Clinic Projects

Article by Shivani Manivasagan and Avani Anne

Photos by Avani Anne, Saya Kim-Suzuki, and Michelle Lum

Among the college’s academic offerings, Harvey Mudd’s Clinic Program may be one of the most valuable opportunities for Mudders to gain professional experience and apply their knowledge in the real world. 

In 1963, Harvey Mudd created Clinic, a capstone project program unique to Mudd in which groups of four to five juniors and seniors work with organizations to solve real-world problems. Over the past 58 years, students have collaborated on 1,867 projects in partnership with 563 sponsors. Each project aims to have an impact on the world, and some have even gathered attention from reputable publications; for example, the Injectable Bandage Project (2014) was featured in the Smithsonian Magazine and the Nanocomposite Research Project (2020) was reported on by the Cambridge University Press.

While Clinic began with engineering projects, it has expanded to include projects with focuses in computer science, math, physics, and a combination of other disciplines. Spotlighted below are a few Clinic projects that students are working on this year!

For a list of all past Clinic projects, visit the Mudd webpage here. To read about several successful Clinic projects, visit the Mudd webpage here.

Computer Science and Math: Improving the Detection of Email-Based Cyber Threats

Emily Chin ’22, Meg Kaye ’22, Skylar Litz ’22, Keizo Morgan ’22, Dana Teves ’22

Advisor: Professor Stone | Company: Proofpoint, Inc.

This year, one Computer Science and Mathematics Clinic team aims to create a system better equipped to detect advanced email-based cyber threats. Currently, our inboxes have filters in place to detect suspicious wording in emails (for example, “click this link to win prize money” or “buy Bitcoin”). However, hackers have been evading these filters by using foreign characters or fonts that resemble English letters, like a Russian backwards ‘e’ (э) in place of an English ‘e’. As a result, neural nets trying to detect these spam threats are thrown off.

The cybersecurity Clinic team aims to address this problem using natural language processing (NLP) techniques, and they hope to lay groundwork for research in the field. This semester, the team’s goals include creating a testing system to simulate different threats, establishing metrics for how to measure if a model does well against these attacks, and running models using their testing system. 

“I loved the NLP class I took last semester, so this project seemed like a good extension of what I learned in the class,” said project manager Meg Kaye ’22. “Also, being the project manager has really helped me for professional life in terms of improving my communication skills and staying on top of everything.”

Engineering: Using Hollow Glass Microspheres (HGMs) to Restore Arctic Ice

Gracie Farnham ’22, Gracey Hiebert ’23, Olivia Hockley-Rodes ’22, Diana Contreras ‘23, Zooey Meznarich ’23

Advisor: Professor Lee | Organization: Arctic Ice Project

An Engineering Clinic team is exploring one strategy to mitigate the effects of climate change: using hollow glass microspheres (HGMs) to increase the reflectivity of Arctic ice. By covering specific areas of the Arctic with HGMs — a type of fine, sand-like glass — it’s possible to help restore melting ice and decrease the rate at which Earth’s temperature is increasing.

Last year, the students working on this project ran models on the effects of fluid mechanics on the dispersion of HGMs. This year’s group, however, plans to run laboratory experiments to explore what happens to HGMs after they are released into the environment; for example, how they interact with water or degrade over time.

This initiative is also a Global Clinic project, a category of Clinic projects through which students can develop solutions to global issues. Through the Arctic Ice Project nonprofit, the team is partnered with a group in Norway performing biological testing on HGMs. Overall, both groups are working to ensure that HGMs do more good than harm to the environment before deploying them.

By the end of the year, the Mudd team hopes to design and run several laboratory testing procedures, publish their findings, and present at conferences.

“I see myself entering a field related to environmental engineering, so it’s nice to have gotten to try that through Clinic before entering the workforce,” said team lead Olivia Hockley-Rodes ’22, who also worked on this project last year. “And it’s been really helpful to get experience with project management, communication with our liaisons, and delegating work within our own team.”

Computer Science and Math: Developing a School Search System for LA Unified School District

Henley Sartin ’22, Catherine Jang ’22, Elizabeth Song ’22, Jennifer Zecena ’22, and Macy Mills ’22

Advisor: Professor Talvitie | Organization: Los Angeles Unified School District

Another Computer Science and Math Clinic team has a social justice focus for their project; they are trying to simplify the school search process for families in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). With over 600,000 students and 700 schools, the LAUSD offers many different schools through which students can explore their interests. With all these choices and the abundance of information available, the current LAUSD school search system can be very complex for parents to use.

To address this, the Clinic team aims to facilitate the child-to-school matching process by creating a guided search tool with step by step questions allowing parents to receive a feasible, reasonable, and relevant list of close match schools along with the ideal pathways for applying to and enrolling in those institutions. While the Clinic group is mainly working with the LAUSD on logistics right now, they hope to have a prototype ready by the end of next semester.

“I’m really interested in education, so this project was one of my top choices since it felt the most aligned with helping the community in that aspect,” said Henley Sartin ’22, the team lead. “I feel that it’s really important to invest in our kids, and one way to do that is to help parents figure out the best place for their kid.”

