By Monica Orta
By Monica Orta
This summer at the Media Lab, we were again fortunate to participate in the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP). In its 31 years, MSRP has sought to promote the value of graduate education, improve the research enterprise through increased diversity, and prepare and recruit students for graduate education at MIT. For the Lab, in particular, MSRP has served as a way to engage with talented undergraduates whose unique perspectives bring new ways of thinking critically and creatively.
Below, our four 2017 MSRP interns reflect on their experience at the Lab and how it has shaped their future goals.
Being ‘disobedient’ in responsible ways is now my main motivator.
I have always been interested in the work being done at the Media Lab, so I knew I was in for something extraordinary this summer. From the day I arrived in my research group, Human Dynamics, I was blown away. I was extremely humbled to meet and talk with my principal investigator, Sandy Pentland. I was also impressed with the entire research team who welcomed me so warmly, especially my supervisors, Thomas Hardjono and Christian Smith from MIT's Sociotechnical Systems Research Center. Participating in our group meetings each week opened my eyes to the scope of the research in Human Dynamics. I was constantly in awe, seeing multiple projects transforming and molding society before my eyes.
The project I worked on is called Open Algorithm, or OPAL. It’s a platform that aims to unlock the potential of private data for the public good in a privacy-conscientious, scalable, and socially and economically sustainable manner. Specifically, I ran use cases based on data provided by Twitter and Fitbit to show the power of using OPAL protocol on public data.
Although I’d heard about the culture at the Media Lab before starting my MSRP internship, I’d never realized how motivated everyone is here to go against the grain to improve things. I love it. Being “disobedient” in responsible ways is now my main motivator, particularly after I and the other interns met with the Lab’s director, Joi Ito, who shared some words of wisdom with us. My perspective on conducting research and tackling tough questions has continued to evolve as I spoke with MAS faculty members including the Lifelong Kindergarten PI, Mitchel Resnick, who advised me to remain playful in all of my work. My summer experiences at the Media Lab have solidified my dream of coming here for graduate school.
I came to the Lab expecting that my research group would be a perfect fit for me, and I am happy to be leaving (for now) with that expectation realized.
What I have learned this summer will help shape my future.
This summer I worked in the Responsive Environments group, which explores how sensor networks augment and mediate human experiences, interactions, and perception. My particular project was an immersive cross-reality virtual environment that enables real-time visualization of sensor network data. I focused on mapping and extending the current 3D virtual environment in order to create a more interactive experience for users.
When I came to the Lab, I had a lot of uncertainties because I didn’t know what to expect. But from the time I stepped into my research group, I found everyone to be welcoming and supportive in every way. This experience has been unlike any other I’ve had before. For instance, I was surprised when my supervisor, Gershon Dublon, told me how all the researchers manage their own schedules and that I could come in at any time to get my work done. This excited me because it gave me the flexibility to work on tasks at times when I’m most productive, allowing me to fully immerse myself into the team. My time at the Media Lab has left me with not only resourceful mentors but also lifelong friends.
My experiences have helped me to understand the cycle of creativity in our society, and how important it is to involve art, science, engineering, and design in each project. It’s fascinating to see what can be accomplished on a team with such great people who focus on these disciplines in different ways. Regardless of the field I pursue, what I have learned this summer will remain with me and help shape my future in grad school and beyond.
Being driven to improve a population's wellbeing was really encouraging.
During my summer in the Affective Computing group, I worked on a project called Data Visualization to Detect Common Cold. I analyzed wearable sensor data to computationally investigate how to detect immune responses to the common cold and flu. The process involved using MATLAB to plot a range of physiological signals, such as temperature, skin conductance, heart rate variability, and accelerometer data to understand the immune system's shift from health to combating infection. This gave us the opportunity to create preventative strategies and improve health literacy.
I chose to work in Affective Computing because, as an architecture student, I am very interested in developing the intersection of design, healthcare, and technology. Working directly with my supervisor, Daniel Lopez Martinez, an incredibly talented medical engineer, provided me with an intensive health lens. It was quite challenging at first, coming in with a limited amount of medical and coding knowledge, but I am very grateful to Daniel who guided me patiently and invested a lot of time in my growth. So did many other members of the research group, including Akane Sano, Javier Hernandez, and Oggi Rudovic. I was inspired by all of them and motivated to move forward. Joining an environment that’s authentically driven to improve a population's well-being by using machine learning, engineering, and computer vision was really encouraging, as was the mentorship of Rosalind Picard, who directs the Affective Computing group.
I was also energized by my fellow MSRP interns at the Lab—they, too, were passionate about their projects and cared about helping other people through their work. When I first entered the program, I had idealized the ability to collaborate with people from other disciplines, but the Media Lab experience has taught me that interdisciplinary work can be a reality if I commit to understanding those fields. It has restructured my mindset and forced me to redesign my long-term career goals, in order to attain a synthesis of multiple disciplines.
I want to continue working on projects that help improve lives.
My main project, Bias Breakout, excites me because of its unique approach to detecting bias and seeing how those biases scale as the number of respondents increases. The project started as a Chrome extension that highlighted the lines of an article being read by a person. We then built out the project to get the user more involved and to develop a more cohesive dataset. I am truly proud of this project.
Being a part of the Viral Communications group surpassed all my expectations. Every day I got to work alongside driven visionaries who care about pushing the bounds of how we see the world; people who strive to build tools to tell stories in new and interesting ways. I met quick-witted, down-to-earth, talented students whose mix of personalities and humor combined to make a team unlike any other. The weekly meetings were my favorite times, as ideas and opinions flew around and it felt like a family together at the dinner table. Everyone’s deep commitment to their projects rubbed off on me and made me want to exceed my very best effort. While I am sad to leave my Viral Communications family, I am grateful—especially to my supervisors Hisham Bedri and Travis Rich.
Working in the Media Lab has given me a new viewpoint of technology and how it can be applied. Meeting people from the various Media Lab groups and hearing how they create projects with an eye for design and a hand for craft motivates me to build and do more. The Media Lab is a unique place that mixes academia, creativity, social awareness, passion, drive, and diverse cultures and perspectives while encouraging everyone to explore and tackle tough questions with “wouldn’t it be cool if we tried…” As I pursue my degree, I want to continue working on projects that help improve lives, and I plan to do more unconventional research that cracks the confines of how research has been done in the past.
Monica Orta is the Media Lab’s assistant director for diversity and student support.
We invite you to find out more about MSRP and the Program in Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab.