She’s using digital technology to improve the health and wellbeing of Australians. Her work in data science is facilitating research on neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Rosita has always had a head for numbers. But it’s not data that inspires her work: it’s the people behind it.
A soft spot for brains
Rosita didn’t expect to find herself studying brain disorders and collaborating with neuroscientists.
After completing a diploma in maths and a bachelor’s degree in engineering, she studied a master’s degree in electrical engineering. Her minor was bioelectronics, so her supervisor suggested she engage in a study of the brain. It involved looking at brain MRI scans.
"As an engineer and someone with a background in maths, I was a bit scared of the inside the human body at that stage. I convinced myself that what was on the scans was just a shape; I was studying the shape of a ‘thing’ that just happened to be inside the brain," Rosita says.
Yet, she found herself leaning into the human aspect of her work. "I found that I enjoyed studies of the brain. I have a curious mind, and there are a lot of mysteries about the brain and human beings," she says.
Neurodegenerative disorders are one area where there is still much to learn. After her PhD, which focussed on foetal brain development, Rosita studied Huntington’s disease and Friedrich’s ataxia, two rare neurodegenerative disorders.
"I was, and still am, motivated by wanting to create change and make people’s lives better," she says.
A passion for people
As Rosita discovered, a career in science is rewarding. But it is not without its challenges. "Sometimes, when things are hard, you can’t help but wonder, are we actually making a change in the world?" she says.
But spending time with people impacted by neurodegenerative disorders helps to dispel her doubts.
"Interacting with patients and seeing how grateful they are, how hopeful they are that science will make a change in their life, reminds me why we do what we do," Rosita says.
Changes in Rosita’s personal life have also brought new meaning to her work.
"I lost both of my parents last year. Before this, I never truly understood what it was like to lose a loved one. Now I understand why the patients and their caregivers are so grateful for the work that we do. To lose a loved one is the greatest challenge of all," Rosita says.
"If we can use digital technologies to find ways to prevent or even delay the onset of disease and give people more time with their families, that’s huge."
A new era for Alzheimer’s research
Rosita’s family gained a special addition last year: her young daughter. Rosita is enjoying watching her 16-month-old grow and explore.
"My baby girl is just learning about the world. A few days ago, she pointed to an elephant on her mat and called it a dog. She hasn’t seen many elephants, so in her brain, every animal with ears is a dog," Rosita says.
This sweet moment is etched into Rosita’s mind. It's adorable, of course, but it’s also a fantastic analogy for the issues that come with using AI technologies.
"AI is the same as any human in how it learns; it can only make predictions based on the data it’s given. The more data we have, the more we can leverage AI technologies," Rosita says.
Collecting data on Alzheimer’s disease is not only expensive, but hard on patients with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers.
"A way to solve this problem is using data we already have. We can bring together existing datasets from Australia and other countries. The issue is that different countries and different cohorts have different protocols for collecting their data," she says.
That’s where Rosita’s work comes in. She created an algorithm that harmonises and aligns these datasets.
The result? The largest Alzheimer’s disease dataset in the world.
"With enough data, AI can make predictions very accurately. More accurately than humans, even. We can take advantage of the technology to learn more about the onset and progression of disease," Rosita says.
An international team involving multiple research groups is now using the dataset to investigate Alzheimer’s disease risk factors and how they influence patient outcomes.
Rosita and her colleagues are excited about the future of their life-changing work.
"It’s incredible to understand the brain and these diseases more than we ever have before. I hope we can use this information to make a difference in the lives of Alzheimer’s disease patients and their loved ones," she says.