Alumni News Brief

Telling workers’ stories through technology

SEAS staffer helps bring art installation to life

A man wearing a lavender sweater and silver chain standing next to a wall of smartphones displaying the same video

SEAS alum and Science Center Fabrication Lab Assistant Robert McCarthy, Robert McCarthy, A.B. '23, coordinated the video display for “HUM SAB EK (We Are One)," a new exhibit on display at the Center for Government and International Studies South building in Cambridge. (Eliza Grinnell/SEAS)

For Robert McCarthy, A.B. '23, the best projects are the ones where he learns something new. If he already has all the skills to finish a task, as he puts it, “half the fun of the project is gone.”

McCarthy, a former computer science concentrator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), has spent the last several months working on exactly the kind of novel project that he loves. He’s working with the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute on a new art installation called “HUM SAB EK (We Are One),” which aims to share the stories of thousands of women from low-income households in India as they worked through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It sounded like a really interesting project,” McCarthy said. “Immediately once I got the email, I was excited, and would’ve done anything to get on the project.”

McCarthy’s job is to coordinate the 70 smartphones that comprise the video display for HUM SAB EK. He built a mobile app for each phone that allows it to receive videos and messages from a web-based server he also designed. He also programmed a scheduler on his laptop to process the videos and determine which ones play on which phones at any given time.

“You can have one video playing on all of the screens, or you can have one playing on just the left third of the screens,” he said. “You have complete autonomy over how large the video is. You can have each phone playing a completely different video, or go all the way to all of the phones playing one video at the same time. It was a really interesting project about really interesting material.”

A collection of smartphones displaying videos on a wall

The smartphone video display wall

HUM SAB EK is based on the research of exhibit curator Dr. Satchit Balsari, Associate Professor in Emergency Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Balsari’s team surveyed over 1,000 households with women who are part of India’s Self Employed Women’s Association, a large trade union that promotes the rights of low-income female workers.

“After months of working with Bobby, I haven’t come across anything that he has not been able to solve, fix or build in his lab,” Balsari said. “Bobby is not only brilliant but incredibly generous with his time and talent. I am grateful to Bobby and his lab supervisor Nathan Melenbrink for their support.”

McCarthy now works as a full-time assistant in the Science Center Fabrication Lab under Nathan Melenbrink, Lecturer in Physics and former postdoctoral fellow in materials science and mechanical engineering at SEAS. He’s also a teaching fellow for “PS70: Introduction to Digital Fabrication,” a class he took and loved in his senior year.

“I enjoyed that so much, I asked if I could stay on,” McCarthy said. “We teach you how to 3D print, laser cut, programming, basic control boards and circuits. For the final project, you can build as much as you want, as long as it's a fun and interesting project. We have a range of students, from computer science Ph.D. students to people who’ve never programmed before.”

The exhibition is already on display at the Center for Government and International Studies South building, located at 1730 Cambridge Street. The exhibition opening and reception will take place April 15 from 6-7:30 p.m.

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