In 2016, at the age of 16, Erin Smith made a commitment to devote her scientific work and research to the study and early diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
On June 20, the Lenexa teen’s contribution to the field of Parkinson’s research received international recognition when she was awarded first place, along with a cash prize of $7,500, at the International BioGENEius Challenge finals held in San Diego.
Smith was one of an international group of high school students presenting their projects in this premier competition recognizing outstanding research in the field of biotechnology. She was the winner among a field of 15 finalists whose projects were judged by world-recognized leaders and scientists in cutting-edge biotechnology research and development.
“This was an amazing win for me and my hard work on this project. It was also a win for the Parkinson’s patients, caregivers, and others I have been able to work with,” Smith said. “I think it shows there’s a lot of progress with Parkinson’s diagnosis and treatments, so it brings a lot of hope to everyone affected.”
Smith’s ongoing project is titled “A novel, Telemedicine Diagnostic Tool for Parkinson’s disease: The Use of Digital Action Unit Biomakers Generated by Spontaneous and Posed Facial Expressions.” In this project, she uses facial recognition software to complete her innovative research which currently contributes to the global field of Parkinson’s research.
Early in 2016, Smith had the initial inspiration for her project after watching a video from the Michael J. Fox Foundation. While watching the video, Smith noticed that when patients would talk or smile with one another, they seemed emotionally distant from one another. She then talked with local caregivers for those with Parkinson’s who had made similar observations of their loved ones years prior to their official Parkinson’s diagnoses.
Just before launching her project, Smith also found a research paper that noted Parkinson’s patients experience changes early in the disease progression that are in the same section of the brain responsible for spontaneous facial expression formation. This is when she realized that facial recognition software could play a part in an earlier diagnosis of the disease, and hence, earlier treatment.
Brenda Bott is Erin’s teacher and mentor at Shawnee Mission West.
“Above all, Erin Smith is brave. She gets a creative idea and does whatever it takes to make it work,” Bott says. “She perseveres through the disappointments, failure, and all of those bumps in the road that come along when you are working on something. She just perseveres and keeps going.”
Smith’s scientific explorations started when she was a child. Using the family kitchen as their lab, Smith’s early experiments were carried with her mother and science partner, JoAnne Huber.
“I remember making rock candy and doing other random experiments. My mom would bring home books that would teach scientific principles. I loved all the experiments,” Smith says. “It was the mindset and curiosity my mom instilled that stayed with me.”
After returning from San Diego last week, Smith presented her project to a large audience during the Maker Faire at Union Station. On the June 25, she headed to Massachusetts Institute of Technology for six weeks of further work on her project with Jeremy Wolfe at the Harvard Visual Attention Lab.
In August, Smith will participate in the largest national science competition in the world: the China Adolescent Science and Technology Innovation Contest. In May, she won the First Award and the Intel ISEF Best of Category Award for behavioral and social sciences at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles. These awards allowed Smith to participate in this notable competition.
After her summer travels, Smith will complete her senior year at Shawnee Mission West, where she is enrolled in the Shawnee Mission School District’s Biotechnology Signature Program. Smith will continue her current Parkinson’s research throughout the upcoming school year before she graduates and heads to college.
“When I started this project, it was a solely scientific interest I had,” Smith said. “But, when I started working with local Parkinson’s patients, those conversations and interactions provided the personal motivation behind this project. Today, I work to improve the quality of people’s lives.”