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MIT student blogger Jack-William B. '21

The First UROP by Jack-William B. '21

Initiating a Life of Research

After receiving decisions from the colleges I applied to, the choice was easy to pick MIT. I knew I wanted to attend a school that would not just give me the facts in lecture and challenges in the homework, but an environment that would let me follow my own intellectual curiosity in intriguing fields of research. Regardless of the major I end up choosing, I know I will stay in academia and become a professor someday, so I suppose I’m initiating this life of research. At the time of applying, I was dead set on physics, then I teeter-tottered with a few other majors during my quest for a UROP, and I am now pretty confident in sticking with physics. However, my first real research experience (I never even knew doing publishable research in high school was a thing) actually is through course 1 in the Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics, and it is actually really awesome.

So, you apply here, you read the brochures from the mail, look online, and see all this hype around the acronym UROP; Undergraduate Research Opportunities. You think to yourself: okay, I want to do research. Yeah! Advance mankind! However, then, in my case at least, I asked myself, how the heck does one actually go about doing this? To my luck, the process of finding something that interested me was the furthest thing from the problem. I emailed at least five professors with research ranging from autonomous drones to what I am currently working on in Biomaterials and Hydrothermal Liquefaction.

So how does it all work for a Freshman with no experience? While some of the opportunities I looked into required certain backgrounds, there was more than a few that were excited to have me on board with no coding ability or past experience!. The brochures were right… finding the research opportunity was actually easy after all.

Currently, I work with two postdocs here, Fran and Diego, on campus. One of them was my lecturer of chemistry during Interphase over the summer, so it definitely helped to be comfortable with the people I am working with. My research is concerned in a few different things. For starters, we are looking at the generation of Biocrude Oil from natural resources. We’re also looking at different ways to capture harmful gasses with carbon flakes that we’re crafting theoretically through modeling software that could then be created for experimental purposes. We foresee applications in capacitors! It is quite the multidisciplinary project! What I enjoy the most about the work I’m doing is just relatively how little I knew coming into this. It has only been a little over a month, and I feel like now what I once read in previous research papers as a muddled big-word mess to make sense with what I am now working on.

For the first few weeks, I was deeply involved investigating all sorts of molecular simulations and methods to evaluate configurations of molecules with Fran. Last week, I was working on generating graphene flakes that are getting doped with Nitrogen. Simply put, some of the carbon are being replaced by Nitrogen to see how this alters the interactions of the sheet molecule with Biogas. Coming into this I should mention, I have never used, not to mention heard of, the programs and software I now am getting comfortable with. It is definitely a different type of hands-on learning that teaches you just as much as any lecture will, and I really use this time to get into the MIT “Mens et Manus Spirit.” This week, Diego guided me through an experiment that he performed, as I watched, involving the conversion of the algae into the oil. We started the processing before my biology recitation and finished after my session of squash.. All these contraptions for testing, techniques, and reactions can make you feel like you’re in some sciency version of a Willy Wonka lab. Next week, I will begin testing on my own that I hope will not end in a fire alarm being set off!

So far, UROPs at MIT has actually been just as advertised. It’s like as-seen-on-tv product that actually performs like it does on TV. I learn at least two to three new things each time I go to research before or after class. I am actively participating in discussions on how to alter the experiment that really pushes oneself to think as a researcher rather than become a labrat to throw meaningless tasks upon. I am given independence in my work with the guidance of those more knowledgeable, yet I do not feel like I’m being treated as any lesser. It really is great, and it has done nothing but support my dream to always stay in academia. I know doing a UROP as a freshman fall semester isn’t common here, but I feel that it is definitely a massive part of the reason I’m enjoying this semester so much!