Most people know Watson and Crick as an easy point in many a pub quiz. They’re the two old scientist fellows who discovered the helical nature of DNA. But for Megan Russell these intellectual mavericks were childhood heroes. Had she not known all her life she wanted to be a scientist, the handwritten letter from James Watson in her matric year wishing her well at university would certainly have convinced her.
Russell studied electrical engineering, followed by an MSc in biomedical engineering, at the University of Cape Town. In 2007 she moved her studies to Wits University, and last year completed her PhD, specialising in biomedical engineering.
That was more than an academic milestone for laryngectomy patients. Russell’s doctoral research led to the development of an artificial larynx — or voice box — that literally aims to give these people their voices back. Computing what the user intends to say by analysing the way in which the tongue makes contact with the palate, the device generates prerecorded words designed to sound just like the patient’s original voice.
That was Russell’s first powerful taste of what inspires her most in her niche: “Using exciting cutting-edge technology to radically improve people’s lives”.
Russell now lectures in electrical engineering at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) while furthering work on her now-patented larynx technology. She was also a finalist in last year’s UJ/Group 5 Excellent Women in Engineering and Technology competition.
The next ailment on Russell’s hit list is tuberculosis. X-rays have long been available to diagnose the lung disease, but that requires the time of a skilled technician. “The system we’re developing,” explains Russell, “uses image-processing algorithms to attempt to distinguish X-rays of a patient with TB.” Russell recently presented the project’s latest findings at an international congress in Beijing.
— Ian Macleod