Women Making Waves

Article and photos by Lea Twicken, Avani Anne, and August McIntosh-Lombardo

There are lots of accomplished women at Mudd making substantial advances as professors and experts in a variety of fields, from computer science to physics to chemistry. We sat down with a few of these profs and asked them about their areas of expertise and their experiences at Mudd.

The quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity.

Prof Xanda

Assistant Professor of Computer Science

B.S. Harvey Mudd College

P.h.D. Cornell University

A Mudd alumna, Prof. Xanda now teaches both CS 5 and Natural Language Processing (NLP) here at Mudd. Over the years, she has done research in several areas including text analysis workflows, machine learning models of topics in text, and privacy. Prof. Xanda’s research currently focuses on helping text collection experts begin use of text mining tools. Since beginning her teaching career at Mudd, she has also helped organize Widening Natural Language Processing (WiNLP), a workshop that focuses on uniting underrepresented groups in the NLP research community. We asked Prof. Xanda about her experience being a professor.

Prof Xanda assists a student at CS5 grutoring.

Q: How has Mudd helped further your research? 

A: Mudd has been a great place for research for two reasons. First, I get to work with brilliant undergraduate students who often have better intuitions than me about what is clear or what is useful about our work, because they haven’t been embedded in it so long that they forget what it was like to first learn this stuff. Mudd helps provide funding for summer research students as well, which has helped my group work on some multi-year projects that took extra time to really do right.

I also love being at the Claremont Colleges because I get to collaborate with a bunch of students and professors working on cool and unique projects. For example, I’ve helped start a lab with economics professors Prof. Manisha Goel and Prof. Michelle Zemel at Pomona, where we’ve gotten to work on text analysis projects to understand economic disruptions and trends with the support of a bunch of Pomona and HMC students. I’ve found these projects to be both really interesting and uplifting as we work to build a community of practice around text analysis with some really awesome students and faculty.

Q: Why did you decide to return to Mudd?

A: The number one reason that I wanted to come back to Mudd is that I care deeply about

teaching and I care about the direction that the world is going. My sense from having been a Mudd student was that some of the people that I met at Mudd were going to be people who were affecting where we are going to be in 20, 30, 40 years. The idea of coming back to a place like that and being able to help shape that seemed really important.

Q: What advice would you give to current students at Mudd?

A: I remember this when I first came here, and I see it in a lot of the students I have: there’s a lot of discomfort with moving from a place where we were the one who knew the most to a place where that’s not true anymore, where things get really challenging and overwhelming. I want my students to know that that’s just fine. It’s actually just fine to be overwhelmed. We’re all here to not know stuff together and to figure that out. I do research that’s all about me not knowing stuff for many years at a time, sometimes focusing on the things that I don’t know. And that’s a joyful thing.

And second, get enough sleep, seriously. One of the things that I believed during my time at Mudd — more from my peers than from my instructors — was that the work was the most important thing, and that my needs could wait until the work was done. It is really important to know that even when work is important, you can still be more important.

Prof Hawkins

Associate Professor of Chemistry, Hixon Professor of Climate Studies

B.S. UC San Diego

P.h.D. Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Prof. Hawkins’ students love to share her advice: “If you don’t know the answer, it is probably latent heat.” Prof. Hawkins’ passion for chemistry and the climate led her to earn her Ph.D. in climate chemistry, and now, she’s been a prof at Mudd for eleven years. Prof. Hawkins teaches several climate courses, including atmospheric chemistry as well as Core’s recent addition: STEM and Social Impact. In September 2021, Prof. Hawkins was named the first ever Hixon Professor of Climate Studies. In her new role, Prof. Hawkins’ responsibilities include helping expand Mudd’s Hixon Center for Climate and the Environment (reopened in 2021) by designing new climate- centered classes for students and getting more students involved in climate science.

Prof Hawkins and her lab team!

Q: How has your passion for the field of atmospheric chemistry and climate evolved during your time at Mudd?

A: The job ad that I answered for Harvey Mudd was for analytical chemistry. I came in to teach Core chemistry, analytical chemistry, and then maybe occasionally something in my home area. That’s very different from what I’m doing now, which is teaching in climate. On my sabbatical, I was asked to teach a first-year elective on climate. It wasn’t until I developed that course and taught it that I remembered that I was actually a climate scientist. I remembered that I have this other skill set, this other area of expertise, that I had just kind of set aside and forgotten about. And students really wanted to learn about it.

