Meet one of Tanzania’s Youngest PhD Holders & Winner of UNESCO Women’s Awards

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Every year, the L’Oréal Foundation along with UNESCO short lists 20 out of more than 300 African women researchers for the academic excellence of their work. The women enter the Sub-Saharan Africa Young Talent Awards For Women in Science.

Coming from 16 countries, these 15 PhD students and 5 post-doctorates embody, through their backgrounds and research subjects, all the diversity and potential of tomorrow’s African science.

This year, Tanzania is on the short list with the youngest Laureate yet, meet 30 year old PhD holder, Neema Mbuma, winner of the 2020 Sub-Saharan Africa Young Talent Awards For Women in Science.

 

Please gives us a brief background of yourself. Where you were born, early schooling, family, hobbies.

 

Hello, my name is Neema Mduma, a lecturer at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) in Arusha, Tanzania. I hold a PhD in Information and Communication Sciences and Engineering.

I was born and grew up in Morogoro. My father is a pastor and my mother is a teacher. I started my primary education from 1996 to 2002 at Bungo Primary School in Morogoro. After completion of primary education, I was selected to join Kilakala Secondary School in Morogoro (special school for talented students) where I studied both Ordinary Level (2003 – 2006) and Advanced Level (2007 – 2009).

In 2009, I joined Tumaini University in Iringa where I studied BSc. in Information Technology. Later on, I joined NM-AIST for Masters and PhD in ICSE. My hobbies are travelling, cooking and baking, watching documentaries, playing puzzle games, reading and writing books, articles, and blogposts.

You are one of the L’Oréal Foundation 20 laureates, what does this award mean to you?

I feel honored to be among the 20 laureates of L’Oréal Foundation. This prestigious award means my contribution of using science and technology to improve education for students in secondary schools has been recognized. This award will also help to motivate and inspire other women in science to work hard towards achieving their goals on addressing challenges in their societies.

What inspired you to pursue the sciences and why Information and Communication Sciences and Engineering

From an early age I wanted to be an Engineer, this was due to the fact that I was good in Math thus my parents and teachers told me Engineering will suit me well. Later on, I realized the world is moving to digital economy where science and technology particularly computer science will be the main driver. For this reason, I switched to Computer Sciences.

By working in this field, I can use technology like Machine Learning (ML) to solve challenges in the society be it in Health, Education, Agriculture and so on.

You have chosen to develop an online learning platform, tell us a little about your Machine Learning idea

My research focuses on addressing student dropout in secondary schools in Tanzania using ML model. Using data on students’ academic progress, attendance and so on, I was able to develop the ML model and deploy a web-based application called “BakiShule” (Stay in school).

The platform will allow education stakeholders (teachers, parents etc.) to easily predict and identify students who are at risk of dropping out of school for early intervention.

What inspired this particular idea

ML enables a computer to learn from input data and give out predictions. This technology was incorporated due to its superiority in correctly predicting outcomes when properly trained. Since data on student academic progress are available, it was possible to train a model that will accurately predict student academic trend and early signs of dropping out.

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How does the Machine Learning apply to the medical/health field

 

In health sector, machine learning can be used to predict illness based on the symptoms, make quicker and more accurate diagnoses using image recognition from x-rays, MRI and so on. In short, I can say “AI is the future of healthcare” and its application will help to improve health of million people globally.

There is major debate about digitizing the medical process for fear of building reliance to pills and even misdiagnosis of symptoms i.e. A person with a headache could just need water and fresh air, yet a digital platform may suggest medication. How does your digital medical platform overcome this hurdle?

Currently, my digital platform (BakiShule) is focusing in education sector and not health. Generally, I can say machine learning models that are developed to address issues in medical fields are well trained to suggest accurate and best treatments based on the described symptoms.

You are the youngest laurate with a PhD, back at home in Tanzania, the high school dropout is very high, especially for girls, how will your innovation help them complete their education

My PhD research focused on addressing student dropout problem in secondary schools in Tanzania. This problem affects girls more than boys, due to factors such as early marriage, pregnancy etc. So, BakiShule will assist education stakeholders to easily predict and early identify students (particularly girls) who are showing signs of dropping out of school and intervene.

What support, if any, would you like to receive from the government and the private sector alike

For accurate prediction, ML models require tons of data. Therefore, the government and private sector should collect these data and make them publicly available for scientists like me to apply them in solving challenges in the society.

There are many unemployed graduates in Tanzania which has created a general feel that graduation does not equal financial security and as a result, motivation for attending and completing higher education is very low, please comment

Unemployment is among the challenges in most countries Tanzania included. To address this, skills that promotes self-employment example entrepreneurship should be taught from the grassroot level i.e. primary school to university level. Also, the government and private sector should facilitate self-employment by giving loans to graduates who wants to venture in business. Currently, we have seen an increased number of graduates who are doing well in entrepreneurship, and this should serve as a motivation to others.

Please share a word of advice to Tanzanian girls on completing their education, and more so on pursuing the sciences

My advice to girls who wish to pursue science is that they should work hard and believe in themselves. It is possible to be a girl and a scientist, and I, myself have set a good example.

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Giza Mdoe is an experienced journalist with 10 plus years. He's been a Creative Director on various brand awareness campaigns and a former Copy Editor for some of Tanzania's leading newspapers. He's a graduate with a BA in Journalism from the University of San Jose.

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