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AI in Healthcare with Saima Ali

Updated: Mar 19, 2021


Saima Ali is an aspiring roboticist and a graduate student at the University of Toronto. She is passionate about research in AI to develop tools for healthcare providers driving more accurate diagnosis and more effective treatments. She is also passionate about teaching and mentoring. This interview is brought to you by the outreach lead, Molly Lu.

BioTEC: What motivated you to pursue the robotics engineering program?

Saima: My undergraduate research experience in a hospital research setting is what led me to robotics engineering. In a clinical setting, healthcare providers make decisions such as diagnoses and courses of treatment based on the prior experience they have amassed. I was motivated by the idea that we can build a collection of a large body of experiences in the form of a dataset. By modeling, for example, the outcomes of certain treatments based on patient symptoms, this dataset can enable clinicians to make decisions more quickly and with higher rates of success. I felt that robotics engineering would equip me with the knowledge I would need for me to build such tools, prompting me to frame my course of study as the intersection of robotics (including AI) and healthcare. This is what led me to choose to major in the robotics engineering option within Engineering Science.

BioTEC: What do you enjoy most in your learning journey, what are some of the highlights?

Saima: Currently, what I enjoy most might not be directly related to robotics engineering. The new and exciting parts of my academic journey right now are the teaching opportunities. This recent academic year, I had the opportunity to teach first-year undergraduate Engineering Science students programming. This gave me a platform to introduce students to concepts I am passionate about in relation to computing concepts, hoping to engage students who might not necessarily like programming but would enjoy the application of it to their field of interest. For example, I worked with teaching assistants (shoutout to Cindy Bui!) to design an assignment on identifying DNA mutations. In response to this assignment, I received an email from a student thanking me, as they were highly interested in biomedical engineering and did not see their interests reflected in any other courses that year. That was a really positive experience, and I genuinely enjoyed being able to give students opportunities to explore their interests through the course material.

BioTEC: What would you say is a major challenge for you in the program?

Saima: Quite recently, I have become increasingly cognizant of the gender imbalance in my field. Throughout my career, I have had overall positive experiences with my male peers and supervisors. Along the way, however, there were scattered moments when I would walk into a classroom and realize that I was surrounded by male peers, which made me start to wonder how I fit in and who I could look up to.

It is hard to confidently see your future self in a certain position when you don’t see any representation among your peers or professors. I am grateful that I found strong female professors to look up to - seeing female figures in a male-dominated space is really reassuring.

BioTEC: Carrying on with the topic of role model, could you share any motivational figures you had for your undergrad and master career?

Saima: Two of my motivational figures are Dr. Angela Schoellig and Deborah Raji. I met Dr. Schoellig in the Girl’s Leadership in Engineering Experience event hosted by UofT for incoming undergraduate students. I was fascinated by her work with quadcopters, and her presence really cemented the feeling that I could indeed pursue engineering. It was phenomenal when I got to attend her class in my third year - it felt almost surreal. I admire her for her confidence, immense intelligence, and contributions to research in the field of robotics. Deborah Raji is a good friend of mine who works on dissipating racial biases in artificial intelligence. Her perseverance towards a cause that is important to her is immensely inspiring. Her passion always motivates me.

BioTEC: Could you share with us some of your research experiences? What areas are you interested in?

Saima: I did two undergraduate research internships at Rehabilitation Engineering Laboratory, both times funded by NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award. I did a fourth-year thesis, and am currently doing my master’s degree in the same lab.

Broadly, I am interested in neural engineering. It is fascinating to see how resilient the human body is, and how our collective body of scientific knowledge about the human body evolves over time, revealing intricacies we did not know about previously. When I was a child, what was accepted in the scientific community was that neurons do not regenerate - once they are gone, they are never coming back. Presently, it has been identified that the human body can in fact regenerate neurons - and furthermore, the literature outlines that neuronal mass is not the only defining factor. The connections and interactions between neurons are equally, if not even more, important. The more I learn, the more I am fascinated by how complex and synergistic the system is. On a personal level, I am interested in contributing to the development or improvement of technology to make our diagnoses more accurate, and our treatments more effective

BioTEC: How do you see your research that could benefit the population? And why is it important to collaborate with clinicians in the project?

