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Seeing Possibilities Everywhere: A Journey Into a Career in Technology Development

Today we are introducing you to Dr. Mercy Asiedu.

Dr. Mercy Asiedu

Dr. Mercy Asiedu, graduated from our center in 2019 with her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering, where she worked on developing the Callascope and Pocket Colposcope technologies. Mercy is currently a postdoc at MIT computer science and artificial intelligence lab. She is working on using machine learning for mammography assessment.

My interest in developing technology for health started in undergrad. I came from Ghana where our medical technology could use some improvement, so majoring in Biomedical Engineering seemed like the perfect way to do this.

The first time I really got to utilize technology to make an impact in developing countries was once I started for the Center of Global Women’s Health Technologies. I wanted to work in medical technologies that democratized care…I started working on a device for cervical cancer screening & testing it, prototyping it and working on algorithms to classify images that were taken with the device.

Dr. Mercy Asiedu looking at an image of a cervix that was taken with the use of the Callascope.

I got to go to Peru to talk with potential stakeholders about how they would use the device in their settings and about improvements that could be made based on what their needs were. I also started working on a speculum free version of the pocket colposcope that could be used by women themselves.

I wanted to use a human-centered design process that would best address the problem of self-screening and removing the fear of pain that is associated with women’s exams- because of the fear of speculums.

I have realized that there were some limitations to machine learning and decided that a post-doc in computer science lab would be a great way to fill in the gaps that I had and to learn from people who do machine learning as their career.

When we took the Pocket colposcope to Peru, we hoped that the Pocket could be used in the mobile health truck. We had to talk with the community workers and find out what they needed from a device. We learned that they wanted something that is easy to use, is small enough to keep in a mobile truck without occupying a larger amount of space. In terms of the Callascope and putting women’s health in the hands of women or even removing the speculum barrier for provider based screening… when we showed the pocket to some of the midwives they were immediately asking, “Do you need to use a speculum? Can a woman do this herself?” And I was able to tell them how we have another device, that we are working on to eliminate the speculum and were able to ask them for their thoughts on it. They were very interested and it helps to remove some of the feelings of vulnerability and barriers by removing the speculum.

Dr. Mercy Asiedu demonstrating the Callascope during field work for Callascope clinical studies in Ghana

People feel vulnerable already coming to a community health truck and then they have to lay down and open up their legs to this person that they didn’t know until a few minutes ago. We tried to hear the voices of the women and potential people who would be using the Callascope. We have interviewed people in the early stages to find out what they thought about the shape of the device. Once we got to the later stages we began collecting feedback on their experiences, on the pain levels, on the ease of use. This was really important for us to optimize and make sure that we were on the right path.

Before coming to the USA for college, I thought about engineering as something that was very masculine. I was quite surprised when I came to college and saw how accessible biomedical engineering was. But I was pretty lucky that my bio-medical class year at the University of Rochester was pretty much half and half, men and women. There were not really any barriers, at least from my perspective as a female. At Duke, we have quite a high representation of females in our lab and this was encouraging. So I never really felt that being a female held me back.

In several ways, I had people who might not have realized that I was a grad student in biomedical engineering. I would feel imposter syndromes that they might not trust my capabilities.

My post-doc story is quite different, I am the only female post-doc in my lab. My fellow male post-docs have been very helpful with this. I have been able to reach out and have a supportive group. I do not look like the traditional computer science stereotypical person. I am proud to be in this area.

There have been some trying times. I also am coming in from a different background with biomedical engineering and coming into machine learning engineering so it has been a steep learning curve but I have definitely learned a lot.

My box of what is possible has gotten larger, I see possibilities everywhere of how things can be improved. But I have also realized that it is definitely not easy.

It took me over a year to get approval for the research that I did in Ghana and even afterwards there were still a few challenges. This experience has prepared me to understand that and to hopefully progress further in the future.

I am determined to work on projects in these areas and determination goes a long way.

This is not the easiest task all the time, but I am driven and that helps a lot.

I have a lot more respect for people who are working on technology development and bridging gaps and people who are working in public and global health.

Dr. Mercy Asiedu at TED MED where she gave a presentation on the Callascope.



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