When Gurjap Deol, Sherry Du, and Vani Jain applied to BIO434: Social and Developmental Determinants of Human Health, they weren’t expecting to emerge as tech developers. But just a couple of years later, these three graduates, along with Isabel Yu, are the creators of the EczyApp, a health app with a userbase of around 2,000 patients with eczema—an irritating condition that causes skin to become inflamed, dry, and itchy.
EczyApp is free and has been available on Apple’s App Store since May of 2022. The app allows patients to manage their eczema flare-ups over time by tracking aspects of their lifestyle that could be triggers. This includes everything from diet to mood. The app also features a community forum where users can support each other, a section with general information about the inflammatory skin condition, and exclusive videos from dermatologists. “We have a lot of friends and family who suffer from eczema,” explains Jain, “and especially through a lot of research we did, we knew that there’s no cure, but the best way to treat it is to self-manage and track your flare-ups, and just know what triggers your eczema and to avoid those things.”
The project started as an assignment—a 45-page capstone proposal. “When we initially started, we didn’t even start with the concept of an app,” Deol recalls. She explains that they had originally planned on developing a toolkit—an idea more in tune with the theme of the course. “The app part came to us afterwards. Towards the end of the course, we transitioned from doing a toolkit to the app, because we thought it would be more accessible,” continues Deol.
The three teammates credit their professor, Dr. Leanne De Souza-Kenney, for encouraging them to move forward with it. “She was kind of like our biggest motivator, and reason that we actually went with it. Because we could have just stopped at the end of the course after it was over, like most people do. But we decided to take it further,” shares Deol. When the course ended, Dr. De Souza-Kenney connected the group to resources like ICUBE on campus, which provided them with entrepreneurship workshops. She continues to keep in contact, and still reaches out to them with opportunities.
After the course, they knew that making the app a reality would require a lot of work. As such, they brought Yu onto the team. Together, they started looking for grants and funding to hire an app developer, which they received through U of T’s 2021 Student Engagement Award. “At that point, we’d started [thinking of] ideas and making the UI design, but we only started the app development process after we received the funding,” recalls Jain.
Although Yu never had Dr. De Souza-Kenney as a professor, she adds that “One thing that’s really helped our team is that she’s been so encouraging because we’re all women of colour trying to get into tech [and] we’re pretty underrepresented there. […] It’s an inspiration, and she’s always encouraging us.”
The four creators tackled everything that goes into making an app, from investigating their legal obligations to user testing. Jain explains that developing app required a lot of research. She adds that most of it was through beta-testing and requesting feedback on the app from friends, family, and the community. “Asking them, ‘What do you think would help you more if you have eczema?’ Those kinds of things,” says Jain.
For Jain, being part of an interdisciplinary team of undergraduate science students enabled her to learn tremendously. “Tech was never really a thing that any of us thought we would go into. It’s just that we found an idea we were passionate about, and we were willing to learn so much just to get it out there,” she shares.
For Deol, her biggest takeaway was the design process itself. “When we first started using Figma,” an application for interface design, “I was like ‘what in the heck is this?’ I was so lost, but we designed the whole thing ourselves on Figma and it was amazing.” Deol is currently completing a master’s degree in Design for Health at the Ontario College of Art & Design University, in part due to her involvement with the EczyApp. “It’s a combination of both of my interests, I guess, because of health care, and then now because of EczyApp, design.”
Yu is conducting Neuroscience research at McLean Hospital, the largest psychiatric facility of Harvard Medical School. She shares that, “[the project] shifts your focus to a more person-focused approach, which I think is really important for all sorts of biology careers.” She adds that she benefitted enormously from the different perspectives making EczyApp gave her.
Du feels the same way. She’s currently pursuing a Master of Applied Ecology in the Murray Lab at the University of Toronto Mississauga. She explains that the applied angle they had to take in BIO434 was not often introduced in their undergraduate biology courses. Another value she believes the project fostered was the role of interdisciplinary collaboration. “One of us reached out to a dermatologist, and then Vani also reached out to an app developer, so it was a lot of going outside of our initial little network,” Du shares.
Jain is excited to bring her experiences to a future career in genetic counselling. She explains that the numerous skills she gained from her work on the app, like critical thinking, problem-solving, and networking will help her in the field. “I think [making EczyApp] helped me a lot, and it showed me another side of what I’m passionate about and what I would be willing to do for something that I really do care about,” Jain shares.
All four members emphasize how the project developed their teamwork skills entirely over Zoom. Du also highlights knowledge translation, explaining how learning scientific communication skills entailed the ability to explain difficult concepts in a user-friendly manner most beneficial to patients. After all, she notes that the real goal of BIO434 was not just to understand the obscure literature, but rather, to apply that knowledge to improve people’s lives.
The team continues to post educational content on EczyApp’s Instagram and is currently collecting user feedback for an update, hopefully within a year from the app’s launch date. Until then: “We’re very lucky to have each other as a support group,” says Jain. She continues, “We met over Zoom with an idea and we’re such good friends now, and we have this amazing app. One class can do that to you, so if you take all the opportunities you’re given, you can make something good out of them like we did.”