Engineering and Physics: Using Drones to Detect Radio Signals at Military Installations

Nandini Garg ’23, Noah Haig ’22, Domenico Ottolia ’22, Harry Sanchez ’22, Sean Wu ’23

Advisor: Professor Gallicchio | Organization: MIT Lincoln Lab (for U.S. Marine Corps)

In another Clinic project, engineering and physics majors are working for the MIT Lincoln Lab, producing drones that can map out radio signals emitting from a location. The MIT Lincoln Lab will give these drones to the U.S. Marine Corps who intend to use these drones when setting up base while out on missions to ensure they don’t emit any unintended signals and reveal their location to someone who is monitoring radio signals.

To build this apparatus, the Clinic team has branched into two groups: one group is developing the radio detecting system, and the other is building the drone. Using techniques related to software-defined radio, the radio team is currently developing directions for computers based on the radio signals different antennas receive. On the other hand, the drone team is experimenting with trainer planes purchased over the summer to ensure that the electronics for the drones are functioning properly.

After both groups complete their portions, the team will assemble the radio-receiving gear on the drones and test the final product. The team’s goals are to fly the drones manually this semester and fly them autonomously next semester.

“One of my favorite aspects of Clinic is the independence,” said team member Noah Haig ’22. “Our advisor has been a great source of help, but we also do a lot independently. It’s very much like working at a company, where you’re responsible for your own work.”

Behind the Scenes

Clinic is made possible through the hard work of many HMC staff, including professors who work as Clinic directors and Clinic advisors. Colleen Coxe, the Assistant Vice President for Sponsored Research and Projects, coordinates with Clinic directors to facilitate the recruitment of projects. 

The work of Clinic directors goes on behind the scenes all year; these professors are currently making phone calls to new companies to hopefully form a relationship with them for future Clinic projects. Between March and May, directors get companies to commit to projects for the upcoming school year. A list of projects is finalized by the time summer begins. Around 40-50% of Clinic-sponsoring organizations continue to work with Harvey Mudd for the next year, and the remaining 50-60% of next year’s projects are in partnership with organizations that the college has not worked with before. 

During the summer, descriptions of the upcoming year’s projects are sent out to students, who then have the opportunity to rank their choices. A majority of students end up working on their first or second choice projects. Once school starts, students begin meeting with their teams, Clinic advisors, and company liaisons. While a lot of research is done individually, students meet several times a week to discuss their progress, delegate tasks, and update their liaisons. As the year progresses, students prototype and design their projects.

The culmination of Clinic is Projects Day, when students present their projects to other students, professors, liaisons, and sponsors. It is an occasion for the broad exchange of ideas, where people learn from others’ work and the impact of that work on our society.

Clinic vs. Thesis: What’s the Difference?

Clinic isn’t the only senior capstone project option for Mudders. While all engineering and computer science majors must do a Clinic project, students majoring in other subjects (math, physics, biology, and chemistry) do Thesis instead, which usually entails working with a professor on a research question. They also have the option to join a Clinic project instead of Thesis if they wish.

While Clinic and Thesis both seek to make progress on an open-ended question or issue, the main differences between them are that Clinic is designed to be a team project and also involves students collaborating with a company, which adds another level of engagement and connection to the outside world that a Thesis project might not have.

There are certainly advantages to both Clinic and Thesis, and choosing which one to do is a highly subjective decision. For example, a math student might choose Thesis over Clinic if they have a more research-focused mathematical question they want to pursue.

“There’s a common misconception that if you plan to go to grad school you should do Thesis, and if you’re going to work in industry you should do Clinic,” said Prof. Yong ’96, a Clinic director and advisor. “Both experiences prepare you well for both options. When I was a student at Harvey Mudd, I did Clinic as a math major, even though I was going to grad school, because Clinic is so unique.”

And while there are similar Thesis project programs at other colleges, Clinic is truly unique to Harvey Mudd. It’s a great opportunity for students to get a taste of working life, experience the cultures of other organizations, and have their work translate to real-life action and impact. 

“Many students these days tell us that they really care about the impact of their work on society,” said Prof. Yong. And Clinic projects — especially those that have a social justice dimension to them — help students make a positive impact.

The Evolution of Clinic Over Time

While Clinic started in 1963 with just engineering projects, it has now expanded to include projects in computer science, math, physics, and a multitude of other disciplines.

Throughout the years, Mudd has made additions to Clinic to ensure that it continues to support the college’s mission statement. In 2005, Mudd added Global Impact Clinic projects through which students can help solve issues that impact society on a global scale. In 2018, Mudd introduced Social Justice Clinic projects, where students work with organizations to address issues impacting people. While there are typically only a handful of these projects, Mudd is working to increase the number each year. 

“The essential format of Clinic has remained the same all these years, but when I was a student here, there were only a few projects to choose from,” said Prof. Yong. “The most exciting part now is that because Clinic has grown so dramatically, there are many more options available to students.” In the Computer Science and Math program, students got to choose between 28 different Clinic projects!

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