Summer Research Interns Bring Diverse Experiences and Ideas to the Media Lab
2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP). In that time, MIT’s flagship undergraduate summer program has brought nearly 1000 interns to campus. MSRP has had a profound impact on the lives of these students, often changing their academic trajectories. The program seeks to promote the value of graduate education; to improve the research enterprise through increased diversity; and to prepare and recruit the best and brightest for graduate education at MIT.
Notably, MSRP has played a significant role in diversifying the student populations of departments across the Institute. Over the past two years, the Program in Media Arts and Sciences (MAS) at the MIT Media Lab has worked to leverage MSRP to secure talented interns we hope ultimately to recruit as graduate students. In the fall, we will welcome four MSRP alumni to the Lab as new master’s students.
This summer’s cohort included nine interns from various disciplines and regions. Here are their reflections on their summer at the Lab — what they’ve learned and how it has affected their perspectives about their future plans.
“Change the ways we experience stories”
Daniel Diaz-Etchevehere, University of Rochester, NY
The Macro Connections group transforms data into stories by building online visualization engines that allow people to delve into large datasets. During my internship with Macro Connections, we decided to take this idea further — into virtual reality (VR) — by creating an interactive tour of Washington, DC, which leveraged data made available by Macro Connections in the Data USA website.
It was a phenomenal experience: everyone in the group was incredibly supportive and always down to chat or play ping pong. My advisor, Takahito Ito, a visiting scientist from Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) who is charting new territory in VR, was a perfect match for me, since I grew up on Japanese games and animation and I’m very interested in Japan. VR was new to me, but at my university I’ve done a lot of art — illustration, painting, and graphic design — as well as programming for my environmental science major, so I was able to adjust. Prior to this internship, my research was independent, but at the Media Lab we developed the VR experience together. That experience made me realize how crucial and efficient collaboration can be.
I’ve been searching for a way to combine my interests in art, storytelling, video games, animation, and scientific research, and my time at the Media Lab has allowed me to see the breadth of possible combinations. I want to keep exploring new media such as VR and Augmented Reality (AR) and their intersections with both scientific research and media. I am particularly interested in pursuing VR/AR storytelling and their other applications and seeing how they can change the ways we experience stories and understand scientific research and data.
“How I want to innovate”
Luke Gockowski, Pennsylvania State University, PA
This summer, I worked to develop a robotic extruder for multi-property biomaterial fabrication. The goal was to create a multifunctional and highly modifiable extruder that could be attached to any robot arm, enabling it to 3D-print a wide range of materials with high accuracy and high repeatability.
Working in the Mediated Matter group was tantamount to a “study abroad” experience. Initially, like any tourist, I was attracted by what I learned about the group online. But actually joining the group surpassed anything I could have imagined.
I’ve been exposed to a new culture of design, a new language for thought, and a new outlook on the world. My whole shift began during a conversation with a co-worker on the steps outside the Media Lab, when he said to me: “You’re focusing too much on creating a fixed product; try instead to focus on an open and modular design. That’s what we aim to do here — to build the tools that create the possibility to realize any product.”
I’ve always looked at design as an iterative cycle that continues until an optimal product is realized. However, looking towards technologies such as One Laptop per Child by Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte and Scratch programming by the Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group — these have far-reaching positive impacts because they are highly accessible and malleable in the hands of a wide variety of users. Regardless of the field I pursue, I realize that this is how I want to innovate — to create tools, technologies, and spaces that are multifunctional and modifiable by their users. That, to me, is the most empowering form of innovation.
“Experience this wonderment”
Ranine Haidous, Lipscomb University, TN
At the Media Lab, I worked on electrically stimulated sensations in virtual reality, aiming to enhance the overall user experience by increasing realism and immersion. Previous research has targeted sensations that mimic real world haptics. However, I explored abstract sensations through electrical muscle stimulation (EMS). This system was accomplished by interfacing the EMS device with Unity3D and a Leap Motion controller which detects the associations with each object’s desired affordance.
