Hard work has never intimidated SFU alumna Maryam Sadeghi–especially not when there are lives at stake
Maryam Sadeghi seizes every opportunity to learn, manage and lead. While an undergraduate in her native Iran, she headed her student union, and at SFU Computing Science she was on the executive committee of her graduate students’ association. Energized by helping others, she enjoys mentoring youth who share her passion for science, especially girls and young women. And so it was only natural that in 2013 she jumped at the chance to lead the creation of SFU’s Digital Health Hub, a venture that leverages the university’s partnership with both Fraser Health and the City of Surrey to drive digital health solution development.
Shortly thereafter, she turned her efforts toward a more personal goal–to create a simple, affordable tool that would empower people to take control of their own skin health.
The idea came to Sadeghi in the university’s Medical Image Analysis lab where she was doing her PhD work in the emergent field of mathematical and computational representation of anatomy. She was also spending as much time as she could at both the BC Cancer Agency and the UBC Skin Care Centre to supplement her studies at the CIHR Skin Research Training Centre–she wanted to learn as much as possible about the visual symptoms of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, which often resembles or develops from pre-existing moles.
While working with scientists, doctors and their patients, she learned that skin cancer is the most common cancer. And, despite an early diagnoses being critical to saving lives, there was (and still is) a shortage of dermatologists in Canada. Sadeghi was determined to find a solution to this critical care gap. “I knew that I could do something,” she says.
Using her background in intelligent computer technologies, she wrote algorithms that could analyze dermoscopic images for indicators of skin cancer as well as determine when medical attention was needed. She also developed a fingerprint-like approach to detecting the telltale irregular streaks that signal a malignant lesion’s severity.
To commercialize her research into a smart device for skin cancer screening, she founded MetaOptima Technologies Inc., a feat which helped win her a spot in SFU’s Venture Connection student entrepreneurship program. Venture Connection offers business development services and one-on-one mentorship to grow fledgling businesses. Considering Sadeghi’s track record, the company naturally won a series of business development contests and in three years MetaOptima has attracted close to 20 equally passionate individuals to round out its team.
Soon thereafter, The MoleScope™ was launched. Comprised of the DermEngine™ medical imaging platform, plus a mobile app and a mini-microscope attachment for smartphones, the device was officially unveiled at the 2015 World Congress of Dermatology, and is now available as both a consumer ($149) and professional version ($249). It has received worldwide interest from both the public and by clinicians.
“It has been an exciting six months since the launch of MoleScope,” says Sadeghi. “It is amazing to see the results of our hard work in the hands of thousands of physicians and patients in over 20 countries. After endless hours of hard work, I know it’s paying off because of the praise we’ve receive from doctors and patients around the world.”
Luke, P., & Schaefer, G. (2015, Aug 09). Invented in B.C.; curiosity, dedication and collaboration have helped these innovators turn their concepts into reality. The Province. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.
Stueck, Wendy. "Dermatology Goes Digital with MoleScope." The Globe and Mail. Dec 27 2013. ProQuest. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.
Dr. Maryam Sadeghi moved to Canada from Iran in 2007 to study at SFU. In 2011, she took home the Gold award at the World Congress of Dermatology in Seoul for creating a computer program that uses images to detect signs of skin cancer. She was awarded the Silver Medal of ACM Student Research Competition from Microsoft Research for her research. Her research on skin cancer prevention and detection has also recently received the Innovation Challenge Award 2012 (honorable mention) from NSERC, and the CIPPRS Doctoral Dissertation award in 2012 (honorable mention) from the Canadian Image Processing and Pattern Recognition Society.
Q & A with Maryam Sadeghi
How would you sum up the value of university research in a word?
How is your research making an impact in our lives?
I was inspired to innovate an application for dermatology after working with the BC Cancer Agency for my PhD research. The assessments, monitoring, and recording of skin concerns remain mostly manual and inconsistent. The MoleScope device and application addresses the under-digitization of dermatology and modernizes the workflow of medical clinics. The innovation also helps patients communicate with a medical professional without needing to travel far for an appointment. In the near future, our diagnostic engine will also empower thousands of physicians globally to make better diagnoses and provide better care for their patients. Skin cancer in 98% curable if caught early.
SFU bills itself as "Canada's most engaged research university." How does your own work exemplify this spirit of engagement?
SFU is a top research university because of the resources and support it offers its students. I was very fortunate to be supervised by Dr. Stella Atkins, Dr. Tim Lee, Dr. David McLean and Dr. Harvey Lui. They inspired and encouraged me to pursue my passion for dermoscopy which I discovered while doing research for my thesis. After graduation, there were opportunities such as Venture Connection for researchers like me to transform their work into innovations and businesses. Because of my research experience and supervisors, I felt confident and determined to start my own business and take my innovation from our university labs to homes, hospitals, and villages.
Putting one’s research out into the world often requires a leap of courage. Where do you derive your courage from?
I derive my courage from my passion to make a difference, to help those in need, and to ultimately save lives. If you love what you do, and if you believe your work is meaningful, you won’t be afraid of the challenges you face while building a healthy business. It’s like a sport–full of excitement. No matter what the result is, every step is a success if you think you are on the right path to your dream and vision.
SFU has much to celebrate on its 50th anniversary. Looking ahead to our 100th anniversary in 2065, what do you think SFU will be most notable for?
For building the future 50 years ago and making a difference globally in people’s live. I can imagine a big wall at SFU covered with Thank You letters from people who have been touched by what we do everyday in our research labs–it's very rewarding just to think about it.