Saved Her Son With AI Technology

Written by: Victoria Wæthing

03.12.2020

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Melissa Mulholland trailblazed using AI technology to diagnose disease during ultrasound. Driven by her personal story, she broke through both gender and age boundaries with bold ideas—and sponsorship from people working with her at Microsoft.  

Dreaming about working for a company that has a global impact, Melissa Mulholland joined Microsoft twelve years ago. Entering the tech company with a background in business, she was quickly motivated and encouraged to learn as much as possible about technology.  

Using Her Personal Story for AI Initiative 

During her pregnancy, she discovered that her son was suffering from posterior urethral valves (PUV), a congenital problem that can be missed during ultrasounds unless doctors are trained to look for it. They most often are not. PUV affects 1 in 8,000 males, and the condition consists of extra tissue obstructing the baby’s bladder, causing a reverse flow of urine that can damage other organs, and thus be fatal. 

She made a commitment to help her son and other mothers finding themselves in the same situation. AI would turn out to be a great opportunity.  

Microsoft’s Melissa Mulholland and family on March 14, 2020. (Photography by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

At the time, AI was relatively new at Microsoft, and Mulholland was curious about the burgeoning cognitive features. For example, their AI technology could take a photo of a Pepsi can and distinguish it from a Coca Cola can.  

Mulholland realised that the same technology could easily be applied to medicine, in this case—with images of her son’s bladder to detect and diagnose what was wrong. The algorithm was already developed, it was simply a question of how to use it for a broader purpose.  

Bold Ideas and Sponsorship 

After launching her AI initiative for ultrasound, Mulholland was also able to create a voice and brand for herself in a field that is predominantly male. In addition to being a woman in the tech world, she would also encounter difficulties because of her age—not to mention the fact that she did not come from a tech background. She was able to push through and beyond imaginary boundaries with a few key learnings: bold ideas and sponsorship.  

Mulholland’s story was personal and resonated with people, but some of the most important lessons she had, was to have sponsorship where you work. People cheering you on and supporting your bold ideas, steering you away from limitations that you are creating for yourself. Mulholland’s initiative in using AI with ultrasound is not yet accessible for everybody. “It is a technology that could save lives, and it is not expensive. Unfortunately, IT technology has not been a priority in the health industry,” says Mulholland.  

Moved the Family to Norway 

Melissa’s family settled in Oslo.

This summer Mulholland moved from the States to Oslo, Norway. Having already worked with the Norwegian company Crayon, it seemed like a good fit for the family.  A couple of years ago, Mulholland’s son was diagnosed with autism, and the family had to make some tough decisions. Mulholland’s husband decided to take time off his career as an accountant to take care of the children.  

“While he wanted to be there and take care of the children—especially since my son needs hands on support, my husband also wanted to give me the opportunity to follow my career. I have a partner that has set me up for success,” says Mulholland.  

Because the educational system in the State of Washington did not provide their son with the level of support that he needed, Mulholland and her husband decided to move to Norway. That way her husband could also start working, and they knew that Norway could provide the support system for their son in the future.  

Melissa as a guest speaker for the SHE Conference.

Mulholland was introduced to Heidi Aven and SHE Community through Crayon, and at first, she was surprised that a country like Norway would need an organization like SHE. A country where children learned about equality in school, a country with a female Prime Minster and a culture so deeply rooted in gender equality for so many years—why would they need an organization like SHE Community? That was until she moved here and became a part of the Norwegian society and was able to see the complexities within the cultural system.  

Few Women at Executive Level 

Although Mulholland says men spend much more time with their kids in Norway than what is common in the US, women are still a minority in regard to senior level positions. “It seems to me like there is a cap on how far women are able to go,” says Mulholland. 

Speaking at SHE Conference 2020

She emphasized how it appears as though women are assigned very specific functions, like for example executive positions in HR. Mulholland is working in C-level management at Crayon and is proud to be a part of the company’s vision for what they want the company to achieve concerning equality.  

Mulholland believes that Norway has some incredible accomplishments to be proud of, however there are still too few women in executive positions. There is not equality on the top level, and maybe—just maybe—women are still sacrificing their career for the family. And maybe—just maybe—both Norwegian women and men will be inspired by the Mulholland family. •