Mathematics Departmental News for 2009

De Pillis’ Cancer Modeling Research Featured on the Front Page of SIAM News (2009-11-06)

The cancer-modeling research of Lisette de Pillis, the Norman F. Sprague Professor of Life Sciences and Professor of Mathematics, has been featured in a front-page article in the October, 2009, issue of SIAM News.

The article includes highlights of an invited plenary talk delivered by Prof. de Pillis at the SIAM Annual Meeting last July in Denver, Colorado. De Pillis describes how she and her colleagues have developed ordinary differential equations models based on clinical and laboratory data that incorporate the nonlinear interactions of tumor cells and immune cells with chemo- and immunotherapies. Their models implement optimal-control techniques to determine improved treatment protocols. The models can use data from an individual’s immune system to give insight into conditions and treatment strategies that will maximize healing of a patient while minimizing damaging side-effects.

Professor de Pillis also is serving as the Director of the HMC Global Clinic program. The same issue of SIAM News includes an article describing both HMC’s Clinic and Global Clinic programs (scroll down).

SIAM (Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics) is the leading international professional organization for applied mathematicians, and the SIAM News monthly publication has a circulation of over 14,000 subscribers.

Election Results Can Be Affected by Voting Procedures, HMC Study Shows (2009-11-03)

As voters around the country head to the polls on November 3, many may be unaware that the voting procedure used to tally their votes may be more important than what they actually think about the candidates.

In the paper “Voting, the Symmetric Group, and Representation Theory,” HMC researchers revealed huge possible discrepancies in election results when voters are asked to vote in different ways (even though the voter’s opinion on the subject remained unchanged).

“For example, the results of an election can change drastically when a voter is asked to order a slate of candidates from `most preferred to least preferred’ versus asking them to simply identify their `favorite’ candidate,” said Michael E. Orrison, associate professor of mathematics and a co-author of the paper.

That election results can be altered by even slight changes to a voting procedure can create very complex problems. Orrison is hopeful that his team’s algebraic approach to analyzing voting structure and data will help. He collaborated on the voting research with his students, now alumni, Zajj Daugherty ’05, Alex Eustis ’06, and Greg Minton ’08. Their paper appeared in the October issue of the American Mathematical Monthly, a highly selective and high-profile mathematics journal.

Much of their research is built atop a geometric approach created by Don Saari, distinguished professor of mathematics and economics at UC Irvine. Saari’s work allows researchers to study certain questions regarding voting in a very systematic way. Orrison and the students took that geometric framework and augmented it with an algebraic framework. “We can create a common arena in which these seemingly different types of information can coincide and be studied simultaneously. In that sense, the algebraic (versus the geometric) framework is liberating because it allows us to ask practical questions and still harness a great deal of mathematical insights, tools and machinery to extend what was done before,” said Orrison.

The vast scope of the issue is thrilling to Orrison. “I feel like I’m able to impress upon the student researchers that the joy of tackling this problem is sometimes bound up in the fact that it really is bigger than any of us and the contributions that a student can make in a given year or a given summer will undoubtedly contribute to our understanding of this big problem.”

“One of the things I admire most about Orrison’s research is that he has a knack for showing how very abstract ideas can be used to yield concrete insights into real-world problems. His passion for the field is enormous and he demonstrates once again that our undergraduates can produce first-rate research,” says mathematics department chair Andrew Bernoff.

The alumni who contributed to the paper are now working on research of their own. Daugherty is at the University of Wisconsin (Madison), where she is working on combinatorial representation theory; Eustis is at UC San Diego studying combinatorics; and Minton is working toward a Ph.D. at MIT.

Voting, the Symmetric Group, and Representation Theory (PDF).

Original article by Maya Chalich.

Mathematics Pioneer Melvin Henriksen, 82, Dies (2009-10-14)

Melvin Henriksen, professor of mathematics emeritus at Harvey Mudd College, passed away on Oct. 14 in Albuquerque, N.M., at the age of 82. A significant portion of his life was spent at Harvey Mudd College where he served as a professor of mathematics from 1969 to 1997. After retiring, he was a very active member of the HMC community.

“Mel was among the most published mathematicians in Claremont and had a wide array of international contacts and collaborators,” said Bob Cave, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty. “He did a wonderful job of raising the profile of mathematics at HMC. We will deeply miss the passion and care he continued to bring to his work each day throughout his career, as well as his sense of humor.”

