Inspirational New App Earns Alum Fellowship
by Debra Daniel
Emani Dotch graduated from AAMU following spring semester 2021, and her future is set. The mechanical engineering major was named a winner in the 2021 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF-GRFP) competition.
“When I scrolled through the winners, there were students from Yale, Harvard, Princeton...and there I was! I thought, this is crazy! Some of the most renowned scientists receive this fellowship. It’s a big deal!”
Each year, the NSF receives more than 13,000 applications, but only offers 2,000 fellowships. The fellowships are for STEM students pursuing research-based advanced degrees.
“The NSF Fellowship provides a $34,000 a year salary for three years, and helps with living expenses, tuition and fees,” says Dotch.
The incentive behind her research was her 10-year-old brother Khadir. “I have two younger cousins with autism. When my brother was diagnosed, I wanted to figure out how to help all three of them. I created ‘Audio Buddy,’ a mobile app for children with autism. The app helps children cope with noise sensitivity. When they open the app, it asks ‘Do you want to check in?' and ‘How are you feeling?’ Loud noises alter how children with autism feel. They can become stressed or angry. The app offers several coping methods, like white noise, meditating and ambient sound, or music they like. 'Audio Buddy' also helps people around the children: 'Hey, the classroom is getting too loud.' 'Audio Buddy' allows children to regulate themselves and lets people around them know there is a problem,” says Dotch.
So how did this Mobile, Ala., native create this app and win this prestigious award?
“I would not have known about any of this without my advisor, Dr. Adams,” says Dotch.
Dr. Aaron Adams is an AAMU assistant professor of mechanical engineering. Dotch says Adams approached her and other promising students her sophomore year and told them to apply for the University of California Historically Black Colleges and Universities (UC-HBCU) Pathways Program. It’s part of the UC-HBCU Initiative, a systemwide initiative to increase the number of scholars from HBCUs completing UC doctoral programs. The program provides fellowships for HBCU students conducting summer research with UC faculty at a UC campus.
“Dr. Adams looks for students who have the knowledge and skills to do research. I applied and the University of California Irvine (UCI) accepted me. I spent the last two summers reading papers and papers on autism. When I came up with the idea of an app, my coding wasn’t that great, but others in the program came along to help. I found out my app was an NSF winner when our UCI advisor sent us a group text!"
Her UCI advisor is the Vice Provost for Graduate Education and the Dean of the Graduate Division of the University of California Irvine, Dr. Gillian Hayes.
“The NSF GRFP recognizes students with excellent research potential, scholarly impact, and dedication to their academic careers. Emani has shown in the last two years of her work in my lab that she is an independent thinker, creative, and innovative. I have no doubt that she will be an excellent scholar and graduate student,” says Hayes.
Dotch will continue her research and work on her app under Hayes.
“I got accepted into the UCI Informatics program and am moving out there this July. I’m going right into a doctoral program! Not many people know you can do that. I didn’t know I could do that until this program!” It’s five years and I have funding thanks to my NSF and UC-HBCU Fellowships. I was blessed because I had people who know about these programs, tell me about them!”
Dotch says she’s still in the research phase of her app. “The next step is a redesign and then testing. When it’s released, I will probably cry. It’s been challenging, but if I can create something to help my family and the autism community, it’s worth it!"
"And I can’t wait to get back to UCI. There are so many brilliant people from around the world there. I told myself, ‘You worked hard to get here. You’re supposed to be in this space, and you deserve it!’"