Acquaintance by Algorithm

by Catherine Caruso SM '16 on June 23, 2017 · 0 comments

in Alumni Life, Campus Culture, Grad Life

When Tuka Alhanai SM ’14 and Mohammad Ghassemi launched MIT Connect in 2015, their goal was simple: to connect people on campus who otherwise might not meet. Neither co-creator imagined how quickly the program would catch on.

onnect founders Mohammad Ghassemi, left, and Tuka Alhanai. Photo: Barbara Lipohar-Staples.

MIT Connect founders Mohammad Ghassemi, left, and Tuka Alhanai. Photo: Barbara Lipohar-Staples.

Participants fill out a basic form at connected.mit.edu with their interests, availability, and lunch preferences. Alhanai and Ghassemi, both grad students in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, developed an algorithm to match individuals for lunch encounters. Introductory emails set a time and place, and even offer conversation icebreakers.

Fueled by grants from the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education and the MindHandHeart Innovation Fund, with additional development support from MIT Sandbox and the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, MIT Connect has been a resounding success: more than 90% of users—many of whom participate weekly—have given it positive feedback, and around half report they’ve formed lasting friendships through the program. Now in its second year, it continues to thrive on campus, where the 800-plus users are a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, faculty, employees, and alums.

The program is also rapidly expanding in other directions. After being approached by Boston-area universities, Alhanai and Ghassemi opened participation in MIT Connect to people at nearby schools such as Harvard, Boston University, and Tufts, and they recently launched their first out-of-state program at Ohio’s University of Toledo. They are currently working on adapting MIT Connect for tutoring programs on campus.

“There are so many people who could teach us things,” Ghassemi says, “but what makes us ultimately receptive to learning from those people is a match not only between the skill sets we need, but also the personalities of the people involved.”

After a year and a half of working behind the scenes, Alhanai recently experienced the power of MIT Connect firsthand. She was matched with a fellow PhD student, and the pair met for tea. They swapped research stories, uncovered a shared passion for ceramics, and discovered that for the past five years, they’ve been working in neighboring buildings.

“Even though she’s right across the street from me,” says Alhanai, “under any other circumstances I don’t think I would have had the chance to meet such an interesting person.”

This article first appeared in the spring 2017 issue of MIT Spectrum.

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