Henriksen was well known in the mathematics community for his work on the study of rings of continuous functions, which involve the interplay of algebra and topology. As a major innovator in a part of topology developed mostly in the second half of the 20th century, his work on “rings of continuous functions” helped create a new field of mathematics that combines topology with modern algebra. This new mathematics started with a seminar he co-organized in 1954–55.

He’s been published in countless journals for his work on ordered rings and topology.

“Mel is just a grand old man of ordered rings,” said James Madden, Louisiana State University professor and a former student of Henriksen’s, at a Conference on Ordered Rings in 2007. “He’s dipped into every aspect of it. He’s responsible for a large research community—people who are pursuing questions he originally raised and developing ideas that hatched first in his brain.”

The conference also celebrated Henriksen’s 80th birthday.

During his diverse and varied career as a math professor, Henriksen also received recognition for his attempt to apply mathematics in order to reduce the amount of waiting time spent by citizens called for jury duty. Together with a group of six students from The Claremont Colleges and colleague George Orland, Henriksen devised a system for reducing waiting time for jurors for the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. Results from the Mathematics Clinic project boasted that their system would help save at least $73,000 a year in fees paid to jurors if it was implemented just in the Pomona Courthouse alone. They also made recommendations for further studies that could improve juror utilization.

“While most of us feel that jury duty is an obligation of citizenship, sitting in a jury waiting room day after day without even entering a courtroom is usually enough to dampen anyone’s civic ardor,” said Henriksen in the mid-1970’s.

Known for speaking his mind and articulating a clear argument, Henriksen was a staunch enforcer of having his math students write their answers in complete and logical sentences. On the first day of any class, he was sure to tell students, “I am more interested in how you arrive at answers to problems than I am in the answer itself.”

Henriksen is the unnamed third author on the well-known book Rings of Continuous Functions by Meyer Jerison and Leonard Gillman, past president of the Mathematical Association of America. Henriksen also wrote a paper with Gillman on “real closed fields” that Madden calls “an ancient monument in real algebraic geometry—Stonehenge for the discipline.” Additionally, Henriksen also helped write Single Variable Calculus with an Introduction to Numerical Methods, with M. Lees (1970), and participated in the film “Infinite Acres,” which was produced by the Mathematical Association of America in 1965.

Henriksen graduated from the City College of New York with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1948. He received his master’s and Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in 1948 and 1951. While serving as a faculty member at HMC, Henriksen also served briefly as a visiting professor in the department of mathematics at Wesleyan University. Before coming to Mudd, he taught math at Case Western, Purdue University, Wayne State University, University of Alabama and the University of Wisconsin.

Henriksen belonged to the American Mathematical Society, the Mathematical Association of America and the National Association of Mathematics. He also directed 11 Ph.D. dissertations, seven at Purdue University, one at Case Western University and three at Claremont Graduate University.

Henriksen was an avid history buff and enjoyed traveling to collaborate with mathematicians around the world.

Original article taken from HMC’s website.

Mathemagics at the National Academy of Sciences (2009-09-30)

On September 30, 2009, HMC Professor of Mathematics Arthur Benjamin presented “Mathemagics” to the National Academy of Sciences, as part of their “Distinctive Voices” lecture series for the general public. The lecture series takes place at the Beckman Center at the University of California in Irvine. Among the audience were HMC alums John Murray ’61, and Jack Appleman ’68.

HMC Team Optimizing Cataract Care in Africa (2009-09-17)

In late August, recent Harvey Mudd College graduate Brian Stock ’09 and mathematics professor Talithia Williams traveled to Mombasa, Kenya, for the Ophthalmological Society of Eastern Africa’s 38th Annual Scientific Conference to present results of an ongoing research project examining the incidence of cataract and appropriate treatment strategies in Africa. The pair is working with HMC alumna Dr. Susan Lewallen ’76, an ophthalmologist based in Tanzania and several other African ophthalmologists to provide more accurate estimates of target cataract surgical rates (CSR) in African countries.

The project is the brainchild of Dr. Lewallen, who had a hunch that current World Health Organization CSR targets might be unrealistically high for African countries. Stock explains, “The World Health Organization has this big `Vision 2020′ initiative where they want to eliminate preventable blindness by the year 2020. Cataract is a common cause of avoidable blindness in the elderly, and there is a simple, cheap surgery to replace the lens and restore sight. So eye-care providers in Africa were given target numbers of surgeries to perform each year, which would supposedly eliminate blindness due to cataract. But Susan and others found it impossible to get their CSR up to the target levels.”