My experiences in the Fluid Interfaces group (under the supervision of Pattie Maes and mentorship of Xin Liu) far exceeded my expectations. I didn’t expect such a level of ownership in the project. Xin guided me but ensured that I learned about the science and physiology involved and that I took the initiative in terms of the project’s direction and progress. Some of my favorite moments during the research process were in discussing all the possibilities behind the muscle-driven sensations, and getting to experience this wonderment alongside my mentor.
Working in Fluid Interfaces, especially on my project, has heavily influenced my perspectives on my future direction. I aspire to maximize human capabilities by combining human and computer abilities rather than by replacing human activities solely with artificially intelligent systems. In general, I’ve become more interested in developing devices that actuate the human body by incorporating biomedical signal processing techniques. This experience has reaffirmed my desire to attend graduate school to pursue designing these systems.
“Collaborative and creative environment”
Susan Seijo Méndez, University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez, PR
My project, called Radiant Garden: Visualizing Data in the Physical World, consisted of creating a web application where users could visualize the color palette of an image in LED flowers. It uses an Arduino Uno microcontroller board and a serial port library to provide an abstract and novel way for users to interact with the data in a familiar image.
Working in the Object-Based Media group has been incredibly rewarding. It gave me the opportunity to experience research at a graduate level and it allowed me to design and work on my own project. I learned how to incorporate my knowledge from my major with other less familiar areas and I was able to pursue an interdisciplinary project idea.
However, while I expected to work on part of a bigger project, I’m extremely grateful that I got to personally create a project that interested me, and that I was able to brainstorm solutions. Because of that, I was better able to grasp the concept and process of graduate research. The experience has encouraged me to look for interdisciplinary programs where I can learn about different areas and combine them to find a way of impacting society and leaving my mark through the work I do. Also, spending my summer here has allowed me to personally experience the Media Lab’s collaborative and creative environment, and how this setting contributes to novel and innovative research. It has inspired me to cultivate that philosophy in all my future plans.
“Now try to build it”
Emmanuel Oquendo-Rosa, University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez, PR
As an MSRP intern, I worked in the Viral Communications group. My project involved researching and building a novel ranking algorithm for discussions on PubPub, a new platform for open scientific publishing. I chose to work on this project because I’m passionate about the mission of enabling meaningful scientific discussion and increasing the engagement of PubPub readers with science.
The Media Lab is one of the best places in the world. Working in Viral Communications was an incredible experience, especially because I had the opportunity to work on a great project with graduate students who are passionate about their work. Their willingness to include me in their conversations and listen to my ideas for the future of the platform allowed me to engage with the PubPub mission and actively propose elements that ended up being implemented in the live platform.
Furthermore, this experience has helped me to recognize the right mindset for developing innovative products. My mentors taught me the importance of experimenting and taking risks. For example, I will never forget how their feedback for many of my ideas was: “Nice! Now try to build it.” Then, they would send me useful resources and even collaborate on my proposals for many hours. Their help and mentorship were incredibly valuable during those periods of pure experimentation. I will always be grateful to the Viral Communications group and the PubPub team for a great experience that made me grow as software developer and as researcher.
“Interdependence permeates the Lab”
Sebastian Roubert-Martinez, Cornell University, NY
Before I joined the MSRP program, I’d imagined a summer of hard work and many obstacles. That was definitely the reality. What I hadn’t anticipated fully was that the Media Lab and my research group would be a space full of innovation, collaboration, resources, and people ready to take advantage of each of those factors. It was quite common there (and some might say necessary) for post-docs, graduate students, or undergrads to seek opinions or ideas on a problem. Interdependence permeates the Lab.
I spent my summer in the Biomechatronics group, working on a project called Energy Optimization of Transverse Flux Motor for Bionic Ankle. In particular, I focused on automation of the design of a novel transverse flux motor which would be most efficient for use inside a next-generation bionic ankle. This high-impact project has the potential to improve many lives.
My research advisor, Cameron Taylor, a PhD student, was an amazing mentor: a constant source of guidance, patience, and knowledge. I particularly enjoyed working alongside the undergrads in my lab, lovingly self-dubbed the “Biomecha-Chronies.” In our free time we also “collaborated” on food trucks and ping pong.
