Sangam Festival

Q&A with Professor Hassan Ugail

NAME: Professor Hassan Ugail

PROFESSION: Professor of Visual Computing at the School of Engineering and Informatics at the University of Bradford

SOUTH ASIAN HERITAGE: Professor Ugail was born in Hithadhoo, Addu City in the Maldives


  • First-class BSc in Mathematics and PGCE, King’s College London
  • PhD and post-doctoral research in Geometric design and mathematics, University of Leeds – the first Maldavian to obtain a PhD in mathematics
  • Professor of Visual Computing and Director of the Centre for Visual Computing, University of Bradford – the first Maldivian to receive a professorship in Science
  • First and only person to date to receive the Maldives National Award for Innovation (2011)

What was it like to grow up in the Maldives – can you describe your early home and school life?
I was born in Addu City of the Maldives which is located at the southernmost tip of the country. In the 1970s, it was a place where there were carefree vibes aplenty but apart from some very basic tools for survival, resources there were very much scarce.

Our home with a thatched roof of coconut palm leaves had only basic amenities with no electricity or running water and firewood was used for cooking. Nonetheless the home and the environment I grew up was a safe place where I could connect with nature in its full glory.

The schooling there back then was basic too. With no formal curriculum in place, we learnt reading, writing, the Quran, basic arithmetic and English. Back then, where I grew up, the idea of having any kind of luxury of life in today’s terms was very much farfetched – but that did not stop me dreaming.

What was your favourite Maldavian dish growing up and how often do you eat/cook Maldivian cuisine in the UK?
Rice and soup of tuna fish was the staple food we had while growing up. I wouldn’t quite say that it is my favourite. Perhaps my favourite Maldivian dish is Masroshi – it is grilled flour in small round pita bread shape that consists of a filling of coconut and tuna, seasoned with chilli, other Asian spices and lemon. Even now we often have it, at home in the UK.

Which languages did you speak at home and how did your father’s job as a clerk at a British Royal Air Force base help you academically?
It was the language of Dhivehi. I actually spoke a dialect of Dhivehi which is known as Addu Bahuruva. Though the Maldives is a small place, we can be rather segregated because the vast majority of the country is sea which separates the atolls and the islands. Consequently, there are several dialects of Dhivehi the people of the Maldives use.

As for my father’s job as a clerk at the British Royal Air Force base in Gan (only a few miles from where I grew up), it helped me greatly with my learning and understanding of the bigger world out there. He used to bring a lot of books home and I was rather blessed to be one of the very few in the island with a mini library at home. This meant, I could learn about the Amazon Forest, Greek philosophers and how the British Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAFI) produced consumer goods.

In fact, back then, I do remember reading a book on technology and the last few pages in the book mentioned about “the computer” which was alluded to be an emerging technological tool of the future. That’s probably how got interested in computers and computer science.

What could you tell us about the Maldives that might surprise us?
The Maldive islands are a bit of an intricate archipelago, literally and figuratively, one might be surprised to learn. It essentially carves into three different entities, astoundingly different from each other:

1. The capital city of Male – this is the most compact point one could possibly imagine, with a frighteningly high population density, an array of concrete jumble, adorned with the appalling bedlam of the traffic from jammed streets that are painfully narrow to begin with. This is also the centre point of economic and developmental progress, a screaming mess of political mayhem, yet the only gateway for opportunities, education and even tertiary health care, which bluntly sums up the root causes of the congestion.

2. The islands – with slow life, relaxed pace, hopeless and in some cases even desperate, where dreams are born and often halted unless one is determined to brawl his or her way through the extensive barriers.

3. The tourist resorts – the infamous paradise of mesmerising azure waters, clear blue skies and breathtakingly white, sandy beaches, the paradigm of holiday heaven, the ultimate dream destination of a million couples but the level of luxury and magnificence that the average Maldivian can only dream of!

When did you first become interested in mathematics and computer sciences?
I have always been interested in these fields. From a very young age, I have been fascinated to learn about technology, how things work and how to seek general (logical and mathematical) explanations to complex phenomena we observe.

