Student interns reflect on their time at the MIT Summer Research Program

After the nine-week program, undergraduates from across the globe share their experiences and academic goals.

First row: Adeleke Ambali, Jordaina Hewitt, Mia Hines-Shanks, Jordan Houser. Second row: Amani Kiruga, Pamela Melgar, Carolina Pérez Méndez, Jon-Edward Stokes. Third row: Andrew West, Kiana Wilcher

By Olivia Mintz

Summer at MIT is not just for current MIT students. Since 1986, the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP) has created opportunities for underrepresented college students to attend MIT, conduct research and learn how to prepare for graduate school. The program was launched by the MIT Office of Graduate Education to increase diversity in the applicant pool by encouraging these students to consider graduate studies at MIT. The program was launched by the MIT Office of Graduate Education and promotes the value of advanced education. It aims to increase the pool of diverse candidates in the research enterprise by cultivating the capacities of emerging scholars and preparing them for graduate education at MIT and beyond.

The students participated in a variety of research projects across the Institute. In their final week, they shared their research in a poster session and informal presentations. Students also attended weekly seminars supporting their academic, personal, and professional development in preparation for graduate school along with social outings throughout the Greater Boston area.

The School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) hosted ten MSRP interns this summer: five at the MIT Media Lab and five in the Department of Architecture. Below, several interns share their thoughts on their experiences with the program, time at MIT, and professional goals.

MIT Media Lab

Mia Hines-Shanks | Hometown: St. Louis, Missouri
Rising senior at Grinnell College | Major: computer science, statistics minor

I know research is going to be my whole career. Fingers crossed. MIT was always my top choice. I really like the MSRP program because there’s a lot of graduate preparatory opportunities. It’s not just doing research, it’s also working on your statement objective and your CV, building connections, and working within the field you want to go into.

The graduate preparatory opportunities and the faculty we were working with stood out to me. I really wanted to work on a social justice project with data science, and this was one of the few programs where I would be able to merge those things.

I love the people, and I feel that cannot be said enough. I think the community with the other students here has been really amazing. It’s really interesting to learn from them. I’m very grateful because I’ve never had such a supportive community and research program.

Amani Kiruga | Hometown: Nairobi, Kenya
Rising senior at the University of Delaware | Major: computer science, math minor

One of my primary reasons to take part in MSRP was to get into the MIT network, meet with professors, and increase my chances to get accepted to MIT as a PhD student. I wanted to work with the faculty here and be hands-on. MIT has a great program in AI, which is what I want to do. I don’t have many of these resources at my current school.

The MSRP program very much met my expectations. I got to lead my own project — which was pretty cool — and build it from scratch. I got to experience the independence of thinking and the trajectory of what a grad student would have to do. I think the experience was invaluable. It confirmed how much I want to go into academia, what I want it to look like, and what kinds of mentoring I want. It’s different here than the way I work at my school, which is more, “here’s what to do and do it,” versus “here’s the problem, find a way to solve it.”

The amount of stuff we’re exposed to is mind-boggling. We had workshops on pretty much every aspect of being a grad student, from writing applications to speaking to faculty, to managing finances once you’re here.

Pamela Melgar | Hometown: Miami, Florida
Fifth-year senior at Tufts University: Dual degree: BA, art; BS, computer science

My first thought about MIT is — wow — it’s so prestigious and really hard to get into. I wasn’t aware [the MSRP] existed for students like me. I learned about this program from a professor who participated in the MSRP when he was in college. That was my main motivation to come. I’m not really involved in research at my university, so to have another school offering all these amazing opportunities also motivated me.

I think a problem with STEM — especially in under-resourced communities — is that they don’t emphasize what you’re doing or why it’s important. That was my experience growing up. My research is in the Space Enabled group. The mission was to get students excited about coding and STEM and envision a future where they can use this technology on an everyday basis. It’s not exclusive to astronauts and scientists. I’m working to use robotics and space technology, and abstract and simplify it so that any student can interact with it. We are working with NASA to try to allow students to code for robots. I did this work with the hope that every student can come away from this program with a sense of empowerment.