Dr. Lewallen reached out to the HMC Mathematics Department for help assaying the rate of cataract and appropriate surgical rates. Prof. Williams, a statistician with a strong interest in real world applications, saw an opportunity to contribute to the project. “Susan sent us this data from nine sites in Africa,” explains Williams, “then we calculated prevalence and incidence to come up with realistic estimates of target CSR in Africa and they were much lower than current World Health Organization targets.”

When the team realized the implications of their research, they felt compelled to travel to Africa to present their results. “It was important for us to communicate directly with the ophthalmologists in Africa to better explain our methods and discuss the possible implications.” enthused Williams. “They no longer need to be fruitlessly trying to increase their surgery rates. They can focus on other objectives, like increasing the quality of care.”

This trip and project was a perfect springboard for Stock’s postgraduate career plans. He leaves for Africa in February to teach math in the Peace Corps and was grateful for the ability to get a taste of what working in Africa might be like. “It was an incredible opportunity for a number of reasons, and the trip was just one of them. I also was able to talk with professionals working and living in Africa, which is something I’ll be doing soon. We got an interesting glimpse of how nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in eastern Africa as well.”

Travel funds for Stock were provided by the HMC Mathematics Department through the recently established Jonsson Travel Fund, which supports student and faculty travel. Dr. Lewallen also generously pitched in a plane ticket earned through her airline’s rewards program. HMC underwrote Professor Williams travel and summer research support. The team is presently working on two papers based on this research, which will be submitted to the Journal of Opthamology.

Inaugural Alvin White Prize awarded to Natalie Durgin (2009) and Sarah Fletcher (2009-09-02)

The Alvin White Prize is an annual award presented to an HMC student or students who have contributed greatly to the humanistic side of the Harvey Mudd College Mathematics Community and beyond. The award recognizes contributions to making mathematics more accessible and enjoyable, enriching the mathematical experiences at the College, performing mathematical education outreach, and/or the use of mathematics in the service and betterment of humanity. These values embody the spirit of Alvin White’s vision of a kinder, gentler and more humanistic approach to the practice and teaching of mathematics.

The inaugural Alvin White prize is awarded jointly to Natalie Durgin ’09 and Sarah Fletcher ’09.

Natalie Durgin’s infectious enthusiasm for all things mathematical reminded many of us about the joys of math on an almost daily basis. As president of the Math Club she organized many events, including a celebration of Pi Day and the first Harvey Mudd Integration Bee. She is presently a mathematics graduate student at Rice University.

Sarah Fletcher showed leadership both as a head grader and through countless unofficial hours of tutoring in the dormitories. She is a passionate supporter of the Budapest Semester in Mathematics and Mathcamp. Sarah could also be counted on to raise one’s spirits through her willingness to help everyone with their mathematical studies and her amazing baked goods, which always put a smile on the faces of the people around her. She is presently a mathematics graduate student at Georgia Tech studying Algorithms, Combinatorics, and Optimization.

Emeritus Professor Alvin White joined the faculty at Harvey Mudd College in 1962 and was on the faculty for over 35 years. He played a pivotal role in developing the Humanistic Mathematics Network and founded and edited the associated Humanistic Mathematics Network Journal. His own humanistic pursuits included tutoring inmates at the Chino Men’s Prison and reading and recording textbooks for the blind. In many ways he was ahead of his time, his work foreshadowing a growing emphasis on service learning and outreach in the HMC Mathematics Department.

Jon Jacobsen and Math Department’s Demo Lab featured on NPR’s Science Friday (2009-08-24)

The Math Department’s Demo Lab was recently featured on NPR‘s Science Friday as the “Video Pick of the Week”. Science Friday featured the Chladni (“klad-ni”) Plate demo which illustrates fundamental modes of vibration. The video has been viewed over 19,000 times.

The Math Demo Lab is an interdisciplinary lab created by Jon Jacobsen with the goal of developing a first-rate collection of physical demonstrations that illustrate key mathematical concepts. The initial demos were developed in collaboration with Austin Rutledge ’07 (engineering) and Katie Eliseo ’08, with further models, including the Chladni Plate demo, built in collaboration with Hyung Joo Park ’08 (physics) and Hendrik Orem ’09.

