Bashir Isa Dodo is a Nigerian computer programmer and tech whizz whose exploits in technology to provide solutions across healthcare and human living has earned global recognition.
Bashir, a doctoral candidate at Brunel University London, has been awarded the Dean Prize for Impact and Innovation 2020. In addition, he has received the Vice Chancellor’s Prize for Doctoral Research.
Bashir’s research paper on a new method for identifying and diagnosing damage to the human retina was awarded the ‘Best Student Paper’ at the BIOIMAGING 2018 conference in Portugal (pictured below).
He lectures at the Nigerian university – Umaru Musa Yar’adua University (UMYU), Katsina.
Business Elites Africa had an insightful chat with this Nigerian innovator. Enjoy the read!
Q: At what point did know you wanted to go into computers/tech?
Right from secondary school, computers appeared terrific to me. I was fascinated by what they can do. By then all we learnt was Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel. I often would thought ‘you know what? Someone told the computer to do this amazing thing, what if I could instruct a computer to do things?’. I like challenges and breaking down complicated ideas.
As of that time, computers were kind of a mystery. When I started university in Nigeria, an uncle of mine was like a wizard to me. I would go to his house to fix my computer, programs installation, or learn a particular programming language. We will spend hours, as he tried figuring things out, as he hardly lets a challenge slide.
Later, I got admission to study computer science at Umaru Musa Yar’adua University (UMYU), Katsina. I started, and writing programs was exhilarating, we wrote straightforward programs, calculators and the likes. But at that time, we were very proud of what we can do – I can’t help but laugh when reminiscing some of those moments.
I was in my second year at UMYU, around 2008, when my father decided it will be a good idea to study abroad. I opted in for Software Engineering as I thought that would help me understand all about system development and the science behind it.
Q: What inspired your algorithm for diagnosing eye disease?
My inspiration came from a correlation I made between three things. Specifically, these are the severity of gradual unnoticed damages caused by the leading eye diseases; the obliviousness of people about these diseases; and the challenges faced by the ophthalmologist in early diagnosis of these diseases.
I read the world health organisation’s article on the most severe eye diseases. Taking glaucoma, for example, is a disease known for centuries nicknamed the name ‘silent thief of sight’ due to its gradual, unnoticed, and irreversible damage.
Later in my research, I came across a statement of the Nigerian Ophthalmological Society during the world glaucoma day 2016. Additionally, my second supervisor was in Nigeria around 1994 for glaucoma assessment. The figures were mind-blowing, and the awareness was mind-boggling. I thought to myself, why isn’t there much done? How can I improve this diagnostic process? I am not a medical doctor. Therefore, I looked into existing computer-aided diagnostic (CAD) methods for diagnosing the diseases and started thinking of ways to improve these methods.
Now, a bit of the technical side of the algorithm. I took inspiration for the algorithm development from the concept of ‘perceptual grouping’ in psychology. This concept simply highlighted how humans could group things based on similarity and difference. One of my favourite examples in explaining this concept goes as follows. Suppose one looks outside the window of an aeroplane. In that case, the person can identify the sea, land, forest etc. and their boundaries without any tracing on the boundaries. This categorisation is all based on similarity (colour, pattern, etc.) within a landmark and difference across various landmarks. We used this idea of continuity and discontinuity to develop an OCT algorithm that can identify where one layer of the retina transitions to the next layer. This is especially applicable to OCT because, at each layer boundary, there is a change from bright-dark or dark-bright. Additionally, the intensity (brightness level) within each layer are similar. We improve these changes, and this makes our method perform better.
Q: Before you achieved this feat, did you have failed attempts?
As the popular saying “if you haven’t failed yet, you haven’t tried anything new”, thus failed attempts were part and parcel of the journey. I have been trying for about two years before my first good result during my PhD research. Also, our paper got rejected in 2017, after several reviews and improvements with my supervisor, we submitted it to another conference. The same paper won the Best student paper award. Failures can be quite frustrating, but one must keep sight on the endpoint.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced, and how did you overcome it?
Funding was a major setback. But there are opportunities out there. If one is willing to take on a challenge, then one must be ready to go through some uncomfortable decisions and situations. Again, the saying goes “life begins where your comfort zone ends”. I spent a lot of time teaching at the university and a college within the university. To sustain my family and me, I had to work late nights for my research to cover the time spent working. The uncomfortable became comfortable, and I was used to such a busy schedule. I was on staff development, after all, so the jobs were learning places, where I could learn about transferrable skills and adapt them when I return. I reminded myself that I was on a staff development scholarship and could take advantage of the situation. It was somewhat a blessing in disguise, and I may not have learnt all the invaluable skills from the jobs if the funds were sufficient.
