Our guest today is a female Ugandan who has switched career paths from Biomedical Engineering to Data Science, because of her passion for Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Hi Samiiha! Thank you for joining us today. You have such a beautiful name!
Hi Winnie, thank you for inviting me here, and for the compliment. I am delighted to share my story.
Please walk us through your journey into the world of Data Science
My childhood was lively, full of adventure, and me wanting to know how things worked all the time. I would run around with the boys, participating in whichever activity they would participate in; but mostly I liked to take small gadgets and appliances apart to know what went on inside them.
As for the larger, more complex home appliances, I never missed installation time; I loved being present for such occasions. I would ask questions about where different pins and screws went and what would happen if they were mixed up or misplaced or even forgotten. My uncle was the type of mechanic who loved to explain things as he worked on them, even if he was just installing them in the house. This encouraged me to ask him more and more every time.
In school, I drifted towards courses and subjects that would keep me in this quest for more on the physics behind these gadgets I had taken apart or helped install. I took courses like mathematics, chemistry, physics; courses whose eventuality would see me flourish in an engineering role. My particular love for mathematics and physics led me to pursue an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering at Makerere University.
I had learned that Biomedical engineering was applying electrical engineering in the medical field. I also learned that Biomedical engineers in Uganda mostly helped in the fixing and commissioning of medical machinery. Some also were into the invention and production of these medical appliances and prosthetics.
In the beginning, it was as exciting as it was overwhelming. There were mostly Electrical Engineering courses and some courses from medical school, making the whole program quite bulky. However, I took a keen interest in the many computing course units that were covered in the program. We had courses like fundamentals of computer programming where we were introduced to various programming languages like C++ and Python. Later, there were modules like signal processing, intelligent systems, and pattern recognition which I fell in love with and excelled at quite easily.
While in school, I had two internships at two different hospitals, the last of them being the most enlightening one. This last internship was done at Ernest Cook Ultrasound and Research Education Institute (ECUREI) which was more like a privatized section of the Mengo Hospital and specialized in medical image services like MRI, X-Ray, CT scan, and Ultrasound scanning. After this internship, I realised there was a hefty gap in my knowledge of medical equipment, especially the ones that dealt with image processing.
I also learned that there was this major issue of patients having to wait for weeks to receive their test results after, say, an Ultrasound or X-Ray had been done. The only radiologist at the time took me through how the hospital was grossly under-equipped and understaffed in that department. Thankfully, the next semester saw me take a course in intelligent systems where we were introduced to computer vision, artificial intelligence (AI), and the use of computers in automated diagnostics.
I was enthused by all this great stuff going on in class and vowed to go further in this exciting area, to better my skills in computer programming; Java, Python, etc. This passion landed me in the Artificial Intelligence Research Lab of Makerere University from January 2018 to August 2019.
At the lab, I was introduced to the use of AI and Machine Learning in crop science. I saw them working on a mobile application to help farmers get an accurate diagnosis of crops just by taking pictures of the leaves of the plant. The mobile application would work in two ways; first, it would determine whether or not a crop was diseased. If indeed it had a disease, the application would go on and predict the particular disease.
In August of 2019, I had to say goodbye to the lab in Makerere to begin my master’s in Computer and Systems Sciences at Stockholm University in Sweden. While in Sweden, I applied to be part of Afrika Kommt. This is a program that brings together leaders and professionals from different parts of Africa to benefit from the many partner companies under the program. These companies, mostly based in Germany, provide internship opportunities to help participants broaden their scope in a particular field.
They [companies] in turn get brilliant, energetic, and enthusiastic young professionals who are committed to advancement and innovation in their chosen field. Currently, I am in Germany waiting to be deployed to my chosen place of internship. After I have done three months of German language studies as well as International Management Training programs, I will be joining the IT department of Boehringer Ingelheim (BI), an international research-driven pharmaceutical company.
This is a perfect fit for my background in Biomedical Engineering and Computer Science. I plan to help Biomedical Engineers back home see the need to add to their knowledge and experience in hardware, software skills like computer programming.
I would very much like to go back and assist the Biomedical engineers back home in acquiring essential skills in computer programming. At the moment, I am very excited about this idea as I have the needed skills to carry out this dream. I plan to work on this project with BI which would help detect Burkitt Lymphoma, a certain cancer of the jaws which is affecting children in Uganda.
Tell us about some challenges you have faced
I have had several challenges along the way; the one I always like to talk about is the one that involves female stereotyping; “you are a girl…, what are you doing here…?”
