Bashir Dodo, the award-winning Nigerian student at Brunel University, London who just developed a new technique for improving retinal disease diagnosis, shares his experience in this interview with CHUX OHAI
How did you come about the idea to develop a technique for improving retinal disease diagnosis?
There are many methods for the diagnosis. However, they usually follow a complicated framework towards the development of the algorithms. Our method stands out due to its simplicity, speed and accuracy. When I was a child, I noticed that my mother used to like crossword puzzles and riddles. This has helped in developing this algorithm, which is all about logic and reasoning. We take some principles of perceptual grouping, such as similarity, differences, continuity and discontinuity, which forms the basis of image segmentation algorithms. The idea was that if segmentation is based on these principles, then utilising them as guidelines to develop more efficient methods is a good way forward.
What is an algorithm in this context?
An algorithm is a computer-based procedure for solving a problem. Non-technically speaking, it is like a recipe for preparing a meal. In this context, it is a formular for identifying layers on an OCT image. In other words, it is a computer programme with detailed steps and procedures or manual showing how layers of the retina can be identified.
Something must have triggered your interest in this subject. What is it?
The rate at which retinal diseases grow is high and many people are not aware of this. For example, in 2002, a study by the World Health Organisation stated that Diabetic Retinopathy caused 4.5 million people to go blind, with projected increase rate.
In most cases, in Nigeria somebody may suffer from a retinal disease for a long time and the cause will remain unknown until his condition becomes worse. Such diseases are not reversed by any type of surgery to date and they are not noticed early enough by the patients.
Did you or somebody you know suffer from retinal disease in the past?
I wouldn’t say precisely. However, diabetes is becoming common among families. I have witnessed instances where people grow old and vision either becomes a problem or it is lost entirely.
What challenges did you face in the course of developing the technique?
The first challenge was getting the data set. But it was later provided by the university, as my supervisor had been working in this field for quite some time. Initially I wanted to get data from Nigeria to use for my study.
I wanted to establish a network in Nigeria with which I could continue to work at the end of my programme. But my efforts did not yield positive results because the machines are very few in Nigeria.
I had to understand the data in order to analyse it. This took so much time that it seemed like an unending process. But with persistence and endurance, I finally got it.
The process of developing the technique was a bit frustrating. A number of times, I came up with an idea, tested it and everything suddenly fell apart, thus defying my logic or perception. Those moments were what I would describe as the nightmare of most PhD scholars.
This is where my family has been really helpful. They have been there for me all the while. I leave home very early in the morning and come back late. But the little time I spent with them gave me comfort and the courage to continue. I do miss those moments. The kids were always playful and full of joy. Their presence made me to forget the challenges.
How have people reacted to your feat so far?
I would call it a blast. People feel it is a national achievement. Of course, they should because that’s what it is. I have seen a lot of comments from those who were clearly inspired by the development and I am really happy. For me, this is worth more than winning an award. I believe there are many Nigerians who have great minds and lots of potential. Unfortunately, due to challenges and lack of proper infrastructure or pathway to support them, a lot of talent goes down the drain. There are many other Nigerians who can do what I have done if given the adequate support.
Why did you choose to study computer science?
It is because I like logic and I like to solve problems. Just as I finished secondary school, Umaru Musa Yar’adua University was opened. It offered some courses and Computer Science was the most suitable for me. I left the university after some time to study abroad. My father saw a better opportunity for me to study a course that was not offered in Nigeria at the time. I chose Software Engineering, as it dealt with system analysis, design and implementation. I have a passion for solving problems, digging up the background and finding a solution that mitigates any challenges till I get to the top. This new algorithm wasn’t any different.
Nigeria needs people like you to lead her to technological advancement. Are you planning to return home and contribute to her development any time soon?
I am really keen and willing to give my best to my country. However, I can’t abandon opportunities for me to make an impact, just to come back home and put everything down the drain.
We have a group of TETFUND scholars here in the United Kingdom. They are talented scholars who are keen to contribute to success of our dear country Nigeria. However, the treatment that they receive from the administrators of the fund is not encouraging. Many of them don’t feel indebted to the fund or to the country because they are stranded and forced to depend on loans and menial jobs to pay their way through school.
I am young man with a small family, but the majority of Nigerian students are older people with big families. For such people, would it then be fair for them to abandon offers elsewhere, where they could improve their skills and also make enough to pay the debts they have been forced to accumulate?
Many face the decision of finding ways to complete their tuition or abandon the studies, after all the sacrifice they’ve made to pursue further education. I do not say this to target any individual or organisation, but it is a fact that we have to look into, if we really want the progress of our dear nation.