For more information visit the demo lab website.

2009 Nelson Series Highlights the Power and Beauty of Mathematics (2009-08-19)

The theme for the 2009 Dr. Bruce J. Nelson ’74 Distinguished Speaker Series is “The Power and Beauty of Mathematics”, and will feature talks and discussions about the use of mathematics to directly influence the world in which we live, from its application to questions of public policy, its influence and inspiration in media and entertainment, and even its pure aesthetic power in creating works of art.

The initial speaker list includes Brian Greene, Professor of Mathematics and Physics, Columbia University (October 2); Danica McKellar, mathematician, actor, and author (October 9);) Gary Lorden Professor of Mathematics and Executive Officer for Mathematics, Caltech (October 30); Keith Devlin, Senior Researcher and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University (November 12); and Steven Strogatz, Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics, Cornell University (November 20).

More information about the Nelson series is available on the Nelson Speaker Series page.

Harvey Mudd College Well-Represented at Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics Annual Meeting (2009-07-06)

Harvey Mudd College was well represented by students, faculty, and alumni at the SIAM Annual Meeting held in Denver, Colorado the week of July 6, 2009. The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) is an international community of researchers in the mathematical sciences from many backgrounds including academia, private industry and government laboratories. The annual meeting provides a venue for sharing research accomplishments and pedagogical developments in applied mathematics, computational science, and their applications; it also provides a nexus for community and mentoring for applied mathematicians.

Prof. Lisette de Pillis gave an invited lecture on “Modeling Cancer-Immunology Dynamics” in which she described strategies for modeling the interaction of cancer therapies (radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy) and the progress of the disease with the longterm goal of optimizing therapeutic outcomes. Prof. de Pillis also spoke about “Teaching, Research, and Family: Who Has the Time?” in the aptly named minisymposium “A Balancing Act”, sponsored by the Association of Women in Mathematics. Prof. Rachel Levy co-organized a minisymposium on the “Dynamics of Thin Films” which had twelve speakers, including Prof. Andrew Bernoff and Michael Gratton ’02, who received his Ph.D. from Duke University and is presently a postdoctoral researcher at Northwestern University. Other alumni sightings include Erin Bodine ’03 and Erin Byrne ’00.

The meeting also featured the second annual SIAM undergraduate poster session. Organized by Professors Andrew Bernoff and Rachel Levy (Harvey Mudd College) and Chad Topaz (Macalester College), the session included nineteen entries. Five posters, including one titled “Modeling Fluid Transport in Subcutaneous Tissue” by Melissa Strait ’09 were awarded prizes consisting of a crisp $100 bill and a copy of the student edition of MATLAB, both provided by The MathWorks, which sponsored the event.

Su Elected Vice President of MAA (2009-06-23)

Harvey Mudd College Professor of Mathematics Francis Su has been elected first vice president of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), it was announced in May.

Su’s two-year term begins after the Joint Mathematics Meetings (with MAA and the American Mathematical Society) in 2010 and ends after the Joint Mathematics Meetings in 2012. Also elected at the meeting were president-elect Paul Zorn (St. Olaf College) and second vice president Douglas Ensley (Shippensburg University). More information about the MAA election can be found at

Su joined the faculty at Harvey Mudd College in 1996 and is the recipient of numerous awards for his teaching and research, notably the MAA’s Henry L. Alder Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2004 and the Merten M. Hasse Prize for outstanding mathematical exposition in 2001. He earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard University in 1995.

The MAA has 27,000 members and its mission is to advance the mathematical sciences, especially at the collegiate level, through its core interests: education, research and exposition, professional development, public policy, and public appreciation. Its membership includes university, college, and high school teachers; graduate and undergraduate students; pure and applied mathematicians; computer scientists; statisticians; and many others in academia, government, business, and industry.

HMC Hosts Math-in-Industry Workshop (2009-06-23)

Harvey Mudd College (HMC) is a co-sponsor and host of the Math-in-Industry Workshop, presented by the Claremont Colleges Applied Mathematics Group, July 24–31, 2009.

The workshop will follow a model begun at Oxford University in 1968 and which continues today through the European Study Group with Industry.

The program will begin with a student study camp from July 24 to 26. During the Math-in-Industry workshop, which runs from July 27 to 31, seven problems, covering areas such as semiconductor modeling and microarray statistics, will be presented by the industrial sponsors on Monday morning, July 27.

