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Democratizing the lab

Five decades ago, Margaret MacVicar launched an experiment in inclusivity that became a cornerstone of MIT education.
historical photo
historical photo
historical photoCOURTESY MIT MUSEUM

Before coming to MIT, Jennifer Wiseman ’87 didn’t know any scientists and had never been inside a lab. But decades earlier, a young physicist had founded a program that allowed undergraduates to join a lab and work with mentors on their own projects—even if they had no previous research experience.

Wiseman spent two years in Laurence Young’s Man-Vehicle Laboratory studying how sensory perceptions change during spaceflight, and then worked with planetary scientist Richard French examining Uranus’s newly identified rings. Senior year, she learned to search for asteroids in telescope images on a field trip to Arizona’s Lowell Observatory—and spotted what turned out to be a comet.

Now an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Wiseman calls the discovery a career-catalyzing “accident” that wouldn’t have happened without MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). “That was really what helped me see that I could actually be a part of this,” she says. “I could step into an actual research lab without fear.”

Replicated today at universities worldwide, UROP began at MIT as a somewhat controversial experiment in hands-on learning, designed by Margaret “Scotty” MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, shortly after she joined the physics faculty in 1969.

Historical photo of Margaret MacVicar
UROP founder Margaret MacVicar personally oversaw the program’s operation, making sure students worked on meaningful projects and did high-quality work.

After winning a science fair in her hometown of Flint, Michigan, and a National Science Foundation summer study scholarship, MacVicar arrived at MIT as an undergrad in 1961, when women had no living space on campus and white men dominated classrooms, labs, and clubs.

She finished her bachelor’s in physics in three years, earned a doctorate of science in materials science and engineering three years later, and did a postdoc at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. When she returned to MIT as a junior faculty member, she had a plan. She was eager to teach and dive into her physics research, which would encompass high-temperature superconductors, single-crystal and thin-film materials, and electrochemical fabrication. But on top of that, she wanted to break barriers for students: “There were educational and social issues I wanted to work on, and MIT wasn’t a bad place to work on them,” she would later explain.

Her timing was impeccable. In 1968, Polaroid cofounder Edwin Land had given MIT $50,000 to fund undergraduate education initiatives, and Paul Gray ’54, SM ’55, ScD ’60, then associate provost, was figuring out how to spend it. As a visiting Institute Professor in 1957, Land had given a speech in which he chastised MIT for treating undergraduates as “young and immature” and proposed giving each incoming freshman “his own [scientific] research project.” Soon thereafter, the Institute had tried placing freshmen in faculty research projects. But they struggled without a support system of other undergraduates in the lab, and the program failed.

When MacVicar returned to MIT looking for ways to make education more inclusive, Land’s donation had recently kicked off internal discussions about how to create successful student-faculty collaboration. Gray’s team invited her to join the talks, and she soon took over developing the idea into a working program.

Exceptional and assertive students had always been able to find limited opportunities to work on faculty research initiatives. MacVicar envisioned a system where any student, regardless of year or grades, could gain experience in a professional lab with a faculty mentor. The program would offer research opportunities in the humanities and interdisciplinary initiatives as well as in science and engineering labs. UROP soon had the backing of President Howard Johnson, who called MacVicar “the chief spark behind the new effort aimed at substituting real and vivid involvement in research in place of the cookbook exercise that had so long dominated undergraduate laboratory work.”

But after the failed freshman program, getting faculty members involved was challenging. Some believed that undergrads would break equipment, burn through supplies, and slow research. Knowing that “altruism alone would not serve as a motivating force,” as she put it, MacVicar designed the program around faculty needs. UROP projects would follow their labs’ time lines, not the academic calendar, and faculty could decide whom they worked with and what hours students worked. Students would be expected do almost everything faculty members did, including writing proposals, analyzing data, and giving presentations. These were real jobs, and both students and faculty were expected to treat them that way. “I do not intend to allow a student to count bedpans in a hospital under UROP’s banner,” MacVicar told her colleagues. To quell faculty concerns that students might break things, MIT would offer small grants to cover additional supplies.

UROP launched in September 1969 with 25 students, all of whom received academic credit, and the students swiftly proved that young researchers could produce real results. The grants to cover supplies were soon phased out. MacVicar personally oversaw the operation, making sure students worked on meaningful projects—and did high-quality work. As Gray later recounted, that first year, “there was a UROP office: she was it.”

In the early ’70s, MacVicar added off-campus research opportunities, and MIT made its UROP experiment even more radical by giving students the option of receiving either academic credit or hourly pay of $2.50 for their work.

UROP’s reputation, and MacVicar’s, quickly grew. Known as an exceptional teacher and visionary administrator, MacVicar also led a comprehensive review and restructuring of the undergraduate curriculum and championed diversity in admissions as MIT’s first dean for undergraduate education. Meanwhile, UROP was lauded by the National Science Foundation and the US secretary of education. In his memoir, Johnson called UROP “the major curriculum innovation” during his term as MIT’s president. Determined to make labs everywhere more accessible, MacVicar worked with Harvard, Stanford, and other schools to help them establish their own UROP programs.

MacVicar died of cancer in 1991 at age 47, but her legacy permeates MIT and the many institutions that copied the UROP model. Today, 90% of MIT students complete at least one UROP project before they graduate. Fifty-nine departments, labs, and centers regularly host UROP students, and more than half of MIT faculty members serve as mentors. In 1991, the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program was established to honor exemplary undergraduate teachers who embody her vision of education.

“It is not technicians that we seek to prepare, nor bench-tied engineers practicing narrow specialties,” she once said. “Our purpose is to direct the best minds toward inquiries and enterprises concerned with the human condition.” 

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