Joel Voldman - MIT conference showcases undergraduate research

EECScon 2013 marks MIT’s first research conference geared toward engineering undergraduates

May 13, 2013

A new venue for showcasing the original and innovative research of undergraduates in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) was launched last month with the inaugural EECScon 2013. More than 120 MIT students, staff and faculty, and guests from industry, came to the conference, held April 16 at the Kendall Square Marriott.

Largely organized and run by students, EECScon featured six oral presentations and more than 20 poster presentations from students in MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) and EECS’s SuperUROP.

Each speaker had been selected on the basis of his or her elevator pitch, said EECScon co-chairs Dylan Hadfield-Menell ’12, an engineering graduate student at MIT, and MIT senior Frank Li. “We accepted everyone who provided evidence there was a legitimate research-oriented project that showed significant progress and/or results,” Li said.

Although concrete results were not required of the presenters, the presentations were praised for their high level of quality. Stephan Kolitz, director of education at the Draper Laboratory, attended the conference, along with colleague Milton Adams.

Kolitz said, “We were impressed with the quality of the technical work, as well as the communication skills of the students.” Adams added, “All of the students were well prepared to discuss their work.”

For instance, the event’s first speaker, SuperUROP student Denzil Sikka, a senior, discussed her work under Robert Miller, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, titled, “Facilitating the peer review process.” Based on her concept of “no one works alone” (or NOWA), Sikka developed an online peer reviewing game to motivate high school and college students to evaluate the quality of work done by their peers. Following six months of project development, Sikka has tested her prototype with students of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL). 

Unique at MIT

Anantha P. Chandrakasan, the Joseph F. and Nancy P. Keithley Professor of Electrical Engineering at MIT and head of EECS, noted that the new undergraduate workshop evolved directly from his department’s 2012 strategic plan, which aimed to highlight the exciting research done by EECS undergraduates.

“EECSCon, a student-led conference, provided an excellent forum for our undergraduates to present their research related to EECS themes and network with other students, faculty and industry members,” Chandrakasan said. “The students did an outstanding job presenting their research contributions to the community.”

EECScon was unique at MIT not only because it focused on undergraduate research, but also because a student committee organized the format, selection processes and all the other details that made it a success, EECScon faculty advisor Joel Voldman said.

Voldman noted that EECScon used an approach similar to graduate-student conferences hosted by MIT, such as the Microsystems Annual Research Conference (MARC) and the CSAIL Student Workshop (CSW). “Faculty have more experience than students and can help avoid some known issues. But other than that,” Voldman said, “the student committee came up with format, selection processes, etc.”

Hadfield-Menell said he decided to take part in EECScon when Voldman first sought student committee interest, because he wanted experience in organizing and running such a conference. “I learned an incredible amount about the process of orchestrating a big event like this,” he said.

Other engineering students on the organizing committee included: graduate student Radhika Malik; seniors Ashwini Gokhale, Andres Lopez-Pineda and Luis Voloch; junior Jonathan Birjiniuk; and sophomores Jenny Shen and Rebecca Zhang.

The winners

Judges selected three winners from the oral presentations and four winners from the poster presentations.

Oral presenter Pratheek Nagaraj, a sophomore, won first-place for his comprehensive discussion of his work, “Dissecting complex phenotypes using Web 2.0 social networks.” Working with Yaniv Erlich in the Whitehead Institute, Nagaraj used data mining, social networking and crowdsourcing to overcome typical limitations in genetics research.

“What stimulates me most about my project is that it draws together seemingly distant and unrelated research areas into a cohesive and elucidating study with a broad range of applications,” Nagaraj said, calling the project a “beyond-the-textbook experience.”

The two other winners for best oral presentation were Gustavo Goretkin, a senior, who won second place for his presentation, “Optimal sampling-based planning for linear-quadratic kinodynamic systems”; and Duanni Huang, a senior, who won third place for his presentation, “Digital communication using low-power, high-efficiency LED.”

Winners for best poster presentations included: Joey Rafidi, a senior, for his presentation, “Real-time trip planning with the crowd”; Ryan Fish, a sophomore, for his presentation, “Blicycle – a bike for the blind”; Edwin Ng, a senior studying physics, for his presentation, “Efficient free-space multi-spatial-mode optical communication”; and Caelan Garrett, a junior, for his presentation, “A data structure for rapidly testing reachability for robotic motion planning.”

Great starting point

MIT visiting scientist Brian Brandt, design director for Maxim Integrated Products, was impressed with the conference, particularly the research. “The level of research these undergraduates are pursuing is remarkable and will clearly set them apart as they enter their professions or graduate school,” he said. He also noted EECScon’s uniqueness, saying, “This was a great idea that was executed very well.” 

After noting that EECScon went very well, Voldman said that increasing industry attendance is the conference’s next goal. He added, “We implemented a mentoring program between the undergraduate presenters and graduate students, which was a success, and we should further strengthen that program in the future.”

Hadfield-Menell agreed that EECScon was a success, but said that he would like greater attendance from undergraduates, particularly those not involved in UROP. “My hope,” Hadfield-Menell said, “is that this conference can serve as a starting point for students who have considered doing a UROP in Course 6, but either don’t know what they would like to work on or don’t know how to start the process.”

Poster presenter, Jesika Haria, a junior, described her EECScon experience as “awe-inspiring.”  Endorsing future EECScon events, she said: “The environment was supportive; the faculty gave constructive feedback and the very process of poster preparation was instructive. Anyone interested in learning about research that pushes the limits of technology at one of the premier institutions in the world will greatly benefit from attending!”