The invited audience, comprising 30 graduate and undergraduate students—including two each from HMC and Claremont McKenna College—and 30 faculty from various universities, will separate into “study groups” until Friday, July 31. The workshop will conclude with a reporting session and close of proceedings, and there will be a subsequent final written report.

“Our goal is to provide affordable consulting for industrial clients in a setting where academics solve industrial problems,” according to Lisette de Pillis, Norman F. Sprague Jr., Professor of Life Sciences, director of the Harvey Mudd College Center for Quantitative Life Sciences and the director of the Harvey Mudd College Global Clinic program. “This workshop is like a super-compressed Clinic experience, but it involves students and faculty as the problem solvers. Students and faculty from all over the country are invited to participate.”

The workshop is being sponsored by the Harvey Mudd College Center for Quantitative Life Sciences and a $46,541 National Science Foundation grant that names de Pillis as co-principal investigator. The workshop is directed by de Pillis and Ellis Cumberbatch, program director of the Joint Ph.D. Program in Engineering and Industrial Applied Mathematics at Claremont Graduate University.

More information is available at the workshop’s website.

Original article.

Professor Emeritus Alvin White Dies (2009-06-23)

Professor of Mathematics Emeritus Alvin White, a long-time member of the Department of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College (HMC), died June 2, 2009.

“Alvin served the college from 1962 until his retirement in 1996 with grace, kindness and good humor,” said Vice President and Dean of Faculty Robert Cave in an announcement to the college community. “He loved mathematics and was a strong advocate within and beyond HMC for seeing mathematics as a humanistic discipline. He was also a friendly and supportive senior colleague to young faculty.”

Professor of Mathematics Emeritus Robert Borrelli said of his colleague, “Al was the sweetest, kindest person, who was very interested in helping students. He will be missed.”

Before coming to HMC, White was a member of the Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin. He earned his A.B. in liberal arts at Columbia University, his M.A. in mathematics at UCLA and his Ph.D. in mathematics at Stanford University.

White served for many years as project director for the Interdisciplinary Holistic Teaching/Learning Program at The Claremont Colleges, which advocated a synthesis of science and humanities and an awareness of the interdependence of intuitive and analytical thought processes. In 1971, he was called upon to take part in the State of California’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Writing Standards.

In addition to his teaching and research at HMC, White was the founding editor of the Humanistic Mathematics Network Journal, which was part of a resurgence in the recognition of mathematics as a humanistic discipline. The journal was funded largely through grants from the Exxon Education Foundation.

White described the journal thus:

The journal includes book reviews, classroom teaching experiences, polemics, poetry, puzzles, philosophical issues, and other free interpretations of humanistic math, including “half-baked ideas.”

In his paper “Humanistic Mathematics—Rediscovering Joy in Learning,” Roger Haglund of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at Concordia College, wrote of White:

Dr. White began a campaign for “humanistic mathematics” and he has seen his personal vision grow into an international movement which is having a significant impact on mathematics education.

Humanistic dimensions of mathematics…included the following:

  1. An appreciation of the role of intuition, not only in understanding but in creating concepts that appear in their finished versions to be “merely technical.”
  2. An appreciation of the human dimensions that motivate discovery: competition, cooperation, the urge for holistic pictures.
  3. An understanding of the value judgments implied in the growth of any discipline. Logic alone never completely accounts for what is investigated, how it is investigated, and why it is investigated.
  4. There is a need for new teaching/learning formats that will help wean our students from the view of knowledge as certain, to be “received.”

In his paper, “Journals: Assessment Without Anxiety,” White wrote:

Mathematics is sometimes perceived as stark and unbending. This may be caused by presentations which are strictly definition-theorem-proof, or lack a sense of historical evolution and excitement.

How do students acquire knowledge of mathematics? Memorization and solving problems are two routes that may be followed. Constructing personal meaning by reflection and conversation is another route. These routes are not mutually exclusive.

Original article.

Harvey Mudd College Mathematics Department Recognized by National Science Foundation with Grant to Mentor Postdoctoral Fellows (2009-05-26)

An $800,000 grant to the Harvey Mudd College (HMC) Department of Mathematics from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is one of several grants recently announced on campus to fund research, teaching, learning and technology resources.

