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BYU’s 17 NSF Fellowships most ever for university

Engineering student credits her fellowship to research on robotic therapy for autism

Seventeen Brigham Young University students recently received prestigious post-graduate fellowships from the National Science Foundation – the most BYU students have earned in any given year.

Six of those 17 newly minted 2010 NSF Fellows are taking their awards, worth up to $121,500, to the likes of Harvard, Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Nicole Giullian plans to follow three of her fellow NSF Fellows to MIT. The mechanical engineering master’s student believes her current research and development of robots used in therapy for autistic children helped her stand out among other applicants.

“I love engineering and I want to use engineering to make a difference in people’s lives – and this project is perfect for that,” Giullian said. “I am absolutely certain it is the reason I was able to get the fellowship. It’s a project that is beneficial to society in specific ways and makes a difference.”

Along with engineering professor Mark Colton, Giullian is part of a multidisciplinary research team working to design reconfigurable robots that can be used by clinicians to help autistic children learn many of the important social skills they struggle to develop.

“The general goal is to get robots in the clinic where they can be used as a mediator or tool in the hands of skilled therapists,” Colton said. “Kids with autism love mechanical things, they love robots. The robots will never replace the skilled therapists, but we’re hoping they can help encourage certain desirable behaviors.”

Some of these behaviors include sharing attention with parents or friends, initiating interaction, expressing themselves and recognizing emotions better.

Specifically, Giullian is using Lego Mindstorms programmable robotics to create robots that can be reconfigured by both the therapists and the autistic child.

“When kids are involved with Legos and building things, it helps them,” Giullian said. “The idea is to build the Lego robot and have it be controlled by the therapists and the child then gets involved by modifying it. Ultimately, it gets the child to interact with the therapists.”

The robots are now being tested with a few children in an autism clinic on campus. Colton said so far the trials have gone well.

Giullian says she plans to continue researching robotic therapy in her doctoral program.

“I am honored and extremely humbled to receive the NSF Fellowship, and am very grateful for the opportunity it will give me to continue research that is both intellectually challenging and socially beneficial,” stated Giullian. “The NSF Fellowship will help turn my educational and research goals into reality.”

ABOUT THE NSF FELLOWSHIPS

Giullian and her BYU colleagues will receive three years of tuition support, a $30,000 annual stipend, and access to the NSF’s TeraGrid supercomputer to conduct their research.

BYU’s 2010 NSF graduate fellows are Brian G. Buss, Mark J. Cutler, Paul J. Gabrielsen, Nicole C. Giullian, Mark H. Goodman, Bryan Haslam, Daniel M. Hinckley, Jeffrey Jenkins, Aaron M. Jones, Eric K. Lewis, Bradley B. Miller, Rebecca C. Nielsen, Nigel F. Reuel, Nathan Sheffield, Seth R. Taylor and Patrick A. Turley. In addition, 12 other BYU students were given honorable mentions.

The previous high mark for NSF Fellows at BYU happened in 2004 when 11 students were honored. BYU has had 82 NSF Fellows named since 2000.

The NSF program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees in the United States and abroad. Past fellows include many Nobel Prize winners, a U.S. Secretary of Energy and the founder of Google.

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