In 1992, you won a British Council scholarship to study in the UK. What impact did that have on your education and life?
Huge of course. It provided me with a lifetime opportunity of higher education, access to world class tutors and mentors, and the opportunity to experience a rich culture. From each and every angle I look at it, the impact has been rewarding and lasting.

What were the key adjustments you had to make when you settled here? Was there anything particularly unexpected?
England was the first foreign country that I set foot on. Hence getting accustomed to the culture and weather was particularly challenging in the first place. Before I arrived in the UK, having had my secondary education predominantly in English, I thought I had a good command of English, especially understanding spoken English. However, to my surprise, I found out that, initially, it was very difficult to fully comprehend what people were saying. That was something particularly unexpected.

One of the focal points of your research has been the PDE method of geometric design. Can you explain what this is in layman’s terms?
I feel I always see the world through the lens of mathematics. That is different, weird you may say. When I look at worldly objects, I see them as mathematical entities. For example, a Pringle is not just a curvy shaped potato chip, it is in fact a mathematical form called the “hyperbolic paraboloid”.

The PDE method for geometric design states that any physical object (faces, flowers, stars, galaxies, etc.) can be in fact described on the computer as a solution to a specific mathematical equation. This particular partial differential equation (PDE) is derived from the famous Laplace’s equation – who was a French scholar and polymath. Thus, PDEs are a very elegant and compact way of defining and describing physical objects inside the computer.

Your work on computer-based human face analysis covers face recognition, face ageing, emotion analysis and lie detection. What are the practical applications of these areas?
For many years, I have been interested in learning more about the human face through the use of computer algorithms. These algorithms we have developed for human face analysis help us understand the face better. For example, the tools we have crafted are particularly good at biometric identification of faces from blurry photos.

We are able to predict how a face would age and also able to analyse facial expressions rapidly looking for cues of deceit. In my view, these are very important milestones and contributions to this field to advance the science and our understanding of the human face though artificial intelligence.

Your face recognition tools were used in the Novichok nerve agent cases in Salisbury in 2018. Can you tell us more about how this came about and how these tools were applied?
I was contacted by Bellingcat – a prominent online investigator – with photos of the suspects. They also provided me with photos from passports that they thought were these suspects. I used our advanced face recognition computer algorithms to see if the photos of the suspects match with those passport photos. And they were surprisingly close matches!

How can your face-ageing technique help in the search for missing people?
In our lab, we have spent years in developing an algorithm for human face ageing. The algorithm was developed using state-of-the-art artificial intelligence techniques and was taught how human faces age. There is a rather standard way that all faces age – for example, loss of muscle tone, which results in dropping of the face and the appearance of wrinkles.

We can apply the algorithm to any given photo and predict what the person in the photo will look in years to come. We have used this technique to produce images of what missing people would like so that it can help to recognise them.

What other ways has your research been used for practical applications?
In many other ways I believe. My research using the PDE method combined with artificial intelligence has produced techniques for creating geometric objects with application in engineering design and healthcare applications such as diagnosis of cancer from histopathological images, analysis of donor organs for suitability of transplantations, classification of skin burns, analysis of ECG data to help prevent people getting heart attacks, just to name some. In short, I ensure that every research project I engage with has a real-life application.

Which of your many career achievements has been the most rewarding?
It is difficult to point to just one that can be considered most rewarding since there are so many best parts in my career which I enjoy. Having said that, there is this one thing that I am proud of. I have always wanted to gain the title of “professor” before the age of 40. I managed to achieve it at the age of 38. I feel I deserve to take pride in that achievement.

What has been the reaction back in the Maldives to your achievements?
Maldivians are incredible people. They have a thirst for knowledge and for learning. Since through tourism, they are also very connected with the rest of the world, and, therefore, comparatively speaking they have a fairly high level of awareness. As a result, they seem to appreciate my work and are proud of my achievements.

How often do you go back to the Maldives for a visit?
At least twice a year and often more.

Can you share a favourite recipe with us?
Masroshi. Please see the recipe here,