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05/30/2013 08:34:13

Senior Spotlight: Judy Mou

Student programmer builds platform for future technology and career

Caltech's Class of 2013 is a group of passionate, curious, and creative individuals who have spent their undergraduate years advancing research, challenging both conventional thinking and one another. They have thrived in a rigorous and unique academic environment, and built the kinds of skills in both leadership and partnership that will support them as they pursue their biggest and best ideas well into the future.

Over the next few weeks, the stories of just a few of these remarkable graduates will be featured here. Watch as they and their peers are honored at Caltech's 119th Commencement on June 14 at 10 a.m. If you can't be in Pasadena, the ceremony will be live-streamed at http://www.ustream.tv/caltech.

Today's generation is inundated daily with information—from news on the latest technology innovation to celebrity gossip to updates on friends' birthdays, thoughts, and activities.

In this saturated landscape, how do you filter the noise to determine what's most relevant to you?

It's one of the problems that Caltech computer science senior Judy Mou—who is one of two students preparing to graduate in June with both her bachelor's and master's degrees—hopes to address. In particular, Mou is interested in changing how information on environmental hazards and safety issues is processed and delivered, and in making sure it can get past the noise of everyday information in times of crisis.

As part of her master's thesis, Mou worked alongside K. Mani Chandy, Simon Ramo Professor and professor of computer science, and Julian Bunn, a principal computational scientist with the Caltech Center for Advanced Computing and Research, to develop an Android phone and tablet application that could be used to keep members of the Caltech community—and, ultimately, similar communities—informed about crisis situations, such as local earthquakes, fires, and pollution hazards. Her application, called a situational awareness application, combines this hazard information with dynamically updated, individualized content, such as traffic on the user's commute, campus events, or news feeds that the user has subscribed to.

"I enjoy making stuff that other people can use. I also like the process of finding solutions," says Mou. Before graduating in June, she hopes to publish the code for the application and might even release the program onto the app market.

"The test-case for the application that she is building is whether her classmates and housemates use the application," Chandy says. "She knows that she is building something valuable, and she's excited about it. That's one of the things I like best about working with her."

In addition to keeping individuals plugged into their environment, the application will connect with a prototype home hazard weather station that Bunn and his colleagues have developed. The device uses a collection of commonly available sensors—including those for measuring radiation, pollution, ground motion, temperature, and humidity—to gather localized environmental data and relay that information to the virtual servers in the Cloud, where it is analyzed in combination with other incoming data to detect weather and environmental changes locally or across a region. Through the analysis of the combined data, the program can determine where there are significant shifts or changes and provide notice of local or regional hazardous events to the user.

"Judy is a very talented programmer," Bunn says. "It's hard to imagine that anyone else could have done a better job nor would have undertaken the project with such obvious enthusiasm, patience, and good humor."

During her college years, Mou says, Caltech provided her with many invaluable learning opportunities including the chance to develop the smartphone app. Indeed, she notes, Caltech's small, intimate size combined with the Institute's rigorous curriculum and students' ready access to research labs and close interaction with faculty fostered an unparalleled learning environment.

In addition to working in Chandy's lab, Mou—with Caltech's help and the Caltech's Career Development Center—landed summer work positions at Amazon and Google Travel, where she will start full time this summer.

"I never imagined the opportunities that would be available to me after Caltech until I got to my senior year and all these companies wanted to talk to me," Mou says. "And since this is such a hard program—and I have completed it—I now know that I can do anything else."

Written by Shayna Chabner McKinney