The five-year $800,000 NSF grant will underwrite a new Department of Mathematics program, “Optimizing the Mathematics Postdoctoral Experience: A Teaching and Research Postdoctoral Fellowship,” which will establish a new postdoctoral fellowship focused on the synergistic activities of teaching and research as well as connections between the two.

Over the five years, the program will support five postdoctoral fellows and 10 undergraduate summer research associates. Each fellow will spend two years at HMC and develop their research under the guidance of a research mentor. They will also teach an average of one course per semester in tandem with a teaching mentor, supervise a summer research student, advise a capstone research experience such as a senior thesis or one of Harvey Mudd College’s industrial research-based Clinics, and participate in outreach activities and other vital departmental functions.

Professors Andrew Bernoff, Jon Jacobsen and Rachel Levy are principal investigators on the grant.

“Harvey Mudd College is a recognized leader in the teaching of undergraduate mathematics and mentoring of undergraduate research,” said Bernoff. “This grant will allow us to train recent Ph.D.s to excel as faculty members at undergraduate institutions.”

The grant also provides funds for HMC undergraduates over the summer. “Our plan is to team up the postdoctoral fellows with HMC faculty members and undergraduates over the summer to create small research groups,” said Bernoff. “We are all very excited to welcome these fellows to the HMC family.”

In 2006, the American Mathematical Society recognized the department with its inaugural Exemplary Program or Achievement in a Mathematics Department award, citing the department’s leadership and innovation in undergraduate teaching, mentoring undergraduate research and outreach to the broader community.

The HMC Department of Mathematics is a leader in outreach activities, including the Pathways Program founded by professors Jacobsen and Michael Orrison, which facilitates visits from professional mathematicians to elementary, junior high and high school classrooms; the L.A. Professional Development and Outreach Group run by Professor Darryl Yong, which provides networking and support for secondary school teachers in the Greater Los Angeles Area; and Math for America Los Angeles, where Yong and HMC President Maria Klawe serve as members of the executive steering committee.

Diversity and Geometry: Prof. Dagan Karp to Run NSF-Supported Symposium on Categorical Methods in Topology and Quantum Geometry at the National Meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Chicano and Native Americans (2009-05-26)

Assistant Professor of Mathematics Dagan Karp is co-principal investigator on a $23,850 NSF grant to support the scientific symposium Categorical Methods in Topology and Quantum Geometry, which will take place at the National Meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Chicano and Native Americans in the Sciences in Dallas, Texas, Oct. 15–18, 2009.

The funding will be used for student, speaker and organizer support for the workshop, which will disseminate knowledge to a wide and extraordinarily diverse audience, to provide the opportunity for scientists to interact and foster collaboration and new research, and to enable and encourage students and other scientists to pursue research in areas related to low dimensional topology and quantum geometry.

Prof. Martonosi helps Kenyans Harness Solar Power for Water Purification (2009-02-19)

Harvey Mudd College (HMC) engineering majors Annika Eberle ’09, Autumn Petros-Good ’09 and Rob Best ’10—all members of the environmental group Engineers for a Sustainable World/Mudders Organizing for Sustainability Solutions (ESW/MOSS)—spent 16 days in Kenya, Africa, on an educational mission in January.

Setting out for the remote village of Ngomano to help the Clay International Secondary School master a solar water purification method, the group returned to HMC with lessons learned, amazing memories, and an appreciation for the education and experience they’ve gained both at home and abroad.

“Having this as my first big out-of-culture experience is quite the story,” said Petros-Good, who plans to apply to graduate school and the Peace Corps after HMC. “I had to adapt very quickly to different cultural norms, different ways of doing things, and a wake-at-sunrise-sleep-at-sunset schedule, which was perhaps the most difficult part.

“[But] I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. I learned so much about how life can be different for other people and learned first-hand how many different ways there are for me to help people in developing countries using my engineering degree.”

The students, who were accompanied to Kenya by HMC trustee Andrea “Andy” Leebron-Clay, her husband James “Jim” Clay and Assistant Professor of Mathematics Susan Martonosi, constructed a solar still to purify the school’s water and taught a course on solar distillation to the teenage Kenyan students.

“The water, which the locals often have to dig up to 5 feet to reach, is sometimes too salty to drink,” explained Eberle, who plans to attend graduate school in structural or biomechanical engineering and then work to develop renewable energy solutions for the developing world. “Solar distillation utilizes the same method employed in the natural water cycle. First, the sun’s energy heats the water so that it evaporates. The evaporated water then condenses onto a sheet of plastic or glass that redirects the water to a clean container, leaving the salts behind.”

