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Denzil Sikka

Denzil Sikka ’13 visited a cave on the way to the top of Mount Vesuvius before graduation this spring.

As I munched on my tea sandwich, I looked around the poster session in the MIT Faculty Club with awe. How could such a small room hold so many great minds? In my head, I was reviewing the one-minute elevator pitch about my research, ready to regurgitate it to anyone who showed interest in my work. When one of the professionals approached me, I smiled at her, quickly pushing aside my plate of appetizers and clearing my mouth of crumbs.

“Hello. Tell me about what you’re doing,” she said.

Great! I was ready. “I’m working on a Web application to help facilitate the peer review process,” I said.

As I proceeded to tell her about the advantages of peer review and how my app would let students provide feedback to one another and facilitate classroom discussion, she studied my poster. Her questions revealed her familiarity with collaboration in the classroom, and the discussion that followed was interesting and fruitful, leaving me with great insights and suggestions on how to proceed with my work.

After this woman left to peruse other posters, Professor Anantha ­Chandrakasan, the head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, came up to me and asked, “Do you know who she is?”

I shook my head.

“Daphne Koller, one of the founders of Coursera.”

That was hardly the first time I had a chance to meet such an influential person, and it definitely wasn’t the last. As a student this past year in SuperUROP, MIT’s new Advanced Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program for juniors and seniors, I got to experience what it’s really like to be a scientific investigator. Unlike the traditional UROP, in which students typically spend a semester working in a research lab learning the skills needed for a specific project, the SuperUROP pairs students with a faculty member for an entire academic year and includes a two-semester course on undergraduate research. SuperUROP students learn how to develop posters, network, and write papers and extended abstracts. Every week, we attend seminars in which professors, venture capitalists, graduate students, and industry mentors give us advice and help us understand what they do. As Professor Chandrakasan puts it, SuperUROP is a jump-start on graduate school, a startup accelerator, and industry-­training boot camp, all rolled into one. I know the skills I learned from SuperUROP will be ones I’ll use for the rest of my life.

Looking back to when I had a traditional UROP, I remember disliking my project and struggling to balance it with schoolwork and my other extracurriculars. And even though I’d also had a separate summer research internship, I had never done research for more than a few months. So when I first heard about SuperUROP, the idea of committing to a year-long project seemed intimidating. With the heavy workload at MIT, it’s hard enough to carve out time to keep up with classes without adding a serious research project to the mix. At the time I was hoping to go straight into industry after I graduated, so I wasn’t sure the extra work would be worth it.

It’s funny to look back and see how much has changed since then. This past year, I’ve been able to dive into a long-term research project based on the concept of “gamifying” education. Over the course of two semesters, I explored different types of educational technology and worked toward facilitating the peer review process in the classroom. I had the opportunity to attend two conferences and meet not only Daphne Koller but also Craig Venter, a pioneer in sequencing the human genome; Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet; and recording artist Will.i.am, a founding member of the Black Eyed Peas, who talked about the future of global education. (He’s teaching himself to code!)

By taking part in SuperUROP, I’ve learned how to conduct user studies and create a product from scratch—as well as how to describe my work for technical and nontechnical people alike. Because SuperUROP allowed me to explore my interest in educational technology, I have decided to stay at MIT and get my master’s. I plan to work in the same lab, on the same project, and my hope is that before I leave campus, I will have a full-fledged product that can be used in classrooms. Who knows? Maybe one day I will meet Daphne Koller again—and perhaps even work for her at Coursera.

Denzil Sikka ’13, who majored in computer science and engineering, plans to finish her master’s in computer science before working at Microsoft and proceeding to Harvard Business School through the 2+2 program.

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Credit: photograph courtesy of Denzil Sikka

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