Rokhaya Diagne is a computer science major who lives in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. She is behind a health startup that seeks to use artificial intelligence to help the world eradicate malaria by 2030.
Her current project was born out of her passion for video games. Growing up, she would sneak into her brother’s room and spend long hours playing online computer games.
“My mom said, ‘This is an addiction,’” the 25-year-old told the New York Times. “She said if I didn’t stop, she would send me to the hospital to see a psychiatrist.”
According to Diagne, her mother’s intervention helped her to redirect her passion into something more productive and purposeful. The result is her project to use AI to combat malaria, which kills millions worldwide. The focus of her project was also influenced by a range of childhood illnesses that landed her in Dakar hospitals.
Before her current project, she helped to create an award-winning networking app to meet others with similar interests — like Tinder but for tech nerds, according to the Times. Also, she co-founded a start-up called Afyasense for her disease-detection projects using A.I.
“She is someone with whom talking is a pleasure due to the quality of the questions she asks and also the answers she gives,” said Ismaïla Seck, a leader in Senegal’s growing A.I. community.
For Diagne, malaria is already winning her laurels. According to the Times, she recently got an award at an AI conference in Ghana and a national award in Senegal for social entrepreneurship. What is more, she secured $8,000 in funding.
Before studying computer science, Diagne enrolled at the École Supérieure Polytechnique de Dakar as a biology major. After an internship at the Principal Hospital of Dakar where she was reviewing lab samples, she realized that it wasn’t the kind of work for her.
“I wanted way more challenges than fearing the bacteria in my body,” she said. “What I wanted was innovation and being able to create and use my brain for something instead of predictive results that I just followed.”
This led her to drop out of school and spend the next year planning her next steps. She mulled studying bioinformatics. It was during the same time that the Dakar American University of Science and Technology opened and offered a major in computer science. She eventually decided computer science would provide a solid foundation for future studies in bioinformatics.
Her journey towards designing a system to identify malaria cases has not been easy. According to her, she struggled to get a lab in Senegal that would give her a large set of malaria-infected cells that she could train A.I. to read.
However, her school helped her to find a lab that gave her a cell data set that she fed into a deep learning tool, training it to spot positive cases.