Saima: That directly ties into my master’s thesis project. I am completing a hardware design for a brain implant that can transmit neural data wirelessly. Currently, in a clinical setting, the data is transmitted via a tethered (wired) connection. Clinicians use this kind of data to diagnose neural disorders such as epilepsy. This data could also be used to control neural-prosthetics; i.e. assistive or rehabilitative limbs or devices that can be controlled directly by your brain’s neural signals. However, we are still very far away from integrating such devices seamlessly with the nervous system, and my master’s work tries to bring us one step closer to this.

With regard to the importance of working with clinicians, as engineers, we tend to take a “black box” approach. Sometimes we sacrifice understanding the mechanisms, in order to focus on finding the input-output relationship of our system. This allows us to extrapolate useful information from the collected data. However, clinicians have a strong foundation in the current literature regarding mechanisms that govern this data and established best-practices for treatments. This, in turn, can inform our approaches - such as by determining what assumptions we can and can not make on the “black box” system.

Overall, biomedical engineering is highly collaborative and draws heavily from the expertise of individuals across many disciplines. The quantitative and qualitative approaches to the problem are symbiotic.

BioTEC: What are some of the future developments you see in AI and robotic engineering?

Saima: I don’t consider myself an expert in the field, but it is evident that the field is rapidly changing. We see innovations such as Neuralink proposed by Elon Musk - which prompt people to have this fear that technology is going to read and consequently control, our minds. If we take a step back and look at the current state of research, the capabilities of neural interfaces are quite limited and are only as good as the data we train them on. The state-of-the-art technology is impressive at figuring out patterns that control behavior like motor control of moving an arm, but even this takes a significant amount of data, time, and computing power.

However, I don’t want to undermine how fast technology can develop and the capabilities it has. Looking at my field of work, it has become clear that a data set of collective knowledge can be extremely beneficial for diagnosis, as there is only so much a single person can absorb, and the hard-copy textbooks we study today might be outdated tomorrow as the literature evolves. I see the role of AI as assisting clinicians - we still need people to talk to the patients, to humanize care. We still need people to critically analyze situations in real-time, and make judgment calls onsite. I think it is important that we figure out and properly communicate where our technology fits in, to avoid breeding hysteria where it appears that technology is “taking over”.

BioTEC: What would be some of the advice you’d give to undergraduate students? And especially during COVID-19 lockdown what tips do you have for students to learn more about the field of biomedical engineering?

Saima: The first piece of advice I would give is don’t be afraid to fail. It applies to both research and coursework. In research, we go through many iterations of trial and error. Even when the experiment doesn’t work out as planned, it is important to accept that negative results - results contrary to what you initially expected - are still results, and are still important to the scientific community. For studying, failure is a part of the process. If you fail an assessment or even a course, that’s okay - but you do have to learn from the experience and figure out how to improve for next time.

The second piece of advice for students: asking for help is okay. Reach out to your peers, mentors, professors, or teaching assistants. We are here to support you, and if you reach out you will find someone who resonates with you.

For studying remotely, I think it is crucial to have something to motivate you and help you relax at the end of the day, such as a hobby, a pastime, or even some projects you really enjoy working on. I know this is not directly related to school or academics, but having an outlet to release the stress is just as important. I think right now a lot of us are trying too much to be productive at the moment, we need to be aware of how much of a toll it takes on our wellbeing.

On a daily basis it might look like setting goals for yourself and assessing if they are completed at the end of the day; if the goals are not completed, ask yourself: are you overloading yourself? are your expectations realistic?

Inspired by Saima? Reach out to her here


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