CCIS student awarded National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship

June 26, 2015

Alex Ahmed, a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Computer and Information Science, was recently awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship in graduate research for a proposal titled “Mobile Analysis of Prosodic Patterns in Transgender Individuals.”

“There’s no one experience that captures every trans person’s experience,” Ahmed, herself a transgender woman, says. “For many, voice is a big issue. There’s no medical help for that.”
And while vocal coaches are an option for transgender individuals who choose to train their voices, they are often cost-prohibitive. Ahmed, who is part of the Personal Health Informatics program, was awarded the grant for her proposal to create an app that helps not only transgender people, but also non-binary people – those who don’t identify with the male/female binary – gain better control of how their voices sound. The grant gives Ahmed access to $34,000 per year, for three years over a period of five years.

Ahmed plans to build a free app for Android that will allow users to record their voices over time in order to track their progress. Data would be collected from the recordings, and then displayed in a visual manner that lets users see how their voices are changing. This data would consist of the quantifiable qualities that research has identified as gender cues, such as high rising terminals – how women’s voices increase more in pitch at the end of a sentence than men’s.

In addition to the individualized section of the app, Ahmed also envisions a platform where users can come together on a community platform to share their stories and experiences audibly. “You could upload yourself speaking about yourself or about your experience,” she says. “Hearing someone’s voice is way different to just reading, it’s like you’re a real person. It’s a much stronger connection.”

But even as a trans woman with her own experiences to rely on, Ahmed acknowledges that there are challenges involved with building the app.“The thing about anything trans online is that there’s always going to be harassment, there’s always going to be hate, even if you try really hard to moderate what’s happening.” Maintaining a safe space isn’t the only challenge she must overcome. There’s also the problem inherent in defining what makes a voice masculine or feminine. Language apps like Duolingo correct users’ pronunciation – correcting pitch would be an inappropriate for users of Ahmed’s app. Instead, users of her app would define for themselves how they want to sound, and work toward that individually.

With her proposal and experience in hand, Ahmed is excited to build and eventually launch the app.

“Even though there’s no singular solution or tool or experience to apply to everyone, I think that it could do something for a lot of people,” she says. “I would want something that’s inclusive of everyone’s identity, no matter what.”