My summer gave me a snapshot of life in graduate school: focusing on research, living on my own, and tackling the obstacles while celebrating the successes. I’ve gained invaluable skills, technical and otherwise, that I would not have learned inside a classroom. I’ve also gained a new “startup” view of research: that application-driven innovation trumps work that is simply novel.
“Tinkering with other disciplines”
José Alfredo Valles Salas, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, PR
This summer, I worked on the Social Robot Toolkit, which uses collaborative interaction with a social robot to provide socially immersive programming for early childhood STEM experiences. The idea is to introduce kids to computer science in a playful way. They create their own robotic companion out of LEGOs and stickers, and use an Android application to bring their creation to life.
My experience in the Personal Robots group was great. Everyone was very kind and engaging, willing to help out with any problem I encountered. I honestly expected a strict work environment, but it was really relaxed and overall a great place to work. My research advisor, Hae Won Park, was understanding and patient with my extremely long emails and masses of questions. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work under her. Being a part of the MSRP program with eight other interns in the Media Lab was also fantastic, and made the whole experience a lot more meaningful.
While working at the Lab, I came to realize how dynamic people can be with their disciplines. For example, many members of the Personal Robots group develop hardware for the robots, software to program them, and social studies to test their engagement with people. The idea of taking on various projects at once in a specialized way appealed to me a lot, and motivated me to look into tinkering with other disciplines I simply had not considered before. I hope to learn and apply new disciplines in industry, and constantly learn new things by diving into diverse projects.
“Hard work, fun downtime”
Jesse Smith, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, MD
My work this summer focused on avatar realism, more specifically on how interactions with simple avatars compare with face-to-face interactions. To study this, we created basic avatar models and developed a robust software system to record a participant’s 3D movement throughout a series of word-guessing games. This work is vital to understanding the potential for real-time collaboration in room-scale virtual reality.
I had the pleasure of working in the Fluid Interfaces group under its director, Pattie Maes, and my research advisor, Scott Greenwald. One thing that surprised me about the Fluid folks is their commitment to including undergraduate researchers. In our lab we had roughly 10 students from different universities around the world. This made for a great atmosphere — one that not only embodied hard work, but also allowed us to engage in some fun downtime — playing ping pong or rushing downstairs when we got a “foodcam” alert. Enjoying each other’s company and the occasional lighthearted interactions with the graduate students made for a unique experience.
Before participating in MSRP, I was part of an initiative that strongly pushed students toward obtaining a terminal degree. Naturally, I bought into that concept, not thinking twice about taking strides towards achieving that goal. But, at the Media Lab this summer, I realized I was blindly chasing something I did not fully understand. Doing research in Fluid and talking with graduate students allowed me to better understand what I wanted to achieve, and more importantly why I wanted to pursue a graduate degree. I’ve learned and grown a lot through this experience, and I’m thankful for all the people who have made an impact on me.
“True impact and joy of the work”
Reynis Vazquez-Guzman, Stanford University, CA
The Lifelong Kindergarten group is the result of a bunch of people who truly care about making sure that everyone has the opportunity to learn through the expression of their ideas. It’s not uncommon to hear a lot of noise coming from the research group; it probably means a Scratch workshop is happening. This summer, I was at one particular session where most students were English-language learners. After our demo, which we gave in English, I talked with a girl who told me she’d had no idea what was going on. We both spoke Spanish, so she told me she wanted to make a girl dance on the screen. For the rest of the workshop, we laughed at our attempts and worked together to create an animation. By the end, I knew I had just witnessed the true impact and joy of the work of Lifelong Kindergarten.
Through qualitative interviews and quantitative analysis of the database, I investigated measures of retention, social engagement, and socioeconomic status of the online Scratch community. I chose this project because I was a Scratcher when I was in middle school, and I hope this project helps engage even more children in creative learning experiences.
My time in the Media Lab has shown me the vast potential for progress when you combine efforts from multiple disciplines. It has solidified my desire to look beyond the traditional paths as I search for grad schools or plan my future. The Media Lab has helped me learn to look not just for projects that match my interests, but also for people who will inspire me, challenge me, and help me grow every day.
Monica Orta is the Media Lab’s assistant director for diversity and student support.