Prashanth Venkataram ’14 decided in high school that he wanted to study physics in college. He chose MIT because of its reputation in physics, and because he heard that even undergraduates can participate in research. His decision paid off: through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), Venkataram has conducted cutting-edge research, modeling a new class of structures called photonic crystals.
Venkataram’s story is featured in a series of video profiles created by Jean Dunoyer ’87, a staff editor and producer at AMPS MIT Video Productions. In them, Dunoyer — an acclaimed filmmaker whose work has appeared in programs for National Geographic, Discovery, A&E, and PBS — captures a sample of the many different types of UROP projects at MIT. Using a documentary-style approach, Dunoyer profiles six students engaged in a variety of research efforts, such as transforming incandescent light bulbs into robotic, digital information devices, or creating a liquid-metal battery that can store solar- or wind-generated power. The UROP video series is made possible in part by the generous support of Jane and A. Neil Pappalardo ’64.
Now in its 45th year, UROP offers undergraduates opportunities to collaborate with faculty in some 64 academic departments, laboratories, and centers. The popular program attracts more than 1,900 students during the academic year and almost 1,000 in the summer. In fact, 88 percent of the Class of 2013 participated in UROP during their time at MIT.
Although each student’s story is unique, collectively the videos convey not only what it’s like to participate in the program, but also the immense value of the experience. Natalia Vélez-Alicea ’14, whose project is using genetically modified fruit flies to develop new therapeutics for Huntington’s disease, has gained important lab skills. For Kamena Kostova ’12, who researched the p53 tumor-suppressor gene involved in lung cancer, the UROP project convinced her to stay in academia — so much so that she is now attending graduate school at UCSF. Students cite many other benefits, including hands-on learning that can’t be gotten in a classroom; career exploration; and honing collaboration and communication skills.
Undergraduates also make tangible and significant contributions to the research efforts of faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate students. Some projects are just too big to be carried out without the help of undergraduates. One example is LumiNAR in the Media Lab, a project on which Ben Weissmann ‘14 and Yihui Saw ’13 have worked. “One professor explained to me that the real discoveries and the real nuts and bolts of the research get done by students,” Dunoyer says.
Undergrads also bring a new perspective and a willingness to try things that a more experienced researcher might not, says Alejandro Rodriguez ’07, Venkataram’s mentor. “Sometimes,” Rodriguez says in Venkataram’s profile, “they hit the jackpot.”
For Dunoyer, making the UROP videos is one of the highlights of his production work at MIT. “I felt this project really got to the core of why the MIT experience is exceptional, and perhaps why MIT is so well known worldwide, and why so many people work extremely hard to get a chance to come here and study.”
Getting to know the students during the production was inspiring, Dunoyer says. “Their motivations for being a part of UROP were very pure. They were just curious about things, and they just wanted to learn. It didn’t seem like they were necessarily doing it in hope of achieving some kind of echelon in their career path; they were just motivated to get down to the work.”