Reforms are being made on such scholarships, and others will hopefully not have to go through this. However, one must be prepared for the unexpected. I did not see that coming. Also, taking advantage of a situation is key to mitigating challenges and not drowning in sorrow.
Q: What’s your most favourite part of inspiring the next generation of scientists?
It fascinates me to think that the advice I am giving is one that is likely to succeed. Technology is yet to be fully exhausted and holds great potential. It comes naturally to inspire young learners to follow suit. It has a crucial element found to motivate learners, that is expected value of what they are learning.
The challenges we face are evolving, new things, both positive and negative, are being uncovered. If the next generation is not up to the task, the world would be an entirely different place as we know it. My most favourite part of inspiration is teaching. Help someone understand a complex concept in his own way. For example, enabling learners to understand computer is just like any other tool, it cannot do all the great stuff without the instruction of a human, and you can be that person (in the case of developers). A doctor, mechanic, the receptionist will understand a computer is there to improve efficiency and not replace them on the job. This understanding, I believe, is paramount to preparing and inspiring the next generation of scientist for the future.
Moreover, there is a lot of overwhelming information out there on both social and conventional media. We need to guide the next generation to be able to make decisions based on the guidance of some facts.
Q: What are some of your favourite books?
The holy Quran – Gives me an insight into the world of science, and hope to continue when I seem lost and unsure of what the future holds.
Algorithmics: the spirit of computing by David Harel: It helped simplified perspectives for me and was a major influencer on how I develop my algorithms.
Minds, Brains, and Computers: An Historical Introduction to the Foundations of Cognitive Science by Cummins, D. D.– Combines my world, how brains and computers interact. It helped me in further understanding how to break down complex problems into smaller ones.
Java programming for dummies: I teach java and sometimes like playing with programmes. I learn and also gain ideas on how to teach the java to others,
Enjoy your Life by Dr Muhammad ibn Abdur Rahman Al-‘Arifi: starting my PhD, I realised you need support and people. This book discusses how to network with people, making people enjoy your company while you enjoy theirs.
Q: You formerly lectured at Umaru Musa Yar’adua University, Katsina, Nigeria, when and why did you relocate abroad?
Yes, I was a lecturer at Umaru Musa Yar’adua University, Katsina. I am currently lecturing there as it is. I started lecturing at UMYU in December 2013 and opportune to secure a scholarship for a Doctorate Degree (PhD) on staff development from Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND). I was in the UK from 2015 to December 2019, where I studied at Brunel University London. I chose the UK as their education is one of the best globally. I wanted to learn from the best and challenge myself.
Q: What tech trend currently fascinates you?
That’s a tough one, and there are many exciting trends in technology. To be quite precise, I would say machine learning, appreciating how an algorithm or model learn patterns and provide valuable insights, that were inaccessible without these technologies. Machine learning is broad and encompasses a lot of the computer science fields, including data analytics, computer vision, Natural Language processing. Technology is in almost every sector. Healthcare, education, finance you name it. Machine learning has the capability of analysing previous records, finding a pattern and providing valuable insights that could take years to uncover. In today’s world, information is one of the most valuable assets. With machine learning algorithms, we can discover useful information tailored to decision making.
Taking the healthcare, for example, an artificial intelligence algorithm is at the forefront of precision medicine, where medications can be prescribed to individuals based on their personal health record.
Q: How do you define success?
Success is achieving something that goes beyond personal perspective or view. You might start it, but not be at the front of matters after that. For example, with teaching, I help students in understanding concepts, and I like to believe their imagination will go beyond mine. We see things differently, and if I can guide someone, that’s all that matters not controlling or constraining things to my opinion or view. In other words, it is achieving something that is complete and useful, which can be built upon.
Q: How do you see Africa’s tech space evolving in the years to come?
Africa tech space is catching up with the rest of the world, and we often arrive late to the party. However, it is better late than never. We are cautious, for good reasons, sometimes, on taking advantage of technology. For example, the Bank Verification Number (BVN) is now a good thing in place for security and money laundering regulation in Nigeria. If workplaces can adopt technology, it will be a great achievement, I believe. The Oil sector is arguably the most critical sector in Nigeria. Technology can facilitate processes while promoting transparency through open contracting. I have met a few individuals from the oil and gas industry in tech, who are looking for ways to improve the efficiency of services. Africa realises the importance of technology, and I think we are gradually getting there. Africa has a lot to offer, and the IT sector is improving exponentially with tech hubs and various start-ups. The governments are making funds available for start-ups, which serves as motivation.
In summary, Africa’s Tech space will witness exponential growth to become part of the significant players, globally. I have limited my response to the computer field, for that is what I know and follow best. It goes without saying other aspects of technology in Africa will witness similar growth. Additionally, computers will still be part of the technology utilised in organisations, no matter the sector.