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Serendipity in science

Smartphone showing an eyescan (Copyright: Andrew Bastawrous)

Smartphone showing an eyescan (Copyright: Andrew Bastawrous)

Andrew Bastawrous, winner of the MRC Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, is soon to head off to Nakuru County in Kenya to diagnose and map blindness in local populations with both existing methods and his new ‘EyePhone’ app. Here he tells us about the happy coincidences that have got him to this point.

Seven years ago as a very junior doctor attending an international health conference I found myself sitting in the wrong room at the wrong time. As we went around the room introducing ourselves, it dawned on me that I’d misread the programme and the session I thought was on healthcare in Africa was actually on making the most of medical school.

When it got to my turn, I explained apologetically that I was in the wrong session and introduced myself as a wannabe ophthalmologist (eye surgeon) with a dream of working in Africa. I contemplated daydreaming the rest of the session away, but as the introductions continued, I heard another man apologising for also having misread the programme. At least I wasn’t the only one.

This wise-looking man, it turned out, was Nick Astbury, the then president of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists. I listened in disbelief as he explained his plans to establish a programme linking eye hospitals in the UK and Africa. When the session was complete, he took the time to listen to me and later put me in touch with people establishing a link between the Leeds NHS Trust and Madagascar, in which I became involved.

Since my time in Madagascar I have completed the majority of my ophthalmology training and am now doing a PhD at the International Centre for Eye Health (ICEH) in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

I’ve also been combining my geeky fascination with technology with my passion for eye health. Branching out into smartphone apps and hardware was unfamiliar territory and I thought that finding an affordable app designer with the right combination of experience, coding ability and understanding of international health would be almost impossible.

Yet I returned home one evening in March to find my wife beaming — her friend who’d just returned from working in Cambodia had this “app designer friend” looking for an international health project. He has now worked tirelessly for months for nothing.

Andrew with his winner's certificate

Andrew with his winner’s certificate

Equally incredible, my search for a precision engineer to build the hardware lasted less than 24 hours. The man behind a microscope attachment for a smartphone that I’d read about turned out to be a good friend of my new next-door neighbour, and he has also generously given his time and skill free of charge to make this project work.

We now have a working prototype of the smartphone ‘eye clinic’ (The Eye Phone) ready for testing.

Nick Astbury is now a colleague of mine at the International Centre for Eye Health and the UK-Africa network is thriving, with more than 20 partnerships established.

I have been an ophthalmologist for six years and I love it.

And next week I’m moving with my beautiful wife and toddler to live and work in Kenya.

Funny how things work out…

Andrew Bastawrous

Follow the progress of the project and learn how to how to bake by visiting the Andrew and his wife Madeleine’s blog at

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