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I always like to have something non-school related to work on when I feel like I need a break from homework or when I want to program but I don’t feel like studying.

One of the ways I like to do this is giving myself little projects to work on that help me develop some skills I want to learn or get better at, or that I can make to benefit myself or my friends. While it may seem a little daunting to manage with class and homework and extracurriculars, I’ve found that spending time on personal projects has been one of the most rewarding college experiences I’ve had yet. 


I’ve always got a few projects in the works, but my most notable one at the moment is called Valence. Valence started as a small project for a developer contest last summer, but has grown into so much more. It all started when a friend reached out to me for some help with programming, and she mentioned the contest. A neurotech wearables company led by a famous neuroscientist was looking for developers to help them expand their device’s use cases, and they reached out to her since they thought she might be interested or she’d have some friends who were interested. When she realized she didn’t have the programming skills to be able to build something, she talked to me — her CS/QBIO friend — since I was the most likely person to be interested in both the neuroscience side and the programming side of using wearables for sensory substitution. We brainstormed, entered a pitch to the contest, built what we could, and made it to the final round of the competition! 


Even though we didn’t win, we were super passionate about the project we had started so we decided to continue working. And that’s when Valence really started. We’ve created a sensory substitution app that aims to help neurodiverse people learn to interpret the emotions of those around them based on their intonations while they’re speaking! We’re still developing a final product, but we’re planning to start our first round of product testing in the near future and we’ve already started pitching to venture capital firms!


It’s been quite a lot of work founding a company while in my second year of college, but we’ve received so much support from those around us. We joined sparkSC (one of USC’s startup accelerators), we’re currently in a contest at the Viterbi Innovation Institute, and we’ve been speaking with the executive team of the neurotech company about our product. The professors we’ve spoken with, our friends and classmates, and others have been super encouraging as well.


It’s great to already be entering the startup sphere this early on in college, but my work on this is so much more than just a career move. I try to take every opportunity as a learning experience! Because of my work on Valence, I have had more of an excuse to dedicate my time to learning about things I might never have learned in depth if it weren’t for this project: app design, how to work with haptics, differences in neurodivergent and neurotypical brains, and so much more. This doesn’t even begin to speak of how rewarding it is to know you’re spending your time making something that can change people’s lives! 


I can’t wait to see where Valence ends up, and I have some other personal projects I’ve been working on too! Check back in with my blogs if you want to hear about my game design or computational linguistics projects I’ve started! 

Shannon Brownlee