthabhotla calls Rus, her faculty adviser, “an incredible source of inspiration and an amazing mentor. I got to interact with her in and around the lab and was always impressed by her vision and dedication to robotics research. I was also immensely grateful to see her take time out of her hectic schedule to attend the talk that I gave at EECScon. Her presence was an immeasurable source of confidence and encouragement.”
Foxconn sponsored Ananthabhotla’s research. “We are working on fabrication techniques that could potentially be applied to the electronics that they manufacture on a large scale,” she says.
Quantum communication device
Rishi Patel’s research involved coupling fibers with diamond nanowires, which could lead to the high-fidelity transfer of quantum information over a network. “Fibers are important, because they form the backbone of long-distance optical information transfer for communication,” Patel explains. “In the future, systems like ours could be used as a ‘node’ in a quantum network connected by fiber-optic channels.”
He worked with Dirk Englund, the Jamieson Career Development Professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and was sponsored by Analog Devices.
“The special thing about working in Dirk’s lab is that undergraduates are treated like graduate-level researchers and participate in basically all of the lab meetings,” Patel says. “Of course, this requires a great deal of commitment from the student, but it’s well worth it.”
After graduating this spring, Patel will pursue a PhD in applied physics at Stanford University, where he will likely study experimental quantum optics and optomechanics.
“My SuperUROP experience prepared me greatly for the research I want to pursue in graduate school,” he says. “I was able to interact very closely with my advisor and mentors in the group. I also got a feel for the level of commitment required in a long-term research project at the interface of electrical engineering and physics.”
Francis Chen did cutting-edge work at the intersection of EECS and biological engineering in Professor Ron Weiss’ Laboratory for Synthetic Biology in CSAIL. His project involved enabling automated DNA assembly with microfluidics.
Weiss’ lab has more than 20 researchers, including postdoctoral associates, graduate students, and undergraduates. “In general, the expectations are very high,” Chen says. “I’ve attended a few lab meetings with Professor Weiss, and I’ve noticed that he always seeks to identify the real reasons why things are the way they are, instead of being satisfied with superficial reasons. It has been a great educational experience.”
A junior, Chen plans to stay at MIT for an extra year after graduation to earn a master of engineering. He will then pursue an entrepreneurial or an academic career path.
“SuperUROP has given me valuable experience in the process of choosing a research topic, working in a lab, and writing a technical paper. These skills are applicable almost anywhere,” Chen says.
“I conducted independent research on a challenging problem,” says Chelsea Finn. Her SuperUROP project resulted in a quick and accurate method of computerized text detection that could enable blind people and robots to navigate in a world where text on signs, walls and doors indicates a desired path.
Finn notes that Qualcomm, which sponsored her work, “develops software and hardware tools for portable, high-performance applications, including those relating to image processing and computer vision. My project has both a real-time and a portability requirement for the computer vision algorithms—a goal of our system is to detect text in real time with a wearable device.”
Finn says that her SuperUROP experience taught her valuable skills that will jump-start her PhD studies in artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of California, Berkeley this fall. Those skills include the ability to quickly survey existing literature related to her research topic, describe her work in both formal and informal settings, and make predictions about her research outcomes and set goals.