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Four MIT undergraduates took a whirlwind tour of Washington last Wednesday, trying to drum up Congressional support for university-based research and discussing their own projects at a Coalition on National Science Funding (CNSF) exhibit at the Rayburn House Office Building.
The students were Sarah Tegen, a senior in biology from Two Rivers, WI; Michael Altman, a sophomore in biology from Staten Island, NY; Vinay Pulim, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science from Austin, TX; and Alethia de Leon, a junior in chemical engineering from Mexico City.
All are involved in Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). In an authorization bill recently approved by the House of Representatives, the Science Committee recommended $3.5 billion for NSF in fiscal 1998, a 7.2 percent increase. The CNSF, composed of more than 70 scientific and engineering societies, higher education associations and universities, has urged a similar increase. Further Congressional action is expected this month when a House appropriations subcommittee is scheduled to take up this matter.
Accompanied by Tobin. L. Smith and Carolyn Hanna of MIT's Washington office, the students met with aides to Sens. John F. Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy and US Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy of Massachusetts. In addition, Ms. Tegen, Mr. Altman and Mr. Pulim met with the members of Congress from their home districts, Thomas Petri (R-WI), Susan Molinari (R-NY) and Lloyd Doggett (D-TX).
"You could not ask for better messengers to deliver a message concerning the importance and value of NSF funding," said Mr. Smith, assistant director of the MIT Washington office. "Everyone we met with was impressed by the work being conducted by the students, and even more impressed by the fact that they were undergraduates. On more than one occasion, the staff exclaimed that they often hear stories that undergraduate students do not have enough contact with research faculty. They said it was nice to know that this is not always the case."
Among the highlights of the day, according to Mr. Smith:
ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ While waiting to see legislative aide John Phillips, the students met briefly with Sen. Kerry, who said he was pleased to learn about their research and reaffirmed his strong commitment to the NSF.
ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ Marianna Pierce, chief education counsel for Sen. Kennedy on the Labor and Human Resources Committee, was impressed by the research projects and thanked the students for their visit, exclaiming that the meeting was one of the high points of her week.
ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ Peter Leon, legislative assistant for science and education to Rep. Kennedy, stressed the importance of having scientists who can effectively express the importance of their research to lay people.
Ms. Tegen, who had never visited the nation's capital, called the trip "a real eye-opener." She was impressed with the curiosity, commitment and energy on Capitol Hill.
"Speaking to our hometown representatives was a great idea," said Ms. Tegen, who will enter a PhD program in molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley in the fall. "In my home district, there are few universities that carry out research of any kind, so it's possible that Rep. Petri would be less inclined to vote for measures that would increase NSF funding. Hopefully, we were able to open up some eyes to the benefits of good science funding. I think people were very impressed with the research that the undergrads are doing."
All four MIT students who made the trip are strong believers in UROP.
"UROP has been a fantastic opportunity for me!" said Ms. Tegen, who is doing cell research at the Whitehead Institute under the direction of Professor Harvey Lodish. "I have learned to think critically about scientific problems, determining exactly what the results of an experiment imply, then designing the next set of experiments to test my hypothesis."
"I can honestly say that I have learned more from my UROP than any other class at MIT," said Mr. Altman. "Classes can teach you the concepts behind a subject, but a UROP teaches you how to apply these concepts to solve scientific problems. The combination of these two methods of learning defines my MIT experience." Mr. Altman plans to pursue a career in biological research.
Mr. Pulim, a native of India, has been pleasantly surprised by the trust professors have in their students. "Their willingness to give the students a great deal of responsibility makes the UROP program special," he said. "It is a way to perform real research early on in your career and gain valuable experience at the same time."
"Coming from an underdeveloped country where scientific research is not emphasized, UROP appears to me as a fundamental advantage of MIT over most universities in my country," said Ms. de Leon, whose UROP project is in the Biotechnology Process Engineering Center.
The students, the third group to represent UROP at the CNSF exhibit in the past three years, displayed posters that detailed their research and discussed it with visitors and other participants. They also promoted UROP itself, aided by a large poster that was the centerpiece of the MIT presentation. They concluded their dawn-to-evening, one-day trip by meeting several members of Congress at a CNSF reception, among them George Brown (D-CA) and Connie Morrella (R-MD).
UROP also receives support from industry and individual donations. Recently, JAFCO American Ventures Inc. contributed a $25,000 gift to endow a UROP project, preferably at the Media Laboratory, and the Paul E. Gray (1954) Endowed UROP Fund has been established in honor of Dr. Gray, the retiring chairman of the Corporation.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 7, 1997.