May 15, 2016

Nicholas Saulnier ’15, ’16, a master’s degree student and graduate research assistant in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering, always hoped he’d be able to solve problems and help people over the course of his career as an electrical engineer. To his surprise, that time came sooner than he expected.

An interdisciplinary research team – (from left) Eric G. Bing, Nicholas Saulnier, Dinesh Rajan and Prasanna Rangarajan – has developed a smart-phone based screening system for early cervical cancer detection that is being test in Zambia.

An interdisciplinary research team – (from left) Eric G. Bing, Nicholas Saulnier, Dinesh Rajan and Prasanna Rangarajan – has developed a smart phone-based screening system for early cervical cancer detection being tested in Zambia.

“I never thought I’d be able to make a difference while I was still a student,” says Saulnier, one of several SMU engineering students to help develop hardware and software to screen for cervical cancer with a smart phone. The technology, for use in remote regions of the globe where physicians are in short supply, is being tested in Zambia.

Department of Electrical Engineering Chair Dinesh Rajan, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Engineering, conceived of the research project in 2014 with Eric G. Bing, professor of global health in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences and the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, during a research meeting of the SMU Center for Global Health Impact, which Bing directs. Other project members include Prasanna Rangarajan, research assistant professor, and master’s student Soham Soneji.

“It’s meant to assist the person in the field, a nurse or other medical practitioner, to make better decisions,” Rajan says. “Cervical cancer is a curable cancer when detected early. But there’s a lack of experienced doctors in many countries, or people must travel far to reach a clinic to be examined.”

The smart phone technology leverages a well-known algorithm used in a wide variety of applications, Rajan says. The SMU engineers coupled the algorithm with hardware that improves performance of smart phone cameras for taking pictures in low light, where focus is difficult and impeded by scattering reflections from the speculum used in the cervical examination. The software compares the photo to pictures stored in a vast medical database. When a possible abnormality is detected, patients are referred to a clinic or specialist for further evaluation.

“Technology must and will be leveraged to improve healthcare for everyone and break the divide between the medical haves and have-nots — this is just among the early steps in that direction,” Rajan says.

Bing saw the need while a senior fellow and director of global health for the George W. Bush Institute, where he co-founded Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, a public-private partnership to combat cervical cancer in Africa.

“Through innovative and interdisciplinary research like that which is being conducted at SMU, our students and faculty can help save lives throughout the world,” Bing says.

– Margaret Allen