School of Mathematics, Statistics & Computer Science

Dr Olubunmi Sule and her husband, James.

Research on Early Detection of Diabetic Retinopathy Abnormalities Earns PhD

Dr Olubunmi Sule graduated with a PhD in Computer Science from UKZN’s School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science.

Hailing from Nigeria, she chose UKZN for her PhD studies as the University ‘is well equipped with laboratories, provides training and innovative workshops that broaden perspectives, has a multi-cultural student body and most importantly is rated amongst the top universities according to Academic Rankings of World Universities.’

Her PhD was inspired by her desire to become an expert in her field and her passion for research. Sule said that this was an opportunity to focus on cutting-edge research that enhances the quality of life by linking artificial intelligence and medical analysis.

She described her PhD journey as ‘characterised by ups and downs, joy and sadness’, but added that she has come to acknowledge that God is a powerful game-changer. The hardest challenge she had to overcome on the verge of completing her PhD was the death of her mother.

Sule implemented a deep learning framework for retinal blood vessel segmentation to support early detection of diabetic retinopathy abnormalities. The framework resolved the visual complexities of retinal fundus images and the challenges of inaccurate diagnosis and delays in manual eye screening approaches to prevent premature vision impairment. The study found that the performance of the proposed deep learning framework compared favourably with other state-of-the-art methods.

‘Diabetic retinopathy is one of the leading causes of vision loss and blindness that affect people of working age,’ said Sule. Her research will enable early diagnosis of ophthalmological-related diseases and timely treatment.

Sule excelled in her studies, receiving first prize for an oral presentation at UKZN’s 2020 Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium; and an honourable mention for her poster presentation at the Deep Learning IndabaX International Conference, South Africa in 2019. She has published a number of articles and three articles are currently under review in reputable peer-reviewed journals.

Her supervisor Professor Absalom Ezugwu said: ‘Sule’s accomplishment speaks directly to the saying that hard work would beat talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’

‘Students should never give up on their dreams regardless of the odds but keep striving. Always remember that it is darkest before dawn,’ advised Sule.

She hopes that her research will positively impact society by reducing the global prevalence of premature vision-impairment that could have been prevented; easing the global financial burden arising from such problems like decreased productivity; alleviate the burden on patients, their family members and the health sector; and improve access to screening facilities by disadvantaged people and those residing in rural areas.

Sule is currently revising further journal manuscripts for submission. She plans to continue her research in this field. She thanked her siblings, husband James, supervisor and PhD colleagues for their support.

Words: Londeka Makhoba

Photograph: Kendra Battle