MAS Ambassadors Program: Reaching out to a more diverse pool of students
The Program in Media Arts & Sciences (MAS) is a sometimes-confusing name for our robust, broad, and antidisciplinary degree program. Media Lab research runs the gamut from synthetic neurobiology, to social robotics, to sustainability, to design, all with a common goal of envisioning and creating technologies that impact everyday life and transform the human experience.
There is no “typical” project at the Lab, nor a particular type of student. This, combined with a lack of familiarity with the Media Lab, and our academic program in particular, creates barriers to diversity. Over the past year and a half, we have made a concerted effort to remove these barriers and increase awareness of and access to the Media Lab.
The MAS Ambassadors Program began in the fall of 2015 as a mechanism for graduate students to “pitch” a recruitment idea or site. Ambassadors travel to places within their network and host graduate information sessions in order to increase the range and diversity of the MAS applicant pool. This model extends our reach and allows current students to play a part in shaping future MAS cohorts. In our first semester piloting this program, we sponsored six trips and interacted with nearly 100 prospective students. I was surprised and thrilled by how quickly our graduate students embraced the idea and how hard they worked to create impactful sessions. In the next year we would like to branch out and include alumni as ambassadors as well.
I invited three of this year’s ambassadors to share their experiences.
I’m a first-year master’s student working with Sep Kamvar in the Social Computing group. Our group develops software and hardware to scale, evaluate, and analyze new technologies that impact urban transportation, agriculture, and education. I graduated from Yale in 2013 with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science, and then spent a year in the Netherlands as a Fulbright Fellow, conducting independent research on bicycle commuting behavior. During my time at the Media Lab, I’m hoping to find new and exciting ways to meld my interest in sustainable urban transportation and my background in technology. This past semester, I worked on building sensors that help us understand urban environments at a hyperlocal scale. I’m also launching a research study on bicycles where I will use sensors and persuasive technologies to measure and (possibly) change commuter behavior.
I’ve often found it easier to relate to and be inspired by people who are similar to me in age and experience. For me, the MAS program and the Media Lab are incredibly exciting in that they strike an unusual balance between academia and industry, and allow a tremendous amount of creative freedom. However, I think MAS is a relatively unknown and misunderstood option, and I wanted to be able to provide a visible, fresh, first-hand account of my experience so far. I especially hoped that my story would be appealing and encouraging to other women who were uncertain about pursuing STEM graduate work.
For me, the MAS program and the Media Lab are incredibly exciting in that they strike an unusual balance between academia and industry, and allow a tremendous amount of creative freedom.
Ariel Ekblaw, another first-year master’s student, and I went to Yale to speak about the MAS program. As recent Yale alums, we have maintained connections to several on-campus organizations. In particular, we were both involved with different groups for women in STEM, and were excited to share our MAS experience with these groups. I think many Yale graduates would be a great fit for the MAS program given the strong connection between work at the Lab and liberal arts education. However, it is not a particularly well-known program at Yale; part of our intent was to raise awareness and excitement about the opportunities at the Media Lab.
I really enjoyed returning to New Haven and was happy that we were able to connect deeply with several students. For our visit, we organized three events: a general presentation that was open to everyone, a smaller Q&A session for women, and a dinner for students who were selected by raffle. The crowd at our talks was smaller than we expected, but we had in-depth conversations with a number of students (particularly women), who seemed to be genuinely curious and excited about the MAS program. We got to connect on a personal level with each of these students and address their specific concerns and questions about a wide range of topics, from the specifics of MAS admissions to gender dynamics in the technology industry at large.
I feel positive about the MAS Ambassador experience and think that sending current MAS students to their alma maters is a great promotion strategy. On the whole, the trip was encouraging and empowering for me, and hopefully useful for the students we were able to connect with.
I’m a second-year PhD student in the Object Based Media group led by Dr. Mike Bove. My research focuses on physical representations of data for creating new understandings and emotionally resonant experiences. I work with environmental datasets to prompt awareness and action towards the greater social good. I’m also a fiber artist and often create textile-based technologies.
