What’s up? Yeah, it’s the end of term, and we’re all hosed. The week before dead week is pretty stressful, as every class tries to cram in that last assignment. I’ve got one pset (8.04), one paper (biophysics) and two finals (8.04 and 8.044) standing between me and two MIT degrees. I don’t care if my lungs explode tomorrow: I’m gonna graduate.
But that’s not what this entry is about. It’s about my experiences with undergraduate research. I’m sure all of you know by now about MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. Click here if you want the official site. But the basic idea behind UROP is to take undergrads and expose them to individual research. You know all those textbooks you read? The information had to come from somewhere. It came from people publishing their original research in peer-reviewed journals. MIT has a program dedicated to giving you the opportunity to put some of your thoughts in a textbook.
I’ve had the distinct pleasure of having three UROPs during my time as an undergrad here. The first was on the now defunct MIT ChemECar team. ChemECar is a competition to build a car powered by a chemical reaction that can achieve certain standards in speed, accuracy, and precision. Back in IAP 2006 we gave it a shot. Our idea was to power the car using a galvanic cell. To control how far the car went, we’d use an electrically conducting solution as a circuit breaker. When the tank of electrically conducting fluid ran out, the circuit would break and the car would stop. It was a good idea, but we were too hosed to see it to completion. We made good progress during IAP, but once classes started we didn’t have time. Nevertheless, it was my first exposure to a wet lab (a lab that makes use of chemical solvents. Examples of dry labs include physics and EE labs) and an opportunity to do something original.
My second UROP I started in Summer 2006, and it was undeniably the best UROP experience I’ve had here. I worked with Eric Verploegen (soon to be Dr. Verploegen: Congratulations!!) on “thermoelastic liquid crystalline side-chain block copolymers for actuator applications”. That’s a bunch of big words for a simple idea. 1: Attach liquid crystals (the things that make the digits on your calculator) to a plastic. 2: Make the liquid crystals line up. 3: Apply an electric field to the plastic, move the liquid crystals, and thus turn electric field into macroscopic force. I got the opportunity to learn about polymer synthesis, an entire host of materials analysis techniques (dynamic mechanical analysis, differential scanning calorimetry, polarized optical microscopy, small and wide angle x-ray scattering, nuclear magnetic resonance), and even take a trip to two synchrotrons: The one at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the one at Cornell. Synchrotrons are pretty cool, check out this Wikipedia page to find out more about them. I worked with Eric officially for pay/credit during Summer 06, Fall 06, IAP 07 and volunteered during Spring 2007 to help train my replacement. The UROP culminated in a paper we published (linked here.)
My third and final UROP was at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center. Plasma physics is a tough branch of physics to study, particularly because a lot of the equations (MHD, for example) are impossible to solve analytically (except in simple, ideal cases that aren’t applicable to real systems), and computationally expensive to solve numerically. Nevertheless, I tried to do numerical analysis of the propagation of radio waves in fusion plasmas. In order to achieve magnetically confined nuclear fusion, we need a way to heat a low pressure gas of tritium and deuterium to tens of millions of Kelvins. The best way to do this is by blasting the gas with EM radiation, turning it into a superheated plasma. My job was to make a determination of how much energy would be absorbed by a plasma of certain parameters (density, magnetic confining field, particle orbits), given radiation of certain parameters (intensity, frequency, polarization). Of course, at the time I’d only had up to 8.03 and was attempting graduate level plasma physics. I knew I was over my head and stopped UROPing in Fall 2007. It certainly showed me how much I liked physics, though.
My advice to you is to get involved in the UROP program here. I forget how many students participate each year, but it’s on the order of 80%. However, I would also advise you not to limit yourself. A lot of people come here and feel like they need to stick with a single UROP so they can get published. That’s what grad school is for. Use your time here to figure out what you like. Save your nobel prize for when you’re older.