What you need to know:
With scarcity of microscopes, Dr Rose Nakasi wants to augment the gold standard of a microscope using artificial intelligence and a mobile phone to detect pathogens that cause malaria. She says this will significantly reduce congestion at health facilities
When Dr Rose Nakasi joined Busitema University to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science in 2006, she never imagined she would end up in a medical field.
Dr Nakasi is among the 100 PhD candidates, who graduated from Makerere University last month.
Her story is that of woman who has defied the odds to excel. With a PhD in artificial intelligence, Dr Nakasi is determined to generate solutions for challenges in her community.
The 34-year old lecturer of Computer Science at Busitema University, says the journey to attain one of the prestigious academic qualification was inspired by the prevalent malaria cases in Africa, whose poor diagnosis she attributes to limited technology.
Her PhD thesis is titled Automated Diagnosis of Malaria in Thick Blood Smear Films: Deep Neural Network Approach.
Motivation behind the innovation
“All of us have ever suffered from malaria, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and one of the reasons why it is still prevalent, is that there is no adequate technology to diagnose it.
There are some people who have gone to hospitals thinking that they have malaria yet it was actually a fever and ended up being given a malaria drug.
Now that is not right because you develop a drug resistance against the disease you are treating,’’ Dr Nakasi speaks passionately about her health innovation.
Nakasi says in rural areas, medics do not conduct confirmatory tests using microscopes, adding that the majority have only malaria rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs), which she says cannot detect malaria at low parasitemia or the demonstrable presence of parasites in the blood.
Artificial intelligence in diagnosis
With scarcity of microscopes, Dr Nakasi says she and her fellow researchers wanted to augment the gold standard of a microscope using the technologies of artificial intelligence using a mobile phone.
The team has developed an attachment of the smart phone onto a microscope using a 3-D printer, where they attach a smart phone on to the eyepiece of the microscope and then it is able to capture the images through a smartphone.
“Using artificial intelligence, the pathogens can be detected using the smartphone so that the laboratory technician does not strain his eyes to look for these pathogens because they are very small.
With a smartphone, there is no strain and artificial intelligence would give more accurate and consistent results,”
Congestion will be history she says. Nakasi is optimistic that this technology will significantly reduce congestion at health facilities, given its accuracy.
For the last four years, Dr Nakasi worked with laboratory technicians from Mulago National Referral Hospital led by Dr Alfred Andama, the chief laboratory technician of internal medicine of Makerere University based in Mulago.
The team supported Dr Nakasi and other researchers in capturing data, labelling of malaria parasite and how they look like under the microscope and explained to the researchers the science behind the microscope and how it operates.
“Through this collaboration, we were able to understand the scientific problem and validation of results because once you use this model, results should be given to the laboratory for technicians to review how the model performed and make improvements,” says Nakasi
She says that their research has been going on for four years and has not only been proved to work on malaria but also tuberculosis, adding that they carried out a proof of concept on the diagnosis of sputum samples for tuberculosis.
Nakasi hopes to see this technology scaled out for all microscopically diagnosed illnesses. But the technology is still at an ad hoc stage and has not been tested by relevant authorities.
“We have built confidence that the technology can work and have provided evidence through proof of concept of the work and the people that we are working in collaboration with are starting to appreciate artificial intelligence ,’’ she says.
Policy and funds
Her next step is to lobby government to come up with policies to support this technology and facilitate its roll out to both rural and urban areas.
Nakasi also wants government to provide funds and have conversations with the Ministry of Health and discuss ways of integrating clinical procedures and ultimately bridge the gap of shortage of laboratory personnel.
Dr Nakasi’s love for artificial intelligence developed while in the Makerere University’s Artificial Intelligence laboratory during practical lessons. She was then pursuing a Masters in Computer science shortly after she graduated from Busitema University with the same course.
“There is this gentleman who brought this whole idea of artificial intelligence and was diagnosing diseases and constantly told us that computer science is relevant in the medical field,’’ she recounts.
Online banking technology
At Masters level, she investigated how to use artificial intelligence to learn typing pattern biometrics of different individuals to authenticate online banking. With the supervision of Dr John Quinn and Prof John Ngubiri, Dr Nakasi was able to differentiate how people type on a computer even if they had the same password.
“So you create a pattern that is unique that even someone has your password, he cannot access your computer, just like you see we have facial or finger biometric. There is also a unique finger biometric that is unique to every individual and the speed at which we type is different,” Dr Nakasi reveals.
Dr Nakasi boasts of the innovation explaining that it will solve a huge security threat in the banking sector and will stop fraudsters from accessing clients’ passwords.
She would later join one of her supervisors who was undertaking a study in diagnostics with an aim of detecting and diagnosing different pathogens.
She was enrolled as a computer vision expert on that project in the laboratory and that is how she developed interest in learning more about detecting malaria using artificial intelligence.
In 2017, Dr Nakasi got a scholarship from SIDA to pursue a PhD at Makerere University under the TSEED programme. Like other PhD students, she juggled studies, work and family and only studied during holidays.
She says one of the greatest challenges she encountered was collection of data because they had to collect many images given the nature of the artificial intelligence.
“God, my husband and my mother have been great pillars on this journey. My supervisors; Dr Ernest Mwebaze, and Dr Amina, Dr John Quinn, Prof Gilbert Maiga who was on the project that I was undertaking, and the entire SIDA for the funding,” says Nakasi.
Dr Nakasi is proud to make a contribution through applied research to the country whose health system faces serious challenges.
Drawing inspiration from Prof Mary Okwakol, the executive director of the National Curriculum Development Centre, Nakasi says she is now aiming at becoming a professor.
“I should become one, obviously. The journey has already started. Once you enter the research world, it is about writing articles, undertaking research projects and publishing,” she says.
Nakasi is married to Tony Galandi Kire with whom they have four children. She is currently a lecturer at Busitema in the department of computer studies and a research scientist at the Makerere University Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
At the global level, Dr Nakasi heads the ITU/WHO Topic Group on malaria detection, an inter-agency collaboration between the World Health Organisation and the ITU, which creates a benchmarking framework to assess the accuracy of artificial intelligence in health.
What her husband says
“I look at her PhD on two fronts; as a family and husband we feel proud that a member of the family is contributing to solving a national if not a continental problem. It is not the pride that comes with a PhD but the solution which it offers.
“Secondly, it is an inspiration. As a family, she has now set the bar high for the children. Everyone should aim at getting a PhD or at least two degrees.
“When a woman is taking centre stage in power, men tend to either withdraw completely or they fight because they want to have the power. But you can still control this power by either being very supportive, treating her as a partner.
“In 2014, both of us agreed to go back to school. She enrolled for a Masters in Computer Science as I also pursued a Master’s in Education at Makerere University.
I later got a scholarship that same year to study a Masters in Institutional leadership and management at Uganda Management Institute (UMI) on a weekend programme.
We have both supported each other and walked together as a team. There is a time I needed her support more because I was running two masters programmes at a go. So it was more of being focused and having the same dream to walk as a team so as to walk further.
Partner and not a competitor
I later joined the Law School after my Masters and I still chose to go to Makerere because she had now enrolled for her PhD. That kept us together and we moved as a team. I finished Law School and she is now done with her PhD.
We made our children understand our schedule. This made it easy for us to bond because we now appreciated each other’s challenges.
“Once you look at your wife as a partner not a competitor then your work as a husband becomes easy.Appreciate that both of you have strengths and weaknesses and work as a team,” he adds.