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Ph.D. Student Wins Prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Award

By Cecilia Ramirez

Megan Witherow, a Ph.D. student in electrical and computer engineering, has been awarded a 2020 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship.

Witherow's research focuses on improving intervention for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Her work aims to better understand the facial expressions and eye gaze of individuals with ASD to support the development, assessment and individualization of interventions for autism.

"My application to the National Science Foundation placed a strong emphasis on computer vision, signal and image processing, machine learning, deep learning, and modeling and simulation," she said. "I have been developing facial-expression analysis and modeling techniques targeted for children."

Witherow knew early on that majoring in engineering would allow her to make a difference and pursue her passion in research, computers and intervention for autism.

"I have been impressed with Megan's excitement for learning and research," said Khan Iftekharuddin, associate dean for research and graduate programs for the Batten College of Engineering and Technology and director of the ODU Vision Lab. "Her motivation to excel in scholarship ever since she was a sophomore and wanted to work on a research project in my lab are commendable."

"I have worked with Dr. Iftekharuddin and our collaborators at Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) to design a new human-subjects study involving children and young adults with ASD," Witherow said. "The study is approved by the Institutional Review Boards at ODU and EVMS."

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship is considered very prestigious in STEM education. It is highly competitive, with more than 13,000 applications from students at the nation's top universities this cycle. Of those applications, the NSF awarded fewer than 2,100 fellowships. The program provides up to three years of support for graduate education, including a $34,000 annual stipend plus $12,000 per year toward the cost of graduate work.

"I am excited to continue to build on my research experiences now with the support of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship," Witherow said.

"We believe this award will motivate many of our graduate students to apply for this and other similar fellowship awards to pursue their education at a fine institution like ODU," Iftekharuddin added.

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