Friday, April 15, 2011

DNA - A journey for their vision

A journey for their vision

Alefia Merchant, 32, a third-year medical student at the University of Montreal, Canada, has developed a novel method that will change the lives of many children in India.
Using a simple digital camera with flash, Merchant has improvised a cheap technique for diagnosing childhood blindness. In India, the lack of institutionalised process of screening children for blindness and absence of cost-efficient diagnostic tools have complicated things.
While working with Ashwin Mallipatna of Narayana Nethralaya in Bangalore, between September 2009 and June 2010, Merchant developed a method called photo-red protocol.
The idea is simple and based on the ‘red-eye effect’ that almost everyone has seen in photographs. But the specialised medical equipment for this test called direct ophthalmoscope is not widely available in India and the equipment requires experts to operate it.
For a perfect red-eye to happen, light entering the eye has to be reflected off the back of the eye — the retina. If all layers of the eye are not transparent, the nature of the red-eye would be different, indicating abnormalities that might need closer examination.
Merchant tells DNA she uses a simple digital camera to create a similar test and capture the red-eye in a photograph. In dark room, taken at a distance of 4 meters, a compact digital camera produces reliable red-eye consistently.

Is this your first idea that clicked?
This is the first time I am working with Ashwin Mallipatna, and this is the first idea of ours that clicked. It has been an excellent experience and I am looking forward to working again with his team at Narayana Nethralaya in Bangalore.
What are you currently working on?
We are currently working on a project called “Find the Blind” which is another initiative of Ashwin Mallipatna. The project will stitch together two or three creative and low-cost strategies and allow us to screen a community for childhood blindness in a rapid way —and helping us follow the progress of each child.
Would you work independently with funding or as part of a research institution?
Since our success in this project has been as a team, I think I would opt to working as a team and not independently. The innovation for which we have won this award has involved a lot of support from my team. I would not have been able to do this without all the creative minds involved.
Is innovation an end in itself or the means to become an entrepreneur?
One innovation has always inspired me to think about another. The end would be to try and work my ideas and to watch them implemented and to see the difference it has made in the long run.
Does India value and reward its innovators?
We have developed our innovation for India and we have got recognition for it in many ways—both nationally and internationally. We are happy with the support we have from our community in India.
Has your innovation made material difference to your standard of living?
We have invented a process that we hope will improve the standard of living of many blind children, by facilitating the detection of their plight. Our innovation is not something we can use for any personal gain, and certainly not directed towards our standard of living.
Who have been your biggest influences?
My biggest influences have been my mentors. They have taught me how to do good work and enjoying it.
What has been your biggest mistake?
My biggest mistake was not knowing where to stop. I get very involved in my work without realising that I have not paid enough attention to my own needs, like food and sleep. It sometimes pays off, like with this innovation.
If you could go back and change one thing about your life as an innovator, what would it be?
My time with our team has been excellent, and I would not look to change any of that.
Did you have a childhood dream?
I have always been a dreamer as a child. I agree with this beautiful quote from Ben Okri, a Nigerian author: “We plan our lives according to a dream that came to us in our childhood, and we find that life alters our plans. And yet, at the end, from a rare height, we also see that our dream was our fate. It’s just that providence had other ideas as to how we would get there. Destiny plans a different route, or turns the dream around, as if
it was a riddle, and fulfills the dream in ways we couldn’t have
Anything else that you would like to share?
I would like to thank my team at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and Narayana Nethralaya in Bangalore for giving me an opportunity to make this innovation possible. I would not have won this award if it was not for the support from the institute. We really hope this work goes forward to make a difference to the children it was targeted towards.

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