Undergraduate Research in Business

Her role in the project is to refine the online test for collective intelligence based on the results they gather.

“I prepare the tests and recruit participants to take the test via an online site,” she said. “The participants are given an email address to contact if there are systematic issues with the online test. If I get an email about the test working improperly, I look at the log history to see if I can figure out where something went wrong. Otherwise, upon the completion of a test, I look at the conversation log from the communication tool and see how well the group members were communicating and planning. Then I compare that to how well they scored on the test, and finally compare them to other groups that were given similar time limits.”

Undergraduate research was Basil’s first experience working on a professional team, and she said the skills she’s developed are ones that she’s proud of and can easily bring to the workplace.

“I have been learning a great deal about how people interact in certain settings, and about what differentiates a strong, successful group from a weaker-performing group,” she said. “I definitely would advise other students to apply for undergraduate research positions. This experience is very unique, regardless of the field you perform research in. It sheds new light on a topic that students cannot get in the classroom, and allows you to work with powerful minds on important projects.”


Professor Thomas Malone, Director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence

Professor Thomas Malone agreed that UROP is an opportunity for students to become seriously involved in the research of their professors, and that MIT is unusual in the emphasis that it places on involving undergraduates in these projects.

“I’ve been a professor at MIT for 31 years – I should say only 31 years. I’m trying to remember when the first time I worked with an undergrad was – it would have been very early in that time certainly in the first few years. So it’s been about 30 years that I’ve been working with undergrads,” Malone said.

Malone’s project on measuring collective intelligence uses the same statistical techniques used to measure individual intelligence, like IQ tests, and is one of several at the Center for Collective Intelligence.

“It would, for example, let us compare different groups of particular interest. It would help us measure the effects of various kinds of interventions to increase the intelligence of a group – for instance, with various kinds of techniques or incentives or collaboration tools,” Malone said. “In the past we’ve done that with face-to-face groups, and we’ve had undergraduates helping quite a bit with that process. The way we’re doing it now is primarily with online groups, so the main work that Olivia is doing is helping to assemble those online groups.”

Malone said that for students who hope to go into academia, undergraduate research is a very valuable and important way of getting an early taste of what research is really like.

“An undergraduate student in their undergraduate courses usually learn about the distilled results of centuries of research,” Malone said. “You often, in a course, get the feeling that this is all well-known, cut and dry, of-course-this-is-the-way-things-are kind of knowledge. But of course real researchers are at the cutting edge of figuring out things, and things aren’t nearly so cut and dry and clear, and I think it’s very important for people who are thinking of a research career to have an understanding of what the nuts and bolts of that process are actually like, early in their educational experience.”

Even for students who do not aspire to academic careers, Malone said that undergraduate research is a useful opportunity. “I think it’s an unusual opportunity to work with professors more closely than in a classroom, and to have an experience doing intellectually challenging and interesting kinds of work in the context of a broader intellectual mission. So in that sense, it’s better than washing dishes in the cafeteria to earn money,” he said.

Thinking back to some of the students he’s worked with the past, Malone said that one he met around 25 years ago came to mind.

“He came to me and said he wanted to work on a project we were working on then, a computer programming project. Actually, when I first met him I wasn’t too sure he could be very helpful. He said he wanted to help us do some Lisp programming, it’s a very old – and at the time reputed to be a very difficult – programming language, and I was frankly kind of skeptical that he would actually be able to be much help,” Malone said. “But I said okay, so I told him where to go and what to do to get started. A few weeks later he came back and he had basically mastered the entire programming environment and done some really great stuff very quickly.”

Malone said that this student continued to work with him as a master’s student for his thesis and then as an MIT research scientist for a while. After that, he left for McKinsey and later started a very successful Internet company in Asia. When he returned, after selling that business, he became a doctoral student again.

“He was on the faculty at Wharton for a while, and I’ve actually lost touch with him over the last couple years, so I’m not sure what he’s doing right now,” Malone said. “But I think that’s a case where you could at least suspect that his experience as an undergraduate researcher had a big effect on his career path, alternating between the business world and the academic world.