But building a solar still in Kenya wasn’t quite as easy for the HMC group as it was back home. (Eberle and Best had constructed a still as part of a research project last summer.)

“One of the biggest lessons I learned as an engineer was that materials we take for granted as being available here are hard to find in Kenya,” said Best, current ESW/MOSS president who hopes to eventually work in green design or environmental consulting. “For example, we couldn’t find plywood in [the village] Wote, so we had to build our prototype solar still out of an old plastic wood-glue drum. The experience of standing in front of a hardware store redesigning our solar still to fit the materials they had there was something I will never forget.”

After wrestling with a saw for about a day and enlisting the help of their skilled guide Benson Mutua, the in-country director for the non-profit organization Project Education, Inc. (PEI)—founded by Leebron-Clay, Debra Akre and Jeana King—the engineering students had constructed a functioning solar still.

“We had some of the students taste the water we produced, and they informed us that there was no salt in it, which was the goal,” said Petros-Good, who founded ESW/MOSS with Eberle in 2006. “Even though the final product didn’t look particularly fancy, at least it was functional.”

Martonosi, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea, West Africa, and visited Kenya in 2001 as a tourist, can vouch for the fact that flexibility is essential in Africa.

“Traveling in Africa is not easy,” she said. “The unexpected can be expected to happen, and one always has to be good-natured about these things. The students adapted so well to the culture and climate, and were a joy to travel with.

“Moreover, their flexibility and creativity paid off in spades when they were designing the solar still. At the Kenyan hardware store, the students had to think on their feet to figure out how to use available materials to design and build a comparable still. This demonstrated how well the HMC curriculum had prepared them to leverage their engineering know-how in creative ways to solve a problem.”

In the end it all worked out, and the HMC group hopes the project inspired the Kenyan students.

“I hope that the students understood the principles of the solar still, and saw that they could use what they had learned in their homes with their families,” said Petros-Good. “I know that a few of them really enjoyed our design project, and I hope that some of them will pursue engineering as a possible career field.”

Aside from working and teaching, the HMC group also had the opportunity to run with zebras, gazelles and impala; visit an elephant orphanage in Nairobi; and spend time on safari and barter in a region inhabited by Maasai people—a tribe that often appears in pictures of African culture because of its members’ colorful style of dress, beadwork and jewelry, and stretched earlobes.

“The trip was amazing,” noted Eberle, whose international travels also include Cambodia and Singapore, where she participated in Global Clinic projects during the summer of 2008. “The Kenyan people were more welcoming than I ever could have imagined. Being able to see all of the wildlife in Maasai Mara was great. And having the opportunity to practice my engineering skills in the field was challenging, but rewarding.”

The people of Kenya made the biggest impression on Petros-Good: “The most potent lesson for me was that people are people, no matter where you are. I was able to communicate with people with a background completely different from mine, who grew up speaking a tribal language and herding cattle, simply by using a few Swahili phrases, a lot of smiles and gestures. Even though many of the people I met are poor by American, or even world, standards, they still find things to be happy about, and they’re still incredibly friendly, which I wasn’t expecting.”

Follow-up projects for the Kenyan solar still or other engineering systems that could ultimately be implemented in the Ngomano village could be on the horizon for other HMC students as well.

According to Best, ESW/MOSS hopes to continue its partnership with the Clay International Secondary School and would like Kenya to become an annual trip where HMC students solve an existing engineering problem.

The school was established in 2005, as part of PEI, which seeks to increase the availability of education to impoverished students through parent participation and community development in Kenya.

Kenya collage“We were told before we went that once you visit, Africa gets into your blood,” Best said. “Having been there, it’s definitely true. The laid-back lifestyle, the concept of `Africa time’ (no deadlines), the general friendliness and genuine appreciation of help and knowledge, and the vast expanse of open space are things I will never forget.”

“Sometimes I despair about the future of the world,” added trustee Leebron-Clay. “There is too much to do and the problems seem too complex for any of us to solve. Traveling with this group of Mudd Engineers for a Sustainable World not only gave me optimism that smart and committed people can change the future, but a new vision of the world through their eyes. If there is anybody reading this that doubts the strength of the next generation, I suggest two weeks in Africa with Mudders.”

