With a patent in the offing, Clark University math/computer science student is set to join Amazon

April 18, 2014

[Update: Elena started her job at Amazon.com on July 28, 2014. Her “super secret” project was the Amazon Fire Phone.]

On Feb. 28, Natalia Sternberg, chair of the Mathematics and Computer Science Department, received an email that delivered the sort of student feedback that gladdens any teacher's heart:

"Hi Professor Sternberg, I just wanted to share some good news with you. Amazon[.com] emailed me and they said there is a possibility that I might be an inventor of something and my name will be on a patent! "

Elena Zhizhimontova

Clark University
senior Elena

The bearer of the good news was computer science and mathematics double major Elena Zhizhimontova '14, a transfer student from Moscow's National Research University – Higher School of Economics, where she studied business informatics. Elena decided that it would be beneficial for her to study abroad because she was looking for new opportunities. While searching for U.S. colleges she learned about Clark from a math professor whose son attended a Clark graduate program, so she applied and was admitted.

During her first year, Elena applied to major companies including Amazon.com for a summer internship. After two comprehensive Amazon phone interviews she was offered a coveted paid internship at Amazon headquarters in Seattle as a Software Development Engineer Intern, starting in May 2013. Along with fellow interns, she was housed in a hotel near Seattle's famous Space Needle.

While Elena is prohibited by Amazon from providing details about the work that resulted in her invention, she describes her team as "awesome" and her fellow colleagues, mainly from game development, as "very friendly and passionate." She especially enjoyed the Amazon work culture where everyone on the project was really engaged and excited about what they were doing. Also something special about Amazon was their willingness to allow dogs in the workplace.

On March 29, Elena and nine other Clark students, along with computer science Professor John Magee, attended the New England Undergraduate Computing Symposium at Boston University, organized to celebrate excellence and diversity in computer science. Of the five awards given out at the conference, three went to Clarkies. Elena's senior honors project, a Kinect for XBOX 360 game prototype, which she calls "Control Yourself," won first place in both the Game Development and "attendees' choice" categories from a field of submissions by students from other regional colleges including Wellesley, Northeastern, and Tufts. Fellow Clarkie Zachary Herman '14 won the class project award for his "Autonomous Nerf Dart Gun" project.*

A prize-winning art student during high school, Elena is particularly interested in Computer Vision, Computer Graphics, and Game Development. Her honors project combines all three. "Control Yourself" features an avatar customized to look like the player, who uses body movements to ride a skateboard and uses gestures the way we use them in real life. Professor Magee, Elena's project adviser, says the game "combines a lot of creativity with computer science to make something that is both impressive and fun." Elena says that Professor Magee taught her favorite class at Clark, Computer Vision. She says "Professor Magee's inspiring style of teaching and his passion about computer science motivated me to create my project."

Elena Zhizhimontova ’14 is pictured at the Bitcamp Hackathon with (from left) team member Nicholas Pozoulakis; Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus VR; and Michael Antonov, chief software architect at Oculus.

Elena Zhizhimontova ’14 is pictured at the Bitcamp Hackathon with (from left) team member Nicholas Pozoulakis; Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus VR; and Michael Antonov, chief software architect at Oculus.

A highlight of Elena's internship was the opportunity to participate with other Amazon interns in a 24-hour "hackathon," where her team placed in the top ten out of 80 entries. Two of her team members joined her in attending the 36-hour Bitcamp Hackathon held on April 4-6 at the University of Maryland. Their project, an underwater game Elena suggested be called "Bermuda Triangle," is designed for use with the Oculus Rift, a virtual-reality headset for immersive 3D gaming developed by Oculus VR, and a Leap Motion, which is a camera that recognizes hand movements.

"Bermuda Triangle," awarded first prize in the Oculus Rift "Graphics" category, allows a player to be a submarine captain and to control a marine vessel underwater with his hands. Its YouTube preview describes the game as "a deep sea exploration experience ... in which players search through sunken ships and rocky terrain for hidden treasure on the ocean floor in this virtual reality thrill ride."

Since attending Clark, Elena has served as an undergraduate teaching assistant in computer science courses, and as an astronomy observatory assistant for the Physics Department. She has also been active in the Clark chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery, serving variously as the treasurer and public relations manager.

Elena, who will begin working full time at Amazon in July, is described by Sternberg as someone who "really puts her heart into her projects. Her excitement about computer science in general, and her projects in particular, is contagious."

Elena hopes that her team's success at the Bitcamp Hackathon has helped get the word out about Clark.

"Everyone was very interested in knowing what university I went to," she said in an email to Sternberg, "and I told them that Clark University was a great school."

* Other Clark students who presented projects are Shreya Biswas '14, Joshua Cogswell '16, Jian Bin Guo '15, Shaina Sanders '14, Sarjan Shrestha '16, Nikoloz Gelashvili '15, Alex Williams '15 and visiting undergraduate Fernando De Almeida Coelho.