Since coming to Doha in 2007, Dr. Beena Ahmed has built herself up as an accomplished researcher, teacher and mentor. An assistant professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Program, her current research focus is on applying technology to solve different problems in the health arena. In particular, her work relates to stress, insomnia and speech disorders. Each of these areas have a common thread in that they are can be difficult or expensive to diagnose and treat. This is why Ahmed focuses on the use of smart phones and tablets together with machine learning algorithms and off-the-shelf sensors.
Stress is a major problem on college campuses and in the workforce. It can be managed using techniques such as yoga and meditation, but these take time to learn and practice, and are better for long-term management than in stressful moments. “They teach you how to relax, but they don’t teach you how to manage stress when you’re in a stressful situation,” Ahmed said. To do this, Ahmed and her team developed and tested a modified, tablet version of the game, Pac-Man, with the aim of teaching players how to better regulate their stress levels while performing a stimulating task. The game responds to stress measurements such as breathing rate, heart rate and skin conductivity, becoming more difficult when players are stressed and easier when they control their breathing and reduce their stress levels. Ahmed said students are a good group for testing because they are less likely to do something about stress and thus this game will help them develop good habits for the future.
Like stress, insomnia is another common ailment that can negatively affect health and the economy. Insomnia, however, can be difficult to diagnose. “If you start putting multiple wired sensors on people it makes it harder for them to fall asleep,” Ahmed said. Also, when they’re at a sleep clinic, people could sleep better or worse than they would at home. Ahmed and her team have developed a system that uses only one or two sensors wirelessly connected to a smart phone or tablet to send data to a remote server at the clinic where data analytics are performed to provide clinicians with important diagnostic information. Patients can be monitored while at home, reducing the need for expensive sleep clinic visits and allowing clinicians to carry out longer-term monitoring and treatment remotely.
Speech therapy, another area of research, is expensive and can often take years, so being able to use games on a mobile device as a therapy tool benefits patients and therapists alike. Ahmed and her team have developed speech controlled games similar to Flappy Bird that patients can use to practice their therapy exercises. Patients get immediate feedback from the game, which also records speech and sends it to a remote server. Ahmed developed machine learning algorithms hosted on the server that provide the speech and language pathologist with an evaluation of the patient’s performance, allowing them to monitor the patient more effectively.
As an educator, Ahmed teaches electrical engineering and engineering design courses. In her freshman engineering design course, Ahmed teaches new students hands-on design skills that they may have not been exposed to in high school. Ahmed developed the course and has been working with Qatari high schools to help teachers and students there develop the skills needed to make successful engineers. In her teaching role, Ahmed is a mentor for her students — especially undergraduate researchers. Her students have been involved with signal processing of the EEG (brain activity), investigating whether errors that children make in their speech could be identified using signal processing and developing an Arabic-language–learning app called Allemny (“teach me” in Arabic). Ahmed said undergraduate research helps students better understand engineering and the vital role engineers play in society. “I try to involve my undergrad students so that they can understand what the problems are in society and how we as engineers and academics can help them,” she said. “By giving them applied problems — for example, in sleep or speech analysis — they’re using engineering tools in an application that is completely non-engineering.”
The benefits to both students and faculty are numerous. Ahmed said she noticed an improvement in student researchers’ critical thinking and communication. Students who participate in research can look at a situation and identify a problem better, she said, even if they don’t have an immediate solution. And communicating their research process and results helps students learn how to structure and communicate their ideas better. “Most of the students who have participated in my research have gone on to graduate school because undergraduate research shows them what research is about and how to do it.”