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Sara is an Associate Professor of Health Informatics and Biomedical Data Science within the Centre for Statistics in Medicine. She trained in electrical and biomedical engineering prior to founding the PHI Lab, which studies data science and artificial intelligence for planetary health.

Sara Khalid

1) Tell us about your work – what do you do and what makes it interesting for you?

I am the principal investigator for the Planetary Health Informatics Lab at the University of Oxford, where we undertake research about the impact of our changing environments on human health and how to deal with it in a rapidly warming world. Essentially, I hope that every project and piece of research from our lab creates positive impacts that make a real difference to peoples’ lives, pushing to use AI for good rather than the negative light it can be painted in. This has included a wide variety of applications ranging from improving prediction methods for malaria using satellite and environment data from South Asia, to producing a medical large language model that is able to analyse and summaries patient records in resource-limited and climate-vulnerable settings to accurately help doctors to make urgent front-line medical decisions. 

Our research has a strong element of health equity, to ensure healthcare fairly serves everyone, whether that’s people with different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, patients with rare conditions, those living in climate-vulnerable areas and other marginalised groups. For this we try to foster global collaborations from both the southern and northern hemispheres.  

2) What drew you to this work? Was working on planetary health always your aim?

My sense of living in harmony with our natural world was an integral part of my childhood which was spent in the beautiful seaside city of Karachi, Pakistan. So an appreciation of the intrinsic, inseparable link we as humans have with the environment, which then comes back full circle to impact our own health, only comes naturally. Our duty to salvage and sustain this beautiful symbiosis is the core of planetary health, and is a fundamental part of my research and professional life, as well as my personal value system and approach as a parent.

In terms of my inspiration for setting up PHI, I had a strong sense of intention. For me, the biggest inspiration is the future generation, and seeing them care so passionately, so earnestly and so unconditionally about issues like climate change and social justice is my driving force. It’s the impact of our work on the future generations using cutting-edge methods and data sources which makes our work so interesting for me! 

That being said, my journey into researching this topic was anything but straightforward or intentional. When applying to university I chose to study electronics engineering. However, I knew I didn’t want to apply this education to build radars or weapons that cause more harm than good. Instead, I pursued biomedical engineering in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, applying my knowledge to save lives by helping to create early detection methods of heart attacks. That’s what led me to medical statistics, and then through to PHI. 

3) What is your favourite part of working in the PHI Lab?

Being the head of PHI is an incredibly rewarding position, it’s amazing to see the wide range of international collaborations going on. It’s also really great to see our team expand and change as we bring in new researchers and research support staff and see our staff and students move onwards and upwards in the world of data science! If I had to choose one part of my role I enjoy most, it would have to be the different ways I can use my experiences and the opportunities I got as a young researcher to similarly support others and build a sense of community through my work. 

A photo of Sara hugging her daughter, a toddler, during her DPhil degree ceremony.

4) When you’re not working, what are your favourite activities?

As the mother of a secondary schooler, a primary schooler and a brand  new baby to boot, there’s never a dull moment! It’s funny to see how they view my research though – when I told them I was a professor, they told me that couldn’t be true because professors are men with white hair and grey beards! I enjoy writing books for my kids too! 

5) What are you most excited about in our upcoming projects?

This is an exciting time for planetary health research. The climate crisis has finally created a sense of urgency and awareness to act now. The Planetary Health Alliance is right at the forefront of this movement to mobilise academia, industry, legislators, patients and public to co-create solutions. So right now, I’m really looking forward to attending the PHAM 2024 conference in Malaysia in April – this is an amazing meeting of lots of the leading voices in Planetary Health, and at the PHI Lab we are looking forward to co-convening the AI for planetary health plenary session. Above all, it will be great opportunity to meet others working in this field, and find new ways to collaborate and use AI for good!