Three years ago, Erin Smith was watching a video of Michael J. Fox and made an observation that she couldn’t stop thinking about. “Whenever a Parkinson’s patient would laugh or smile, it came off as really emotionally distant,” she says. The Lenexa, Kansas, teen reached out to clinicians and caregivers, and she learned that they’d noticed similar facial expressions in some of their patients — often years before an official Parkinson’s diagnosis would eventually be made.
Smith — a longtime science enthusiast who grew up conducting experiments in her kitchen — got to work building a diagnostic system called FacePrint, a super-smart selfie that captures changes in facial expressions over time to detect disorders like Parkinson’s. Until now, diagnoses have been subjective; Smith hopes FacePrint will become an objective tool to diagnose and monitor the disease.
FacePrint’s algorithm has an 88 percent accuracy rate (the standard is 81.6 percent), and she’s received support and funding from the Michael J. Fox Foundation and pharmaceutical companies. The technology is currently undergoing a clinical trial at Stanford University, where she is enrolled but on leave while she completes her research, funded by a Thiel Fellowship.
“I really want to optimize for my personal learning,” she says, “as well as for the best way I can help shape and build the future of neurological and mental healthcare.”