PAOC Spotlights

In Exchange of Ideas

Fri April 12th, 2019
Kelsey Tsipis | Program in Atmospheres, Oceans and Climate
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Matthew Cotton, a third-year physics student at Imperial College London, outside the MIT Green Building. (Photo credit: Kelsey Tsipis)


Matthew Cotton traveled 3,200 miles to MIT for a change of scenery and got it gazing at planets 39.46 light-years away.

A third-year physics student at Imperial College London, Cotton is working with MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) Assistant Professor Julien de Wit to hunt for hydrogen exospheres on planets far outside our solar system.

Using data collected from the Hubble Space Telescope, the team is searching seven temperate Earth-sized planets orbiting the red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 for signs of hydrogen exospheres. These exospheres could hint at the presence of Earth-like conditions underneath, such as surface water or methane reservoirs.

“This kind of research is what really attracted me to come to MIT,” says Cotton. “The exoplanet field is quite rich at the moment, and it’s fast-moving, so it’s really exciting to be apart of.”

Cotton came to MIT last Fall as part of the MIT-Imperial Academic Exchange. Launched in 2018 as a two-year pilot, the program offers undergraduates in specific departments the opportunity to take courses and conduct research at each other’s institutions for one semester or one full year in exchange for academic credit.

Cotton says his time in Cambridge, MA, has been a phenomenal learning experience, both academically and personally. Outside of research, he has enjoyed meeting new people and participating in extracurricular activities, like MIT’s badminton club. Meanwhile, his academic activities have exposed him to new and exciting areas of science and teaching styles.

For instance, Cotton has found classes at MIT to be more structured than at Imperial. At Imperial, grading is largely dependent on one final exam, with little assessment leading up to it; whereas MIT relies on frequent problem sets, or Psets, and projects fixed throughout the semester. Undergraduate research is also more common at MIT, he says.

"I think that there's definitely this idea of undergrads doing research that’s a lot more prominent here,” says Cotton. “At Imperial, students usually don't do research until their third or final year, whereas, here, it’s common for first- and second-year students to work in labs.”

Cotton says the culmination of these new experiences has broadened his perspective on how different research institutions operate.

I think I'm massively benefiting from seeing how the structure of doing science is set up in different countries,” says Cotton. “The culture here is quite unique, and I’ve been able to learn a lot about how people from other institutions learn and think.”

MIT’s partnership with Imperial began in 2013 with the Imperial Summer Research Exchange, an eight-week program that offers students from both schools’ departments of Materials Science and Physics a glimpse into what academic life is like across the pond. The new two-year pilot program added an extended timeframe and seven participating departments, including EAPS, after much championing from faculty, such as EAPS Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography John Marshall. Marshall was an undergraduate in physics at Imperial in the 1970s, did his PhD there, and went on to join its faculty before joining MIT almost 30 years ago.

“It’s really an exciting partnership between two of the greatest research institutions in the world,” says Marshall. “We are thrilled to create the opportunity for students to learn from different intellectual and cultural environments, and we look forward to hosting more Imperial students in the future.”

Megan Jordan, an Academic Program Administrator within EAPS, says the department looks forward to continued collaboration with Imperial, including not only receiving their students at MIT, but also sending EAPS students to Imperial.

“Ideally, we would like to see students there in the Spring term so that they may participate in interesting fieldwork experiences that happen in May at Imperial,” says Jordan.

As he wraps up his time at MIT, Cotton says that while he’s uncertain of his post-graduation plans (he’s scheduled to graduate from Imperial with an integrated Master's degree in May 2020), he is confident that his time at MIT has broaded his perspective and given him insights that he will carry with him in his future scientific career.

“MIT has exceeded my expectations,” says Cotton. “I am really enjoying my research project, the students have been really welcoming, and the professors have been very supportive and friendly.”

The MIT-Imperial Academic Exchange is managed by the Global Education Office (GEO), in partnership with participating MIT academic departments and counterparts at Imperial. GEO’s work includes the recruitment and admission process, student preparation, and support during and after the exchange experience.

“It is very gratifying to hear from students how much they enjoyed and gained through their participation in the exchange,” says Malgorzata Hedderick, the associate dean of GEO. “In our work, we hope that students will be able to amplify the benefits of their MIT education by adding important skills and insights from the study abroad experience and this is what we are seeing in this program already.”