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Informatics Ph.D. Student Emani Dotch Hopes to Raise Awareness as Grad Slam Finalist

Second-year informatics Ph.D. student Emani Dotch is one of 10 finalists who will be competing in UC Irvine’s Grad Slam Finals on March 9, 2023. Grad Slam highlights UCI’s top graduate researchers as they perform three-minute pitches in front of a panel of judges to promote their research and illustrate its impact.

“I didn’t really know much about Grad Slam, but my mentors said I should do it,” recalls Emani, who focuses on human-computer interaction and accessibility in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). “I was like, ‘No, I have social anxiety. I don’t want to talk in front of a bunch of people!” Yet at the last minute, she decided to submit the application. “It was less about sharing my research,” she says, “and more about fostering awareness.”

Supporting Children with Autism
As a member of the Social and Technological Action Research (STAR) group and the Accessibility Research Collective (ARC), Emani is exploring how assistive technologies can support everyday living for autistic individuals, especially those from historically marginalized communities.

“I have a little brother named Khadir,” she says. “He’s autistic.” He was first diagnosed when Emani was in high school, and her family quickly realized they were ill-equipped to support him. “It really hit home, just seeing, as a Black boy, how many other challenges he was going to have before anyone ever [recognized his] autism,” she explains. “So since high school, I’ve been asking, ‘how can I make this world better for him [and] for other autistic children as well?’”

Understanding Noise Sensitivity
Emani’s Grad Slam pitch, “Stop Making That Noise!” outlines how technology can support noise sensitivity and emotion regulation in autistic individuals.

“My opening story is literally about a situation where [Khadir] yelled at me, ‘Stop making that noise!’”

Her project, AudioBuddy, is a mobile and smartwatch-compatible application that uses sound sensors to intervene in potentially triggering situations, helping users self-regulate their emotions. If, for example, a fire alarm goes off, the goal is to offer coping strategies to prevent the situation from escalating and leading to reactionary behavior such as kicking or screaming.

The application also aims to empower users by making them aware of their noise sensitivity and helping them share their concerns. “It’s empowering them to also tell other people, ‘you’re being too loud, and it’s a problem for me,” says Emani. “So, on one hand, yes, it’s about supporting their regulation, but it’s also about empowering them to take control of their environment by being vocal or creating awareness.”

Emani hopes to bring greater awareness to the wider community as well. “Let’s talk about the issue of noise sensitivity, and how, as non-autistic people, we have a role to play,” she says. “Even if I don’t win Grad Slam, I want there to be a mark left to make people more conscious about how they’re contributing to noise pollution.”

The final competition will take place at the Edwards Lifesciences’ corporate headquarters in Irvine on March 9, 2023, and the winner will go on to compete in the UC Grad Slam Systemwide Finals in May.

— Shani Murray