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High school student working on breakthroughs in Parkinson’s disease detection

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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- People concerned about Parkinson’s disease now are participating in an online research project called FacePrint. The objective of it is to develop a simple, early and accurate telemedicine approach to detecting the debilitating nervous system disorder. The creator of FacePrint is a high school student and she’s this week’s FOX 4 Young Achiever.

“This breaks down the face into different component movements.”

That’s Erin Smith, this week’s FOX 4 Reaching 4 Excellence Young Achiever, demonstrating FacePrint. This remarkable research system is Erin’s baby. She developed it herself based off of biomarkers she discovered in facial muscle movements in people with and without Parkinson’s disease using facial recognition software and machine learning algorithms.

“And I get different millisecond-by-millisecond analysis of the movement of each section of the face,” said Erin as the fascinating demonstration progressed. The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research found out about Erin’s work and now the organization has FacePrint online to help her gather data from a much larger sample size and achieve her ultimate goal:

“To provide a very easy, simple and early and accurate telemedicine approach to Parkinson’s disease detection,” said Erin.

She wants to target that technology especially to primary care physicians and clinics and to developing nations where much of the anticipated increase in Parkinson’s disease cases are expected to be. This junior at Shawnee Mission West High School has been doing impressive science and technology research projects for six years already. She calls herself “perpetually curious” and approaches her painstaking work with uncommon diligence and discipline.

“It kind of becomes addicting in the sense that you get to one point and then you find out this information but then you want to know what that information means and then you have this idea based off that information and so it’s very perpetual and exciting,” said Erin.

“Erin takes advantage of every opportunity I give her,” said Brenda Bott, an award-winning science teacher who directs the Shawnee Mission School District’s rigorous and advanced Biotechnology Signature Program. Erin’s done much of her work so far under Bott’s guidance in her classroom at West High.

“You can’t stop her,” said Bott. “She thinks of something new. She thinks of the details. She records, if you talk to her, she’s writing notes. She is very good at networking. She is exemplary in listening.”

Erin’s phenomenal science and technology research has put her in the spotlight often already, especially for one still so young. She’s been very active in seeking out and winning high level national and international student competitions that have taken her far and wide demonstrating her projects.

“I’m always known as the more dramatic presenter,” said Erin with laughter. Erin is a national tournament debater, as well, and she really enjoys using her entertaining speaking skills at major science competitions and conferences like last month’s #BUILTBYGIRLS Future Founder Challenge where she won $10,000 and where can also talk movingly about this field she loves so much.

“It’s really exhilarating,” said Erin, “because it’s anything that you want to do. The sky’s the limit in terms of what you can think of and then actually being able to have an idea that may seem crazy and then being able to create it into reality. It’s one of the greatest feelings in the world.”

She’s an innovator out to heal people and keep them healthy.

“Ultimately I want to create technologies and devices that are used in different clinics throughout the world and then also in primary care physician clinics. And I also am really interested in the divide that is happening with health care. I think that there’s going to be a shift as we see it move a lot more to telemedicine approaches. And so, I want to be the one that starts having health care-related stuff on social media and technology like Snapchat. So bridge these two different trends that we are seeing in health care.”

She's addicted to discovery and blazing new trails in science and technology.

Erin also is focused on opening doors for other young people, especially girls, to advance in these STEM studies she loves. She’s founded an organization called KC STEMinists to empower girls through a hands-on approach to computer science and coding.  Go to the online application, or contact Erin at for more information and registration on KC STEMinists.

You can participate in Erin’s FacePrint research study on Parkinson’s disease in her online survey.

FOX 4 News is Working 4 You to spotlight outstanding young people and their positive accomplishments. In our weekly report called Reaching 4 Excellence we meet young achievers in subjects like academics, the arts, leadership, community service, volunteerism, career exploration, overcoming obstacles and heroism. Watch for Reaching 4 Excellence every Wednesday on FOX 4 News at 9 p.m. and every Thursday on FOX 4 News at 8 a.m. and noon.

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