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Frosh Can Start Doing Research

By Shankar Mukherji


All summer the Class of 2005 has been inundated with mail welcoming them to MIT, which is described by the Admissions Department’s web site as the “world’s premiere center for the study of science and technology.” The only question which remains, then, is how to make use of the vast resources that the Institute offers.

The most popular answer is participation in MIT’s pioneering Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, known to most simply as “UROP”. According to the UROP Office, approximately 80 percent of undergraduates participate in at least one during their MIT careers.

Getting a UROP can be as easy as e-mailing a professor, or as involved as having to compete for the job, replete with a resume and full interview process.

Begin with questions

The first step in a search for the perfect UROP is asking yourself why you want to take up a lab position. Maybe to explore a potential major. Perhaps to try working in a field you had never considered before. Have too much spare time between problem sets? All are good reasons for walking over to 7-104, “UROP Central”, and signing up for a project.

Of course it’s often not quite that easy. After deciding on a general area of study, the UROP student has to find a mentor, usually a professor, and get his or her approval to conduct research in the lab. There are several avenues for finding UROP mentors, the most convenient being the online listing of project openings, found at .

If nothing on the web page piques the reader’s interest, it is important to realize that not all professors rely on the online UROP project listing. Intrepid students must often take the initiative to e-mail the professor directly or walk to his or her office and knock on the door. The latter is usually the most effective and possibly most underused method for landing the dream UROP.

The ambitious freshman should not forget that he or she does not have to join an existing project, but can design his or her own, as long as a faculty member can be found to supervise it.

The big meeting

Now that the UROP student has found a project and an advisor, the time has come to meet the boss. This is the student’s chance to ask specific questions of the mentor, including the requisite time requirements and the possibility for compensation.

There are two forms of tangible compensation in return for UROP services. Often departments will grant academic credit for approved projects, which can count toward the 180 units beyond the General Institute Requirements needed to receive an MIT bachelor’s degree. Alternatively, the UROP student can earn cash; the base pay rate has recently been elevated to $8.75 per hour.

If the junior researcher is content with earning valuable research experience alone, there is an option to work a UROP as a volunteer.

However, the most important part of the meeting is discussing the nature of the work and the role of the project within the context of the lab’s activities. On occasion, a project that appears spectacular on paper may not live up to expectations.

Not quite ready yet?

The entering student is often apprehensive about starting a UROP while still trying to settle into college life. There are several options open to this type of student to ensure that he is better prepared to join research laboratories in the future.

The best way to prepare for a future in a research environment is to take pertinent classes. A biologist, for example, would find Introduction to Experimental Biology (7.02) very useful, while the electrical engineer could benefit from a semester of Circuits and Electronics (6.002).

Furthermore, the UROP Office runs a mentorship program for interested students during the January Independent Activities Period (IAP). The Research Mentor Program pairs undergraduates who have never done a UROP, “pre-UROPers”, with upper-class students who have at least one year of UROP experience, or “Research Mentors.”