Joel Voldman - EECScon and Masterworks events raise awareness of student research

Two venues provide industry, faculty, and student guests with full range and depth of research.

Patsy Sampson | Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
May 22, 2014

Whether presented in a formal conference hall at a Kendall Square hotel or accompanied by large servings of ice cream along the Charles M. Vest Student Street in MIT's Stata Center, research carried out by students in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) has gained a strong presence around MIT and beyond. This year, EECS decided to pair its cornerstone venues for showcasing student research — EECScon and Masterworks — in one afternoon, April 22, capturing a large group of guests including fellow students, postdocs, research staff, faculty, and industry visitors.

EECScon, a professional undergraduate research conference, is getting on the map

“The conference was a great opportunity to get feedback from professors and students on the progress I had made in my research,” says EECS senior Abubakar Abid. As one of six oral presenters at EECScon 2014, Abid found that he got the opportunity to answer questions from those who weren’t as familiar with his topic, neural probes. He also says that this feedback will help him to pitch his work more clearly and concisely in the future.

EECScon, launched in 2013 to provide a professional-level research conference experience for undergraduates, was again organized and run by EECS students under the guidance of Professor Joel Voldman. Nearly 170 of the more than 280 who registered attended the event — including a large number of undergraduates.

Voldman enthusiastically endorsed EECScon 2014, noting a rise in registrations and the many touches that elevate this conference to professional standing: peer-reviewed abstracts, professionally printed programs, graduate-student mentoring, and both oral and poster presentations. He credited the members of the EECScon committee — Abid, Ali Finkelstein, Skanda Koppula, Zeo Liu, Pratheek Nagaraj, Akshay Padmanabha, Hyungie Sung, and Benjamin Xie — and the event's two co-chairs, Jenny Shen and Jon Birjiniuk.

Among the strategies established by this group last September, the EECScon committee built in ways to help students prepare — including setting up information booths at study breaks to attract more participants, focusing on individual researchers in their publicity, and increasing interactivity at the conference itself. Nagaraj notes, “We spent time with each researcher to help further their presentations, including mentorships and dry runs.”  

Grace Teo, a Harvard-MIT Health Science and Technology PhD student, came to see MIT senior Chelsea Finn present. “I think it’s really great that EECScon gives their undergrads the opportunity to present their work in such a professional setting, and on a scale comparable to conferences,” she says.  

Two sessions featuring poster presentations, and three speakers apiece, set the pace of the three-hour conference, which wrapped up with awards to the top speakers and posters. The winners included:

  • first-place oral presentation: Ishwarya Ananthabhotla, "Curved-crease Self-folding for Externally Manipulated Miniature Robots"
  • second-place oral presentation: Abubakar Abid, "Chronic Neural Probes for Brain-Computer Interfaces"
  • first-place poster: Sarah Guthrie, "Investigating Mechanisms to Prevent Antibiotic Resistance Using QM/MM Modeling"
  • second-place poster: Caelan Garrett, "Heuristic Search for Task and Motion Planning"
  • third-place poster: Michelle Chen and Qui Nguyen, "Improving the Monitoring of Vitiligo through a Mobile Medical Imaging Application"
  • “crowd favorite” poster: Nitya Subramanian, "Anomaly Detection Using Information Extraction and Data Mining"

Texas Instruments' Heather McCulloh, a unit process development manager at MaineFab, was impressed with the quality of work at EECScon and Masterworks. “I particularly liked the strong understanding the students demonstrated of the significance of their work and competitive technologies,” she says.

Ananthabhotla, the EECS junior who won the EECScon oral presentation first-place award, says that it wasn’t just about speaking in technical depth but “telling the story” of the project. Ananthabhotla’s work aims to develop the protocol for self-folding, three-dimensional robotics components using global thermal application. “I am extremely passionate about my research and am absolutely fascinated with the thought of self-folding structures redefining the way that we think about robotics,” she explains.   

Masterworks 2014: a presentation for the master's (degree) with a “sweet” appeal

Since 1994, when the Master of Engineering degree (MEng) was launched in EECS, Masterworks has been an annual venue for master's and MEng students to present their work, using posters and demo materials, to their fellow students, as well as to faculty and outside guests. (The lure of free ice cream has also been a part of Masterworks for nearly a decade.)

This year was the best-attended yet, with more than 400 students, faculty, and industry guests interacting with the 38 presenters. Tomas Palacios and Seth Teller, the Masterworks faculty co-chairs, were pleased with the level of research presentations. “Many of the presenters brought all kinds of demos to better explain and highlight their work — making the event a lot of fun,” Palacios says. 

One industry guest noted that both EECScon and Masterworks provided an excellent research-topic-sharing opportunity. Another appreciated the chance to see the undergraduate research presentations at EECScon followed by the Masterworks research — providing an indication of depth and growth as students mature in their work. Steve Londrigan, senior business development manager for EBO USA, appreciated both venues to engage directly with the students, learn about new technology, and explore new opportunities.

Rob Gilmore, director of engineering at Qualcomm, was impressed by the number of Masterworks students who used prototypes to support their design decisions and to quantify various performance metrics. “I enjoyed the innovative design techniques, user interfaces, and 3-D-printed components,” he says. “The presentations covered an excellent mix of software and hardware projects.”

Rui Jin, an MEng student in EECS, demonstrated his wireless charging system that allows a portable device — a cellphone, for example — to charge a variety of other portable devices, such as a wearable fitness tracker, taking from two to 15 minutes of charging to cover a typical day’s use. He says Masterworks “was an incredible opportunity to explain my research and learn about the work of fellow presenters.” As students, industry guests, and faculty gathered around his demo, Jin was able to exchange research ideas — another reason he enthusiastically recommends Masterworks as a culmination of the master’s degree experience.

Jin and Valentina Shin were selected for the 2014 Morris Joseph Levin Award for an outstanding Masterworks thesis presentation, which was presented at the annual EECS Celebrates award event on May 18. Several other prizes were awarded at the Masterworks event, including raffle prizes made possible by the generosity of Apple and Samsung.