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MIT student blogger Piper '13

Space Robots II: Attack of the Paradigm Shifts by Piper '13

why undergraduate research is so much more than an opportunity


You’ve heard about them before, but here’s a refresher. At MIT, we have lots of professors doing research. We have lots of undergrads who would love the opportunity to do research and learn about their field. And we have the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program doing all the magic in-between dealing with proposals, funding, and listings.

(Though listings are far from the only opportunities available – if you’re interested in a professor’s research, just go ask about it and see if they have space for someone. That’s how I got my first UROP!)

The experience is incredibly valuable. A few years ago, back when I was Course 7 (that’s Biology, for all you haven’t-learned-MITese folks), I UROP’d in a really amazing and informative lab working on the genetics of regeneration. Slicing up regenerating organisms with a certain gene turned off to see that they grew heads at every new cut was a real “whoaaaaa what?” moment :)

But though fascinating, I somehow felt like I was missing something – biology, in its pure form, didn’t seem like it was quite for me. When I started my next set of classes in the fall, I realized that I was heading in the wrong direction.

But how can this be? This is an unallowable paradigm shift! I’m a biologist, I was always going to be a biologist! Biology was like the best class in high school! This… is unimaginable, what else would I be??

I got through the rest of term.

Sometime over IAP, I started hanging out in the SIPB office (MIT’s computing club). And then I did something very strange. I did a thing that I had believed all my life was supposed to be a thing only incredibly boring people. I wrote a program.

def Hiya():
print pony

Yes, it failed to work, because I didn’t put quotes around “pony” and thus let Python know that it was a string and not a variable. With a quick question to a nearby SIPB member, this was fixed. And “pony” was printed to my screen.

In a reckless, rash, and intuitive leap-of-faith, I filed to change my major. Electrical engineering and computer science. Course 6-2. I registered for, among other things, 6.01 (intro to EECS). I decided to see where this went.

Fast forward. Piper is pretty happy with her life, including her major. Piper is looking more into applying her EECS skills (especially the EE side) to biological problems – she still, after all, loves biology. Piper is looking for a summer UROP in bioEECS when…

Space Robots

It wasn’t bioEECS – but it was an awesome summer gig. If I was chosen to be part of the team, I would get to code satellites on the International Space Station! How cool is that?!

Just a summer gig.
A really cool summer gig.
That was all.

At the end of the summer, that’s still what it was, in my mind. It was a really cool project that I was proud to have worked on, nothing more. (But aero/astro is cool… no harm in taking a class as an elective, right? Talking about plane crashes is just fun! But no, I have no aero/astro bug, of course not!)

And then came the email in the fall – another awesome project with the Space Systems Laboratory. I had, in fact, worked a little on this one over the summer, in my spare work time. It was another satellite project, designed to help protect other satellites by knocking harmful particles out of the Van Allen Radiation Belt


I was in.
(But it’s just an IAP gig.)
((That’ll I’ll be continuing into the spring.))
(((And beyond?)))

(No, this isn’t about another change of major. The nice thing about being in a major that is both interesting in itself and widely applicable… you can kind of take it anywhere your interests go. This is a very good deal for me ^_^)

And that’s when I realized that the paradigms I had for my life, they were shifting again.  Not quite as dramatically as when I went from biology to EECS, but a nonetheless unpredictable ride that I find myself in the middle of yet again.  I have no idea what I will become, I don’t know where things will lead me!  Ten years from now, what will I be doing?  Zapping bacteria with my EE skills?  Tinkering with ground code for another satellite?  <insert your suggestion here>?  I just have no idea – there’s to much exciting and wonderful in the world, and I haven’t got it all planned out right now.  Not anymore.

But there are certainties in my life, and they are these: I have such excellent ways to figure out the rest of my life… and I plan to use them :)

11 responses to “Space Robots II: Attack of the Paradigm Shifts”

  1. Piper '13 says:

    ^ That’s correct. The UROP program is for MIT undergrads (international students can participate). People from other colleges sometimes do research at MIT over the summer, but it’s not through the UROP program.

    (Yeah yeah, “UROP program” is repetitive, that’s okay raspberry)

  2. sahil says:

    sounds cool..How do we contact the profs. though..??

  3. Piper '13 says:

    ^ For my first UROP, I looked up all the interesting research that was going on in the biology department. I found a couple places that sounded like they had some really cool things going, and emailed those professors smile

    I’ve had friends go in to a professor’s office to chat about their research, and end up getting offered a UROP.

    Face-to-face or email, either way works fine.

  4. sahil says:

    can international students also join it or is it limited only to MIT or US students/..?

  5. Kamran says:

    @ sahil

    as I know it is limited to MITians.

  6. Barbara says:

    Can we develop our own plan of research and purpose this project to a department that has the material for that for a UROP?

  7. Piper '13 says:

    @Barbara – People definitely come up with their own projects and get funding for them. I think the usual approach is to go to a few labs within the department and pitch your idea, rather than to the department as a whole.

    (As for my experience, I didn’t start out with any ideas of my own because I didn’t know a thing about research – but as I gained experience, I decided I wanted to try some experiments and my lab encouraged me to go for it.)

  8. Daniel '12 says:

    I was a tad disappointed when I read

    “Just a summer gig.
    A really cool summer gig.
    That was all.”

    and realized it was two syllables short of being a haiku raspberry

  9. Piper '13 says:

    “Just a summer gig.
    A really cool summer gig.
    That was all, Daniel!”

    Corrected raspberry

  10. Chris says:

    “The UROP program is for MIT undergrads (international students can participate). People from other colleges sometimes do research at MIT over the summer, but it’s not through the UROP program.”

    In reference to this, do you know if you guys also take students from overseas universities? I’m coming in from the UK for a couple of months and would love to get involved.

    Chris from SWTOR

  11. Piper '13 says:

    ^ I don’t know of anything that prohibits non-MIT students from researching here, though I imagine there’s much more paperwork smile I would contact the lab that you are interested in working in individually, and see what your options are.