Return to Baloo: A Fellowship Alumna Revives an AR App for Pediatric Cancer Care

Alumna TJ Dunnivant ’18 is reviving a project that she worked on during her time in the Fung Fellowship. The digital product, called Baloo, mitigates anxiety in child cancer patients through an Augmented Reality (AR) dog. We caught up with TJ to hear about what she’s doing with Baloo, and her goals for the future.

TJ and her son Asad, who was diagnosed with leukemia.

In her second year as a Fung Fellow, TJ Dunnivant’s 10-year old son Asad was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). At the time, many people recommended that she drop out of school, since it would be a hard process to go through with her son. However, TJ said, “I wanted to finish the fellowship — I didn’t drop out of school specifically for the fellowship.”

TJ, a veteran and transfer student, was a part of the first-ever Fung Fellowship cohort, which at the time was a two-year commitment. During the second year, the fellowship invited start-ups around the Bay Area and campus pitch projects for the fellows to work on. TJ joined a program called Baloo, working on creating an app that would mitigate anxiety in children undergoing cancer treatment. As her son was being treated for cancer at the time, it was a no-brainer for her to take on this project. She said, “Of course it was what I needed to do. It kind of justified the fact that I was still in school while taking care of him in the hospital.”

This anxiety in child patients is called adjustment disorder, and arises due to the sudden change in the children’s lives — going from being a healthy child to being forced to stay in the hospital all the time and receive treatment. TJ said, “It’s kind of similar to all of us right now — going from being able to go to movie theaters and restaurants to needing to stay in or else they might die.”

The platform features an AR dog that children can take care of, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy. “After several interviews with children with cancer and oncologists, we designed Baloo to do things like take medicine, eat, sleep and be generally cared for,” TJ said. “By having control of Baloo, the child has a sense of agency in their space. It also teaches them how important it is to take their medicine, eat and allow the doctors and nurses to take care of them so they can get better.”

On the left, some of the original Baloo team members pose by their presentation, including fellow Crystal Rubalcava (second from left) and Nani Walker, co-founder of Baloo (far left). On the right, TJ (far right), Asad (second from the right), and two of her original team members and fellows Rahel Demissie (second from left), Atmaja Aswadhati (left), pose with their Fung Fellowship achievement awards.

The project had six people total on the team, and with TJ’s passion and vision, she became the leading project manager, spearheading the vision and development of the app and managing to take the project from ideation to prototyping within a semester. In addition, TJ was able to provide the critical connection to engage the target population.

Before Asad’s diagnosis, he would accompany TJ to class and meetings at night, becoming an honorary fellow in the cohort. After he was hospitalized and TJ joined Baloo as her final project, Asad became their “resident end user.” “We could build a lot of Baloo’s platform based on Asad’s direct experience in the hospital,” said TJ. In fact, one of TJ’s team members said Baloo was the best project she ever worked on because she got to have direct access to the end user — Asad and a few of his close friends that were also cancer patients.

“I had all the connections with the children’s hospital, and the skills from the fellowship of human-centered design skills, co-design skills…I could hit the ground running with that,” TJ said. “The fellowship did such a great job in teaching us skills and how to innovate and design for populations.”

“The fellowship did such a great job in teaching us skills and how to innovate and design for populations.”

However, after TJ’s graduation, the project stalled. “Everyone went their own direction,” she said. “I wasn’t sure myself, as someone who was more of a project manager and not a founder. I wasn’t sure what I could do with it. I wasn’t sure what Nani Walker and Ryuka Ko (the two project founders) wanted to do, and I was figuring out housing and my next living situation.”

This summer, TJ — now based in San Diego — agreed to take over the project from the two founders and is currently working to gain funding and mentorship. To TJ, working on Baloo is personal due to her son’s experiences — he is now in remission, thankfully. It also is the fulfillment of her desire to work in the tech field, a goal that she felt discouraged from pursuing earlier in life.

“I am a single mom of four children. Three were adults when I decided to go back to school,” TJ said. “I’ve been interested in tech for a long time. I really get excited about how new technology can help underrepresented communities, but due to my socioeconomic status of being a single mom and a first generation college student, I didn’t think people like me went to college.”

On the left, TJ and her fellow veterans at a football game. On the right, TJ during her time in the military.

When she graduated from high school, TJ joined the military so she could get educational benefits. At the time, she took a test to reveal her aptitudes for different fields, and scored high on the engineering/mechanics side of the test. This showed her that she had the ability to work in tech, however, “I never had the mentorship or received whatever in society that tells you it’s ok to go in that direction,” she said. “One time, I had told someone that I wanted to go to school for coding, and they told me that I wouldn’t be able to get through it.”

When she joined the Fung Fellowship, she saw it as her chance to work on tech related-projects. “On all our projects, I would always put technology as what I wanted to work on, since I just loved technology,” she said.

“To me, being in the tech space is something that you have to be groomed for, where you need people to push you into,” TJ continued. “There will be a lot of people in that space like me, who weren’t groomed to be in that space originally. There’s a gap in STEM among women, people of color (POC). That was my honors thesis in community college: how to address this gap and get more women and POC into STEM fields.”

“There will be a lot of people in that space like me, who weren’t groomed to be in that space originally.”

For her son, being an honorary fellow gave him the opportunity to not only be exposed to STEM-related projects, but also to see what attending a university UC Berkeley could be like. Because he was able to sit in class and listen to discussions at the fellowship, Asad became familiar with the campus and the college classroom environment. “Asad has aspirations of attending UC Berkeley, after growing up on the campus and in campus family housing,” TJ said. “This is huge because he doesn’t have traditional methods surrounding him that would push him in the direction of attending a four year.”

A Master of Engineering student on the Baloo team tests the app with 13-year-old cancer patients, Asad and Rahel.

In the future, TJ hopes to expand Baloo’s impact. She has talked to an oncologist at Children’s Hospital in Oakland who deals with sickle cell anemia, and believes that Baloo could eventually be expanded to be used by any child in a long hospital stay, not just cancer patients. “Any child in the hospital would have anxiety,” she said.

Eventually, she would like the app to utilize artificial intelligence and be integrated with data management, or perhaps be used by parents as a tool to share information, tips, and tools. “One of the things about the hospital is that when you’re in there and you feel alone. Sometimes it can be intimidating when the doctor tells you ‘we should put a tube in his nose,’” she said. “I want parents to be able to log in and see what other parents are doing to help their child in the hospital.”

Right now, however, she’s focused on acquiring funding so she can hire an engineering and UX design team to take over from where the project was left off in 2018. “I still need mentorship in how to take a prototype from where it is now to being a funded, actual running startup,” she said. “Once I have funding, I’ll put together what I need to do, manage the team, and hire who I need to keep it going.”

Connect with TJ.

Learn more about the Fung Fellowship at fungfellows.berkeley.edu.

The Fung Fellowship at UC Berkeley is shaping the next generation of health, conservation, and technology leaders for a better world. 🌱

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