Saving lives with smartphones

Saloni Parikh took her passion for global health and her knack for computer science halfway across the world, playing a key role in HIV-fighting research.

Be a world of good

A poverty-stricken city on the murky shore of Lake Victoria, Kisumu is the third-largest city in Kenya. It also sits in the heart of a region with an alarmingly high HIV-infection rate: More than 18 percent of Kisumu County residents have the life-threatening virus, many of them unaware.

The maternal care clinic at Kisumu District Hospital opens for another day of serving the community.

The maternal care clinic at Kisumu District Hospital opens for another day of serving the community.

It was here that Saloni Parikh, now a UW senior double majoring in computer science and public health, spent three weeks in the summer of 2013 as part of a research study aimed at curbing the disease’s transmission. Called HOPE (Home-based Partner Education and Testing), the ongoing UW study measures the benefits of in-home HIV testing, counseling and follow-ups for pregnant mothers and their partners. To succeed, though, the study needed data, mobile devices to collect it and training — and this is where Saloni came in.

For months, Saloni had been working in a UW computer science lab — called Information and Communication Technologies and Development, or ICTD — that focuses on using technology to help underserved, low-income populations across the world. As a programmer for the HOPE study, she regularly met with researchers from the Department of Global Health to determine their needs, and then used her technical know-how to program data-collection software into Android devices for field use.

Soon, she was putting her work to the test. She flew to Kisumu to train a data manager and a small team of nurses and community health workers. “It was a lot of pressure,” she says, “but they were so excited about learning this technology, which made things easier.” For weeks, the team met in a clinic just down the road from Kisumu District Hospital. Though many of them had never held smartphones before, Saloni quickly taught the enthusiastic team how to use them to collect data during in-home screenings and follow-ups, then to submit the data to a server.

Once the health workers began collecting patient information digitally — rather than the time-consuming and error-prone process of recording it on paper — researchers were able to get results and make adjustments to the study much more quickly. “Seeing the direct impact of applying computer science to HIV testing and counseling projects was really exciting,” Saloni says.

The HOPE team gathers with Saloni Parikh on her last day in Kisumu.

The HOPE team gathers with Saloni Parikh on her last day in Kisumu.

Today, nearly two years since she traveled to Kenya, Saloni is still involved in the HOPE study, which is still collecting data. She communicates via Skype with a research team in Kenya several days a week, and she is working as a programmer for several other projects with the Department of Global Health’s Kenya Research Program. Along the way, she’s become part of a diverse community of students, researchers and professors from many different departments, all of them committed to using technology to change lives.

Armed with a robust skillset that is very much in demand — and life-changing work experiences to boot — Saloni will continue using her programming skills when she graduates in June. She’s already lined up a job as a developer for DF/Net Research in Seattle, where she will focus on mobile data collection for research projects in low-resource settings.

“With data collection, I’ve found my thing,” she says. “Seeing the potential to apply these computer science methods to projects in global health has been really exciting for me.”

Fast facts: HOPE

Dr. Carey Farquhar

Dr. Carey Farquhar

The HOPE (Home-based Partner Education and Testing) study is a project of Dr. Carey Farquhar, a UW professor of medicine, epidemiology and global health. An ongoing clinical trial in Kenya with 600 women enrolled, it measures:

  • The impact of home-based HIV testing and counseling for pregnant women and their partners during and after pregnancy
  • The effect of partner education on lowering HIV transmission
  • Additional critical maternal and infant health outcomes
  • The cost-effectiveness of traveling to people’s homes to perform HIV testing and counseling

Though the study is not yet completed, women and male partners enrolled in the HOPE study have been very accepting of home-based education and testing. Researchers have also identified a number of HIV-positive individuals who were unaware of their status — a crucial step in stopping the spread of the disease.


Beyond the lab: Natya

Despite Saloni’s busy schedule, she still finds time — 10 to 18 hours a week, in fact — to dance. She’s been a member of the UW’s student-run Indian classical dance team, Natya, since she was a freshman, but she’s been studying the art since she was 7. “I didn’t want to stop when I went to college, so that was the main reason I decided to go to the UW,” she says. “There are so many things to do here in addition to academics — you can keep doing what you love to do.”

Natya dance team

UW’s student-run Indian classical dance team, Natya.

Past performances have featured inspired incorporations of pop and rock music, a serpentine journey through different religions and a dedication to one of the most notable figures in the world of Indian classical dance. Head to Natya’s YouTube channel to see more.