A new Star of Science is born

Dr. Walid Albanna (second left) during the Stars of Science Season 10 finale.

Last weekend, audiences across the Arab world sat glued to their TV screens awaiting a single announcement. For weeks, Stars of Science viewers had witnessed a series of innovators present concepts and receive scrutiny from an assembled jury. Finally, the winner of Season 10 of the edutainment reality TV show and the latest top innovator of the Arab world was about to be announced.

The latest season of Stars of Science was of particular significance, as it marked the 10-year anniversary of the groundbreaking series, which follows the journey of nine young and aspiring innovators from around the region as they attempt to develop and create their inventions at the laboratories of Qatar Science & Technology Park, a member of Qatar Foundation.

“I was speechless — I could not begin to say even one word,” recalls Dr. Walid Albanna of the moment was name was read aloud, and the 35-year-old Palestinian neurosurgeon was crowned the series victor. Ahead of the grand finale, fans of the show and devotees of science and technology had taken to the internet to cast their votes for one of the four finalists. The online public vote, combined with the expert jury vote, earned Dr. Walid an unsurpassable score of 32.5 percent among his fellow competitors.

Last-minute decision

Dr. Walid spent his teenage years in his native Gaza, Palestine, earning a degree in neurosurgery in Germany at the RWTH Aachen University Hospital. He became a prize-winner for conducting the best clinical research in Germany (awarded by the German Society for Neuro-Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine in 2017) and made significant progress in studying the prediction and detection of stroke through using the eye.

“It is said that the eyes are a window into the soul,” he says. “But what if the eyes could be a window to studying the brain? That was the basic idea behind my innovation”. Yet Dr. Walid readily admits that he applied for Season 10 only days before its online application deadline.

“I had conducted clinical studies in Germany related to this concept, using a large camera, and after that, I published my research in a research article,” he says. “However, the drawbacks to that approach were evident to me at the time — the camera was not portable due to its size.

“Last year, I began to pursue my dream of developing an electronic, portable solution to this problem. It was then that I discovered Stars of Science — just two days before its Season 10 online application deadline. Now, through the show, I have been able to make my dream come through.”

The innovation Dr. Walid presented to the show’s jury was titled the ‘Neurovascular Retina Analyzer’.The smart wearable retina camera increases the quality of aftercare for patients who have suffered a stroke. The retina and its vessels reflect the pathological brain changes in real time and enable a medical caretaker to use the device on a resting patient to get a quick, thorough, and accurate reading.

By securing first place on Stars of Science, Dr. Walid’s innovation also secured $300,000 in investment, yet he does not consider the magnitude of his achievement in monetary terms.

“I was told that I became the first Palestinian winner of Stars of Science,” he says. “That’s an amazing honor. It has meant so much to my family and me. When my father watched me live, he cried when I was announced as the winner.”

Looking ahead

Though it is less than a week since Dr. Walid took to the Grand Finale stage, he is not basking in the achievement, but rather focusing on the imminent and long-term journey of his innovation.

“We now have a functional device and can begin clinical studies,” he says. “The first study to pilot the device will be in Qatar, via Hamad Medical Corporation. After that, we will also trial the device at my department in Aachen, Germany. Through the data we will accumulate, the plan is to develop an algorithm for early detection of stroke. In the long-term, I believe we can shrink the device’s camera even further over the next 2–3 years.”

As a newcomer to the show, let alone the process of Stars of Science, and the first Palestinian to take the crown, Dr. Walid is one of the most unique winners in the show’s 10-year history. He believes that his success shows that anything is possible.

“What I learned through Stars of Science, and what I would say to any potential innovator who has a great idea, is that there are many possibilities for them to transform their ideas,” says Dr. Walid. “All of us in the Arab world can turn our dreams into reality.”