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Metro girl named semifinalist to prestigious science competition after developing Parkinson’s diagnostic technology

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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- As if being a straight-A student taking all AP classes weren't enough, one Shawnee Mission West student was also recently named as a semifinalist in one of the nation's most prestigious science competitions.

Erin Smith was named a 2018 Regeneron STS Scholar by the Society for Science and the Public, something that only 300 high school students in the nation can say each year.

Erin Smith

"I was really excited, and just really grateful for the honor," the 18-year-old said of how she felt when she found out.

Smith is the only winner from Kansas in FOX4's viewing area.

Regeneron STS Scholars are selected based on a 20-page research paper and personal essays.

"So my research paper was about this technology that I've developed called FacePrint, which is an early and accurate diagnostic tool for Parkinson's Disease," Smith said.

Her invention uses facial-recognition software and machine-learning algorithms to diagnose the disease.

Here's how it works: Subjects watch a series of Super Bowl commercials or a series of emojis. While watching, the patient's spontaneous facial expressions are collected.

"I can then use their responses to those, along with bio markers I identified, to determine if that patient has Parkinson's," Smith said.

Her idea for this device was inspired by a Michael J. Fox Foundation video.

"I was really curious to see if we could capture neurological pathology via facial expressions," the 18-year-old said.

Smith's love for science began at an early age.

"My mom and I turned our kitchen into kind of a makeshift laboratory, and so we would get books from the library and do just little science experiments," she said.

She credits her mom, who she says is her biggest inspiration, for her passion for science.

Erin Smith

"I think we'll see, read about Erin in the future," said Brenda Bott, Shawnee Mission School District Biotechnology Signature Program teacher and coordinator.

Bott called Smith an outstanding student.

"Erin is passionate. She wants to make a difference in the world," Bott said.

"If you have kindness and compassion for the world and for problems that people face, and then you're also curious, then you'll be able to address and solve these problems," Smith said.

The Johnson County teen is a member of the Biotechnology Signature Program where she conducts independent research.

"It's a really hands-on, exploratory class, but it's been a really critical element of my high school career," Smith said.

If that's not enough, she's also formed her own organization.

"I have an organization called KC Steminists," Smith said.

She started it two years ago to pay it forward.

"This program teaches middle school and high school girls how to code, specifically focused on creating sustainable global solutions and entrepreneurship," she said.

Erin is interested in pursuing a career that blends computer science and neuroscience and plans to continue to develop FacePrint and similar technologies. Her dream is to advance the technological side of heath care.

If you know a young achiever who is 18 years old or younger and is doing exceptional things, Fox 4 wants to hear from you. Nominate them here.

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