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Students Visit D.C. to Promote UROP

By Sarah Y. Keightley
News Editor

Four students traveled to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to promote the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

Aomawa L. Baker '97, Michelle M. Irizarry '95, Gus J. Leotta III '95, and Marc A. Mander '97 went to Washington to "spur confidence in senators and congressmen and to tell them that programs like this work," Leotta said.

Tobin L. Smith, a legislative assistant in the MIT Washington Office, made the arrangements for the trip. Originally the students planned to attend the Coalition for National Science Funding exhibition on Tuesday, but the scope of the trip grew, Smith said.

The four students receive funding from the National Science Foundation for their UROP work, and "this event was highlighting NSF-sponsored research and educational projects," Smith said.

"It also seemed logical that it would be useful for them to go around and meet" with aides from the Massachusetts' delegations and Rep. Sherwood Boehlert from New York, who continues to raise "questions about the quality of undergraduate education," Smith said.

The students talked about UROP and how their research relates to their education, Smith said. "They did a wonderful job; I think it's important that students talk about their experiences at their universities," he said.

The meetings focused on two points: that "lab work can help to further one's education" and that these students are being funded with federal research money, Smith said.

"I think we really did have an impact," Leotta said. "We had nothing really to ask for, we weren't there for a specific purpose like last year."

Last year, three MIT students met with congressional aides to talk more specifically about concerns regarding the federal regulation that applied overhead costs to UROP salaries, Smith said.

Meeting with aides, representative

The students had six meetings before attending the NSF exhibition in the evening. The first five meetings were with legislative aides to Massachusetts' congressmen, and the sixth meeting was with Boehlert.

"We would tell them what we're doing - the research I'm doing and how I think it works in the grand scheme of things," Leotta said.

"The best interview was with [the aide from] Senator [Edward M.] Kennedy's office, we had a good exchange of information," Leotta said. However, at [Sen. John F.] Kerry's office, the aides "smiled at you I just didn't think they were really listening to us," he said.

Smith wanted the students to meet with Boehlert "to show research and education do not have to be separated."

The group wanted to "make MIT be an example and show that the way we spawn teacher-student relationships, establish that link, is by UROP," Leotta said. However, Boehlert saw MIT as an exception. "He doesn't think UROP could be applied to other schools."

At the exhibition, the students talked with the head of NSF. Only two other universities, Columbia University and Williams College, numbered about the 20 groups that had exhibits, Leotta said.

NSF funding faring well

Compared to other research programs, NSF funding is "faring a little bit better and enjoys fairly good support among key House members," Smith said.

NSF funding has seen "steady increases over the years," but it is unlikely that the program is "going to get any sort of increase this year," he said.

NSF has "been able to dodge the bullet this year as we've gone through recisions," Smith said.

According to Debbie H. Shoap, a staff associate in the UROP Office, about 10 to 15 UROP students are funded by the NSF every term.

Another issue that was raised in the meetings on Tuesday was financial aid "and the possibility that the in-school interest subsidy on loans would be eliminated," Smith said.

"One nice thing about having students come down is it gives a different perspective of the importance of funding for both education and research," Smith said. This perspective "isn't heard nearly enough in Washington, whether on financial aid, research, or other higher education issues," he said.