Support for the HMC group and their solar distillation project was provided by The Clay Foundation, founded by Leebron-Clay and her husband Jim; HMC’s Shanahan Student-Directed Project Fund; and the HMC 2020 Strategic Vision Fund.

An online gallery of photos from the Kenya trip is available.

Original Story by Gia Scafidi Leiva

2009 Mathematical Modeling Competition Results (2009-04-03)

The results of the 2009 International Mathematical Modeling Contest have just been announced. HMC had another stellar performance with one team earning the top honor of Outstanding (given to only 13 teams out of 2049 entries worldwide!). This team was further distinguished with the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) Award—an award for distinguished writing. The report from the outstanding team will be published in the Journal of Undergraduate Mathematics and its Applications. Moreover, three teams earned the designation Meritorious (top 19%) and one earned Honorable Mention (top 37%). This is an incredible showing for HMC and a testament to the strength of our core curriculum and academic program.

The MCM/ICM is analogous to an applied Putnam exam, in the form of a grueling 96-hour competition. As Ben Fusaro, creator of the contest in 1983, puts it: “Most problems that come up in business, government, or industry are solved by teams, are likely to take many hours, and would not be restricted to using only pencil and paper. Moreover, the answer must be presented to an executive who wants a clear, understandable response.” Thus, during the contest, students work in teams of three and have 96 consecutive hours to develop a mathematical model and write a formal paper describing their work. The team’s papers are judged not only on their scientific and mathematical accuracy, but also on their clarity of exposition, insight and creativity.

This year’s problems concerned

  1. Designing a traffic circle
  2. Modeling energy cost of cell phone versus land-line phone usage
  3. Modeling management of a coral reef

Here are the winning HMC teams:

Problem A—Outstanding Winner & MAA Prize

  • Aaron Abromowitz (Math ’09)
  • Andrea Levy (Math ’11)
  • Russell Melick (CS ’11)

Problem A—Meritorious

  • Richard Bowen (Math ’10)
  • Andrew Hunter (CS/Math ’09)
  • Hendrik Orem (Math ’09)

Problem A—Meritorious

  • David Zitter (Math ’10)
  • Rick O’Toole (Math ’10)
  • Jason Wyman (Math ’10)

Problem C—Meritorious

  • Ryan Muller (Math/CS ’11)
  • Neal Pisenti (Physics ’11)
  • Chandler May (Math ’11)

Problem C—Honorable Mention

  • Patrick Foley (Math ’09)
  • Steven Ehrlich (CS/Math ’09)
  • Tyler Wolf (CS ’09)

Please join me in congratulating these Mudders on their excellent work.

For complete results, see

Rachel Levy
MCM Coordinator

HMC Putnam Competition Results! (2009-03-24)

The results of the nationwide 2008 William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition have just been announced, and HMC had another strong showing.

Forty-five HMC students spent a Saturday in December (2008-12-06) taking this very hard six-hour exam, which requires a unique blend of cleverness and problem-solving skills. Nationwide, 3627 students competed, and this year the median score was 1 out of a total of 120 points! But this year, three HMC students, Ted Spaide ’09, Palmer Mebane ’12, and Jacob Scott ’11, placed eleventh in the Team Category (out of 545 universities), with following scores and special honors:

Name Score Nationwide Rank
(out of 3627)
Palmer Mebane ’12 55 97.5 Top 100 List
Ted Spaide ’09 53 104.5 Top 200 List
Jackson Newhouse ’12 45 162.5 Top 200 List

These three students will be receiving RIF Prizes, which honor the top Mudd finishers in the Putnam each year.

In the individual category, nine of our students placed in the Top 500; a great accomplishment given our school size. Only eight other schools could claim more students in the Top 500.

The following six students made the Top 500 List:

  • Steven Ehrlich ’09
  • Jennifer Iglesias ’12
  • Daniel Moore ’11
  • Aaron Pribadi ’12
  • Jacob Scott ’11
  • Ethan Sokol ’10

We are proud of all 45 HMC students across all majors who sacrificed their time, talent, and energies to represent the college in this year’s Putnam competition. Please join us in congratulating all the participants!

—Nick Pippenger and Francis Su, Putnam Seminar coaches

Posted scores for participants can be found on the math department bulletin board, and data on HMC’s past performance is available at: