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What happens when you use the power of machine learning to address previously unsolved medical questions? Meet the astonishing story of Nida Bilal, a Computer Science master’s graduate, who has made significant medical advances – despite having no medical training.

Making the decision to study computer science with the University of Liverpool Online

When Nida Bilal left her job at Procter and Gamble and the city of Toronto to start afresh in Qatar little did she know that she would soon embark on an important journey of discovery as an online student with the University of Liverpool.

She says: “I had the realisation that I could pursue an academic career, and the University of Liverpool’s online degree was a great opportunity – not just with the flexibility it offered, but the fact that it enabled me to develop my previous experience and get new knowledge in specialist areas such as machine learning.”

As well as providing the chance to build on her professional experience in data modelling and solution architecture, her programme soon began to have a real-world impact – and it was far greater than she could have ever imagined.

Applying big data analytics to cancer research

While Nida was pursuing her studies, her family life was enduring a difficult test. Twice in three years her younger sister battled against breast cancer, and both times she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) – a specific strain of breast cancer that has lower survival rates and higher recurrence risks.

“When she got it a second time, the doctors were unable to offer any explanation on why it had returned,” says Nida.

“I wanted to understand more about the pathology of the disease and see if I could get some answers for her. I decided to apply machine learning and the knowledge from this degree, and build a machine learning application.”

Using data from the National Centre for Biotechnology Information website, Nida conducted analysis and built algorithms that powered her application. Those algorithms helped her application to identify sub-types of TNBC, and predict recurrence based on certain genes.

Driving real-world results from big data solutions

Nida’s machine learning application has proven to be a significant success: it can predict recurrence risk with 91% accuracy and the root cause of the latest occurrence with 92% accuracy.

“I think I’ve found some answers,” she says. “I’ve been very excited because I’m actually able to predict recurrence. That’s the whole purpose behind the application. But not only does it do that, it also gives you a root cause for why you may have gotten the cancer.”

As a result of her research efforts, she was awarded a Microsoft Azure scholarship, giving her access to unlimited cloud storage for one year, as well as the tools to be able to build the application. It enabled her to mine high volume, diverse datasets. “I was lucky that I had the chance to work with a wonderful faculty at the University of Liverpool and with the amazing tools of the Microsoft Azure scholarship.”

Expanding Nida’s machine learning medical research

Nida’s story is certainly inspirational: by harnessing the untapped potential of applying big data analytics to medical science, she is breaking new ground. This journey of discovery will continue as she intends to pursue a PhD and conduct further research into metastatic triple-negative breast cancer, focusing particularly brain metastasis which is her sister’s current diagnosis. All of this has been made possible through the opportunities formed as a result of studying an MSc in Computer Science online with the University of Liverpool.

Nida firmly believes the next generation of students at Liverpool Online can achieve equally ambitious goals:

“Go with a project you’re motivated and passionate about, and maximise the resources given to you,” she says. “The faculty is helpful and supportive and the library is a wonderful resource. But more than anything else, be passionate about what you do.”

Could you become a leading figure in cutting-edge Big Data research? Harness the latest technology and make a real impact with an MSc in Big Data Analytics from the University of Liverpool Online.

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