I was often one of the few women in my math and science classes throughout my schooling. I had many great mentors and classmates along the way, but I also missed having female role models and collaborators. I’m glad that the Media Lab is working to bring more diversity to our community and wanted to contribute to that effort. Because the Media Lab is such a strange (and wonderful!) place, the personal connections that a school visit can provide may be one of the best ways for students to understand the program and imagine how they could fit into it.
I visited Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME. I’m a member of the class of 2005, so it was great to be on campus again and chat with people I knew as a student. I was also excited to speak at Bowdoin because there aren’t many Media Lab students with a liberal arts background. It took me quite awhile (seven years!) to find myself at the Media Lab after my undergrad days — these types of programs just weren’t on my radar. Yet liberal arts education does a great job training students to grapple with complicated social issues from many perspectives — a skill that’s crucial to technology research as we create inventions that may change society.
I had many great mentors and classmates along the way, but I also missed having female role models and collaborators.
I started my visit with lunch with Bowdoin’s Women in Computer Science group, advised by faculty member Dr. Laura Toma. There were about 10 students at the lunch — roughly an order of magnitude increase from the number of female computer science majors I remember from my time as an undergrad! Many of them had interesting double majors: computer science and English, computer science and religion. As a math and religion double major, I could certainly relate — and many Media Lab students have a similar range of interests built into our backgrounds.
At lunch we talked about some of the research areas at the Media Lab, different paths to grad school, life as a female grad student, and larger career questions. I really enjoyed hearing the two professors in attendance discuss their experiences. I got as much out of the conversation as the other students! Only one of the students had heard of the Media Lab before, so there was a lot to catch up on. We also had an interesting conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of attending grad school immediately after undergrad; time away from school is a great opportunity for personal growth and will inform your research for years to come.
After lunch I gave a research presentation in the computer science department, introducing the Media Lab and my work. It was nice to see an increasingly diverse student body (Bowdoin went from 14 percent minority students in 2001 to 33 percent in 2015) and to learn about the new Digital and Computational Studies program that overlaps somewhat with academics at the Media Lab.
I really enjoyed visiting Bowdoin and talking about the Media Lab to such an enthusiastic group. It was great to see the students’ commitment to social change and the common good. I really enjoyed talking to a community that’s a bit removed from the typical Media Lab circles. Their excitement reenergized me and gave me an opportunity to synthesize and take stock of my research at the midway point of my time at the Lab.
University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) and Morgan State University
I’m a PhD student in the Fluid Interfaces group at the Media Lab, headed by Pattie Maes. My research focuses on utilizing rapidly advancing wearable technology to persuade users to perform actions that improve their well-being.
I wanted to be part of the MAS Ambassadors Program because I wanted to aid in efforts the Lab is making to improve diversity. One of the easiest ways to do this is to make sure diverse populations are aware of the Media Lab, the MAS program, and the amazing research that happens here.
Last summer, I worked with a student at UMBC that participated in MSRP. We presented to her classmates, both about the MSRP program and about MAS. I also presented at Morgan State University because it is my alma mater and one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in Maryland, so it has a very diverse population of underrepresented minorities.
Both presentations went really well. UMBC had a large turnout since the event was required for students in the Meyerhoff program. The presentation at Morgan was later in the day on a Friday, yet still well attended. Both schools were extremely welcoming and students were excited about the Media Lab and how they could join. Students came from a variety of backgrounds and wanted to know about the different research groups that might be best suited for their skills. Most students were not aware of the MAS program and all of the spinoff companies and technologies that have come out of the Lab. Several were excited about finding a place where they could explore their quirky research ideas.
Most students were not aware of the MAS program and all of the spinoff companies and technologies that have come out of the Lab.
I found the experience encouraging, and think that these efforts could yield significant results for our community. It’s great to see the Media Lab identifying issues that exist and making the efforts to fix them. The biggest takeaway for me is that there are lots of students that don’t fit the typical mold and would love the chance to conduct research here. Unfortunately, many do not know it exists or where to begin to prepare themselves for applying. A small amount of time from individuals in MAS could drastically impact these students and make the Lab a more diverse and inclusive place.
Monica Orta is Assistant Director, Diversity and Student Support for the Media Lab’s Program in Media Arts and Sciences.