MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Marks Mini-UROP Program’s Tenth Year

Key players in the mini-UROP’s behind-the-scenes work reflect on what the program has come to mean to the Institute.

04/09/2024 (1:53 PM): A further clarification has been made to note that the mini-UROP program is not celebrating its tenth anniversary, but rather that the program is now in its tenth year.

04/05/2024 (06:08 PM): The original version of this article was incorrectly titled "MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Marks its Tenth Anniversary." This has been corrected to reflect that the anniversary actually refers to the department's mini-UROP program.


You may notice, in time, a certain fascination on campus with the word “anything.” 6.9020: How to make (almost) anything. 4.141: How to design (almost) anything. MAS.S61: How to grow (almost) anything.

Sydney Herzig-Deribin puts it like this: “[there’s] a lot of, I don’t want to say stress, but I almost want to say excess motivation to succeed.” As an Administrative Assistant for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), Herzig-Deribin’s job is to manage the fallout of that phenomena. They do so with joyful vigor—and a healthy dose of community building, which, for Herzig-Deribin, means the annual CEE mini-undergraduate research opportunities program (mini-UROP). 

The CEE mini-UROP gives first-year students the chance to conduct research with graduate or postgraduate mentors during MIT’s four-week January term. Students deliver two-minute “flash talks” explaining their research to the mentors, cohort members, and department faculty at the end of the four-week period.

Though the program doesn’t officially begin until January, preparation for the mini-UROP begins as early as October. Flyers must be posted, graduate mentors recruited, and a curriculum hammered out—all with sufficient time left over for news of the program to trickle through the ranks of undeclared first-years. That might sound complicated, but Herzig-Deribin points out, “this is something that’s been a constant in our department for multiple generations of students.” 

The first CEE mini-UROP ran in January of 2015. It was the brainchild of Fatima Hussain and Julia Hopkins, CEE former graduate students eager to show undergraduates the department's breadth of research areas. When it first ran, the program culminated in a science-fair style competition where undergraduates were judged on the quality of their research and final presentations. Then COVID hit.

“Obviously everything was in a state of flux,” says Herzig-Deribin. “Everything” includes the department itself; CEE adopted a communication lab model that year, creating an in-house task force of specially-trained Ph.D. students and postdocs capable of providing one-on-one communication, presentation, and writing coaching for CEE students. Sarah Smith, the department’s Academic Administrator, points to the communication lab, or “comm lab,” as a catalyst for the mini-UROP’s competition-to-collaboration transition. A change that Hopkins, now an Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northeastern University, heartily agrees with. “You can do the best science in the world, but if you can’t tell anyone what you did in a way they can understand, you have done nothing useful,” she says.

Still, despite the recent switch from competition to communication, Smith finds herself drawing lines of continuity between past and present. “The thing that always strikes me in the final presentations is that every single project in some way, shape, or form ties back to this idea of sustainability in our environment. I think a lot of folks come to MIT want[ing] to make the world better. And it’s like, okay, but how? And that’s really one of the aims of the mini-UROP, to show you this is exactly an avenue that you can take.” 

For Herzig-Deribin, the program fulfills yet another role, one closely tied to MIT’s cult of anything. “It’s [about] giving students the ability to build their confidence and try new things in a world where you don’t have the time or the capability to explore three different majors and graduate in four years.”

For ten years, the CEE mini-UROP has introduced students to what good research looks like, both in the lab and from the podium, yet it remains, interestingly, the only mini-UROP program at MIT. It’s a strange paradox, one that, in Herzig-Deribin’s opinion, makes the CEE mini-UROP all the more special: by focusing on undeclared first-year students, the program deliberately opens its doors to anyone looking to do research of (almost) any sort. And maybe that’s a quintessentially MIT idea in a way that CEE is quintessentially MIT. If the institute is defined as a place where, when students say they want to change the world, professors ask what part of the world they want to change, then CEE is an assemblage of starting points—a cross-section of MIT that rings true to what the institute stands for in both content and form: research on diverse topics, with the support of friendly peers, in communication with a broader public. Or, as Hopkins put it: “We are going to listen to you, we are going to take your opinions very seriously, and we will teach you and we will mentor you. But we want you to challenge us too, because you’re smart and you should be pushing that. Welcome to MIT, you’re a scientist now.”