I remember the first time I went for an internship, this guy looked at me and started the typical ‘you-are-a-girl’ song. Sounding concerned and puzzled at the same time, he goes like “you are a girl doing biomedical engineering, you realise the medical equipment is heavy, and carrying it would be strenuous and challenging for a little girl like you”. He didn’t stop there, this time in a more whining manner he continues with “this isn’t the kind of life a girl should be living, are you sure you want to stay in the workshop and do all this work?” sighs!
So many times I have had to prove myself that, true I am a girl and a small one at that, but given the chance, I can do more, maybe more than most of the men. Sadly, I have presented at conferences where I got stereotypical looks that screamed “she’s a girl, what can she tell us that we don’t already know?” Then halfway through the presentation, the looks become more of bewilderment, like “whaaat, how does she know all that?”
I have had stereotypical remarks made to me, some in the form of jokes, some, more assertive and hurtful but I have been able to hurdle them all. I remember during my masters, this male classmate from Cameroon blatantly asked if I was a member of the class in a way that was more of a mission to undermine than ascertain.
He was not the only one who had expressed such levels of shock upon seeing me! One of my thesis advisors had to go on and on about how my chosen topic in computer vision and image processing was a complex one and how unsure he was about whether I could complete it in six months. Well, needless to say, he received the shock of his life when I completed it in less time; in fact, I was the first to complete it, and it was a good job done too! LoL.
Also, an African in Europe is, more often than not, scrutinized through a racial lens. They are always wondering if you are competent enough! If indeed they made the right choice by bringing you over because of your skin colour! And in my case, because of my gender too.
There is also this major challenge linked to the whole work-life balance aspect of this journey. For example, I always have people back at home wondering if I would be able to bring home a man, settle down and start a family of my own. I am always taking up internships and different fellowships! Now that I have announced my decision to begin a Ph.D., they are like “what, when are you going to give birth?”
What inspires you to overcome these challenges?
For me, I would say what has kept me going in this field is my passion. I left the biomedical field to start all over in a field that many people felt was difficult. The passion kept me going all the time, even when people said “this field is hard, there is a lot of math and coding”, I kept going.
I know what I want, I love what I’m doing and I always set goals to guide me. One of my major career goals is to use technology to solve social problems that affect the community. I am always working passionately to achieve my goals, I will keep going until I have achieved this feat.
Let’s talk about your achievements and moments of celebration
Being here in Germany as a member of the Afrika Kommt program makes me very proud. The program selects forty-four (44) people out of about three thousand applicants from the continent. From Uganda, I was chosen as one of the only three selected to represent the nation in Germany.
Secondly, I received a SIDA Bilateral scholarship to pursue my master’s in Sweden. While in Sweden, I won several grants on different occasions to attend 6 conferences to present my research papers on AI in Canada; going there a total of 2 times.
I have also had the opportunity to be at the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS) twice. This is the largest gathering of AI experts, academics, and enthusiasts in the entire world!
I am part of the founding members and organizers of the Deep Learning Indaba X Uganda, an annual locally-organized conference that aims to build capacity in Machine Learning across the Ugandan community. This event brings together students, researchers as well as industry experts who are passionate about the AI field and its growth.
My last achievement, which is in its final stages but not ready yet, would be this project I am working on with my master’s thesis supervisor where we want to use a technique known as knowledge distillation to compress large deep learning models that Google and Facebook are developing to help us address and tackle societal problems.
In image processing, this technique can be used to compress these models to fit on mobile phones. Farmers can then easily run diagnostics of their crops with their phones. It would be arduous and even practically impossible to carry laptops to the farms from time to time. Fortunately, prior tests in the lab have shown that there is a lot of promise for this project. I can’t wait to make it accessible to these farmers.
Who are you outside work?
So outside of work, I am a lively, outgoing person, I love God and I love people. I love going out and traveling, a lot! That is one thing I never get tired of doing. You will always find me making plans to travel to someplace. Also, I love to cook, read, research; I am always checking my phone for the latest trend. I do not like to be caught unaware of something new.
What is your favorite quote?
“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall” ~ Nelson Mandela.
Lastly, how would you encourage a young girl in STEM?
It’s not going to be easy; it doesn’t get any easier but what I can tell you is that in life there’s truly nothing easy. You have to know what you want and go for it. If you are passionate about something, aim at it and you will get it. Don’t lose focus; always keep your eyes on the prize.
Impostor syndrome is real! But, talking to people who have achieved a lot in life helps me overcome it. If a field is dominated by men, be the pioneering women. Don’t fear. If you want something, give it a try, otherwise, you will never know how it feels like to have it.
Girls need to be present at that STEM table. We need to make men see and hear us. Lastly, always talk to God. Pray about everything and it will be okay.
Thank you for sharing your story, Samiiha! It is wonderful to have people like you sharing their experiences with the world. We look forward to reading more about your work in AI.