Jon-Edward Stokes | Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
Rising senior at Howard University | Major: physics, mathematics minor

I applied to MSRP because I figured I’d be able to see a lot of things that I don’t see at Howard. This has been my fifth research experience. It’s also an experience exploring different schools and different cities.

I liked the community-building aspect of this program. I got to meet a lot of different people and do a lot of different things in the city of Boston that were kind of lacking in previous programs I have done. I think they did a really good job of making sure you’re also acclimating to the city, because one of the biggest parts of choosing where to go for grad school is choosing what city you want to live in.

Andrew West | Hometown: Los Alamos, New Mexico
Rising junior at Yale University | Major: statistics and data science

I was interested in doing research and MIT’s a great place for that. I liked the combination of research and being involved in the community.

I think the biggest thing I saw is the potential for this research to be used in very applied work. A lot of the time we have this concept that research can seem very abstract, so it was cool to have the opportunity to work on this very real issue and a more direct impact. I feel like whether I go forward in research or not, knowing that that kind of very direct work is what I want to be doing is very valuable.

Department of Architecture

Jordaina Hewitt | Hometown: Queens, New York
Rising junior at Howard University | Major: civil and environmental engineering

My principal investigator [John Ochsendorf] made it known that if I wasn’t interested in one project, there were others. But he also pushed for me to explore Boston and Cambridge, and not be in the lab all day. He wanted me to get a bigger view of MIT and what it has to offer. I think it was a good balance.

I feel one of the main things I’ve taken away is what I actually want to do in research. I definitely found my passion in sustainability research. I want to do something about climate change related to engineering and the environment. I’m really passionate about our neighborhoods and things that directly affect people and communities.

Carolina Perez Mendez | Hometown: Añasco, Puerto Rico
Rising senior at University of Puerto Rico — Río Piedras Campus | Major: architecture, RISE-UP minor

I had to learn JavaScript and HTML, and I had never programmed in my life. So, it was a really difficult challenge. But I learned a lot of new skills and other things that I didn’t know I was capable of doing. That’s what I love here at MIT. They really tested my boundaries in every way possible.

The most important thing from this experience is all the relationships that I have made. The research is important, and education is important, but the relationships I built with the people in the lab and my fellow interns — I feel like those are the connections that are most valuable. And I feel like those are the ones that are going to continue throughout my academic and professional journey.

I didn’t feel like my school back home had the opportunities for me to do research in the area that I wanted. And out of all the internships that I applied to, the one that resonated with me the most was MIT because of the type of research in the Department of Architecture. I hope that I get to come back again and continue my research and hopefully pursue my master’s.

Adeleke Ambali | Hometown: Austell, Georgia
Tuskegee University | Major: architecture

Adeleke plans to work with healthcare architecture, transforming the “bleak spaces into creative design structures.” His interests at an early age were art and fashion, drawing or painting with multiple materials, and observing the artistic vision behind clothing styles. He enjoys thinking outside the box and creatively designing — two realizations that drew him to architecture.

Jordan Houser | Hometown: Pleasant Grove, Alabama
Rising junior at Tuskegee University | Major: architecture

This summer, Jordan worked under Professor Leslie Norford, researching ways to make buildings more energy efficient. He designed a script in Rhinoceros’s companion app Grasshopper, allowing an architect to analyze the heat flow within the building being designed.

Kiana Wilcher | Hometown: Columbia, South Carolina
Rising junior at Tuskegee University | Major: architecture, construction science and management, and historic preservation minors

Kiana’s interest and skills in math and art inspired her to pursue a degree in architecture. She hopes to use her degree to design spaces that would have long-lasting beneficial impacts on those who enter them and on their communities.

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