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Coding towards improved healthcare

by Josh Williams, STEM Ambassador and PhD Researcher at Heriot-Watt University

In most engineering subjects, I have found that many are reluctant to learn to code. Many people may not be interested in common applications of coding e.g. app development, but could be interested by coding in other industries. During school and university, I did not see why I would need coding for a future in science and engineering. I think there needs to be more examples of innovative applications of coding that can spark interest from students.

I am researching coding computer models of the lungs at Heriot-Watt University. My aim is to use my engineering background to develop computational tools that improve inhalers for patients with diseases like asthma - something I definitely did not know a mechanical engineer could do before I started. To do this I have to solve three problems. The first problem is, when given a medical image like an X-ray, how do we tell the computer which part of the image is the lungs without manually labelling it? The second problem is, once we know what the patient’s lungs and airways look like, how do we predict where the drug from the inhaler will go to? This all needs to be done automatically and fast enough that a clinician can use it within a consultation.

Once we solve these problems, we can use our code to predict how a patient would react to different drugs, and help the clinician choose the correct inhaler. We could also use the same code to give patients feedback on how they use their inhaler, to ensure all of the drug reaches the lungs. To achieve this we need to code new ways of making our predictions faster and more accurate.

I really enjoy this research as I get to work on new and innovative technology, while creating something that could improve peoples’ lives.


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