The course was popular, so I was able to do it again, and then it kind of ballooned. It got more popular, more students wanted to take it, I got more passionate about wanting to educate students because I came here wanting to expose more students to climate. The excitement around the course was nice because it helped me remember that I could do this job and I could teach students well and bring that climate expertise to the college.

Q: What has your experience with the Hixon Center been so far, and what do you hope students will get out of it?

A: The experience has been very, very positive. The conversation about pointing the Hixon Center directly at climate has been going on for a couple of years. There have been conversations about how we can provide more opportunities for students to learn about climate. It’s been a very positive and long conversation, with lots of enthusiasm from students, staff, trustees, and faculty. So, really, the question was the exact mechanism, not whether or not we should try to find a way to create a climate center. With the Hixon Center’s initiatives, I hope students will have a larger menu of courses to choose from. For instance, one of the hopes for the center is to bring in additional faculty that can teach at the interface of various disciplines and climate.

Q: How do you hope to influence students at Mudd?
A: I want students who have any desire to do something positive for our health and our environment to feel empowered. That whatever they’re interested in, within the walls of Harvey Mudd and beyond, they can see the connection

between what they’re most passionate about, and climate or the environment.

I want, number one, more students to become literate in climate science and know how it’s changing and how serious the problem is. There are opportunities to work on climate in all disciplines, and I want to help students feel like they have a community of faculty and peers who want to help them figure out what their contribution to climate will be. So, I just try to direct as many students as possible towards the climate crisis because it’s a really big problem, and we need all the good people we can get. And Mudd students are the best people.

Prof Lynn

Chair of Physics Department, Professor of Physics

B.S. Harvard University

P.h.D. Caltech

Prof. Lynn had an early interest in STEM, but really became passionate about physics in high school. Now, Prof. Lynn’s expertise lies in quantum information science, with her research emphasis being in quantum communication protocols and entanglement. She also teaches several courses, including quantum information, mechanics, and electromagnetic theory & optics. Prof. Lynn became Department Chair five years ago, so her responsibilities also include ensuring that all members of the physics department have a smooth experience and working with Dean of the Faculty Lisa Sullivan and other department chairs to coordinate the academic program at HMC. Through her time at Mudd, Prof. Lynn hopes to show students new ways of thinking. Here are some responses from our Q&A with her.

Prof Lynn in action, teaching Physics 51.

Q: When did you know you wanted to go into physics?

A: When I was little, I really liked math. And when I was in high school, two things happened. One, I had an amazingly good physics teacher who just fostered people’s creativity. And I was doing a bunch of math contests with my high school math team, and I hated them. Obviously, the whole field of math cannot be judged by that kind of experience, but it deterred me somewhat from just wanting to do math. And physics became really compelling to me. It’s really the inspiration of this teacher who used math so much and applied it to something else.

That wasn’t quite the end of the story. I spent a whole year during college as a biology major, before I went back to physics. But I would say the last couple of years of high school were the years in which I began to like physics.

Q: What is a positive aspect of being Department Chair?

A: Department chairs here are selected by departments (subject to the approval of the Dean of the Faculty and the president of the college), but a lot of the selection process is within departments. The process is different between departments, but I believe that in all departments, being selected means there’s a sense that your department trusted you to get this work done. They trusted you to listen to the other members of the department thoughtfully. A department is a place where it is important to listen to what everybody wants to preserve and what everybody wants to change. The sense that I’m trusted to listen to those things and pay attention to them and to try to guide discussion in the department in productive directions, is a really good feeling.

Q: How has Mudd’s core values influenced what you focus on in your teaching?

A: I really value the Core curriculum and Mudd, and in particular, I really believe in Mudd’s mission to show every Mudd student an inside view of how every discipline thinks about knowledge. I think that’s really valuable for the highly interdisciplinary types of careers and problem-solving that [Mudders] are going to go out into the world and engage in and really have an impact with. So, I try to focus on ways of thinking about problems and ways of organizing problems and doing problem-solving, in addition to the collection of facts. A graduation speaker from a few years ago talked about ways in which we can carry a sense of curiosity and invention and bring fact-based decision making into all different aspects of the lives and the careers that we will have. And at some level, that’s really the kind of impact that I hope a Mudd education has on every Mudd student.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s