High school student develops a diagnostics tool to detect Parkinson's disease.

Erin Smith · High School Senior · Biomedical Engineer

Erin Smith, a rising high school senior, is ready to change the world, one step at a time. “I want my focus to be on doing a little bit better each day. STEM caters to this mentality,” she says. “STEM fields are so versatile and enable perpetual curiosity. You never feel limited, and and that intellectual freedom is so energizing and empowering.” She also notes the importance of a supportive environment: “Throughout high school, I have also been lucky enough to identify and be a part of communities that encourage people to pursue STEM. From science fairs to pitch competitions to tech conferences, these events and the people I meet have been my constant inspirations.”

Her enthusiasm for science led her to create FacePrint, a telemedicine diagnostic tool for Parkinson’s disease. “It utilizes differences I discovered and digitized in spontaneous and posed facial expressions using facial recognition software,” she explains. “By capturing someone’s responses to Super Bowl commercials and replication of emojis, I can accurately determine whether or not someone has Parkinson’s disease using the machine learning algorithms I created that utilize the early stage biomarkers I discovered.”

“Almost two years ago, I was watching a video by the Michael J. Fox Foundation when I noticed that whenever Michael J. Fox or another Parkinson’s patients would laugh or smile to one another, it came off as really distant or emotionally unfelt. I then wondered if I could quantify these changes. Further, the section of the brain that Parkinson’s patients undergo changes in during early stages of the disease is the same section of the brain responsible for spontaneous facial expression formation. These findings acted as the scientific foundation for my idea. However, it was ultimately after I started working one-on-one with local Parkinson’s patients and had the opportunity to hear their stories that motivated this project to what it is today.“

Last year, she won the Built By Girls competition and received ten thousand dollars in funding. Her next steps? “I am continuing to develop FacePrint and refine my current diagnostic algorithms. I hope to further improve the monitoring applications of this technology by launching longitudinal studies. The facial recognition software I use is also compatible with that used by companies such as Facebook and Snapchat, which could ultimately enable these social media platforms to be powerful screening tools.”

When asked for her thoughts on how others can better the world, she says, “I would advise other engineers to learn to listen. In the world, we are constantly flooded with ideas, situations, and encounters that demand our attention. We must learn to filter through this noise and determine what is of the most importance. Further, we must learn to expose ourselves to all fields; it is often the intersection of many disciplines where the best ideas lay. Also, I would encourage engineers to start working today. If we wait for permission or perfection, we will never begin. I would rather see a messy, unfinished idea than one that is never tangibly born.”