Posted on August 25, 2021 by


Leslie Neely, Ph.D., is no stranger to securing funds for her wide-ranging research interests. Since 2015, she says she has been awarded nearly $2 million in competitive research funds. Most recently Neely, an associate professor of educational psychology and the director of the Child and Adolescent Policy and Research Institute (CAPRI) has been selected as to receive this year’s Cloud Technology Endowed Fellowship. This fund was established in 2013 to support the use of cloud computing at UTSA. While it might seem odd to some that a professor of educational psychology is being recognized for her work in a cutting-edge tech field, Neely is no stranger to such work either: Neely’s first career was in engineering. 

“I’m a very quantitatively driven person,” she said, “I really loved math and sciences – the STEM field was for me – and so I decided to go for engineering, and honestly I loved it.”

However, growing up with family members with disabilities, Neely also has a lifelong desire to work with that population.

“I had this childhood passion but really couldn’t figure out how to make myself effective, and then just on a whim I got introduced to that science,” she said.

That science is applied behavior analysis or ABA. Neely went back to school, eventually earning her Ph.D. and becoming an expert in the assessment and treatment of problem behaviors, especially in children. One of the biggest issues she’s seen in her field is that the quality of ABA treatment varies wildly based on the provider and their clinical experience.

“I want to make treatment available to everybody,” she said.

“I want to make treatment available to everybody,” she said. “I don’t want that to be limited based on where you live geographically or what resources you have.”

To do this, Neely is looking to employ a new tool: artificial intelligence. She hopes that AI’s incredible capacity to detect behavioral patterns will help experts like her evaluate treatment methods, better standardize patient care, and enhance other services like telehealth, among other things. This is where her engineering background really shines.

“My engineering background absolutely influences me as a researcher…I think it really has helped me think more broadly and differently about our science and how to advance the research. I would say it’s probably pretty cutting edge because there’s very few people who have that kind of combination,” she said. Neely knows of one colleague in Canada and one in New Zealand who are beginning to explore similar ideas, marking UTSA as one of the few schools in the world supporting this type of research. To Neely, this represents opportunities for collaboration, not competition.

“The faster we can do this, the better services we’re going to provide for the children that we serve,” she said.

 “The faster we can do this, the better services we’re going to provide for the children that we serve,” she said.

On a more local level, Neely has partnered with a diverse group of faculty from UTSA. Paul Rad, Ph.D., from the College of Business, studies machine learning; Guenevere Chen, Ph.D., with the department of electrical and computer engineering, studies autonomic security management and high-performance computing; Kevin Desai, Ph.D., from the department of computer science, specializes in 3D computer vision and virtual/augmented reality. Neely has high hopes for this all-star research team. 

“My thought process in engaging all these researchers is that my ultimate goal is to make the very best product, the very best augmented technology that we can and there’s no way I can do it by myself,” she said.

With so many moving parts, the Cloud Technology Endowed Fellowship will be a great resource for Neely and her team.

“There’s just so much work to be done and we need a lot of resources,” she said, “so to get the fellowship is great recognition that what we’re doing is important and valuable. We’re going to use the fellowship to really make quantum leaps for ABA research and children with disabilities.” 

Neely's selection for the Cloud Technology Endowed Fellowship highlights the university's strategic vision, by funding research that will help cement UTSA as an institution of research excellence.


-Christopher Reichert

Visit the Child  and Adolescent Policy Research Institute (CAPRI) website.