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Scientist blazes trail of excellence

4 Dec 2019

Joan Byamugisha

Story by Benedict Leteane

“For the first time in my life, I don’t have ambition; not that I don’t want a promotion.  I want to do my job. I feel settled. I feel calm, happy. I walk into the office, sit down at my PC and start working, happy and contented.”

These are the words of Joan Byamugisha, a computer scientist working in a team of researchers for international company, IBM. The University of Cape Town (UCT) PhD candidate is the first blind person to work for the company.

Byamugisha’s research is on Artificial Intelligence (AI), focusing on health care and African languages. Among her accomplishments is translating Android software to the Ugandan Runyakitara language in 2014.

She says her long term aim is to make African languages technologically relevant.

Byamugisha was born in Uganda 36 years ago. After completing high school, she she lost her sight as a result of damage to her optic nerves caused by leukemia.

“My family and I didn’t know what a blind person could do. We were just trying to cope with the situation,” she says.

Nevertheless, the loss of her sight did not deter Joan from following her dream. She knew that she did not want the Ugandan senior certificate of education to be her final level of education. She obtained a Bachelor of Science in economics and computer science from the of Uganda Martyrs University, and followed that with a Master of Science in software engineering from De Montfort University in the United Kingdom.

 

“I am a scientist. I love research,” says Byamugisha.

Her PhD supervisor at UCT, Dr Brian Derenzi, describes Byamugisha as a hardworking student, who arrives well prepared and asks relevant questions.

 

“Joan is a leader. Students come to her for feedback on their work,” Dr Derenzi said.

Byamugisha has won various local and international academic awards, such as Best Student Paper Award (5th Workshop on Controlled Natural Language, Aberdeen, Scotland, 2016) and 1st Prize for Reproducibility and Replicability of Results from Code and Datasets (CICLing 2016, Konya, Turkey).

Even though IBM, her current work space uses the latest AI software, which is sometimes inaccessible for her, Byamugisha says her colleagues are “very much accommodating and considerate”.

A colleague of hers, Maletsabisa Molapo, says, “She is the best. We love working with her.”

That is why Byamugisha is content. “For the first time in my life I am not chasing anything; if it makes sense,” she says. “I feel like ever since I lost my sight I have been trying to find a place where I can say, ‘I am okay now.’ It was oh! Get your undergraduate degree and get a job. I didn’t get a good enough job. Get a master’s, and right now, if I could get a PhD, I think I would have reached my equilibrium. I think I am at that place where I can say I am okay.”

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