For the second year, the Google Science Fair has brought together some of the smartest teenagers in the world. This year's winner is Brittany Wenger. She's a 17-year-old high school student from Florida. For her award-winning scientific project, Brittany used her knowledge of computer programming in order to help doctors diagnose breast cancer.
Previously, non-invasive breast cancer diagnosis had not been nearly as successful as invasive procedures. However, Brittany's idea could help move the field forward. Her computer program, called a "neural network," mimics the human brain in that it reads massive amounts of information and detects complex patterns, and then can "learn" to make diagnostic calls on breast cancer.
What first inspired her to look into neural networks was one of her courses, an elective centered on futuristic thinking. "It was really by accident that I discovered this amazing technology and became so enthralled," Wenger says. "When I came across it, I went out and bought a programming book, and with no experience decided that that was what I was going to do."
Wenger noticed that the results from one of the least invasive biopsies, the fine-needle aspiration, were the most inconclusive. She worked to design a system that would analyze the samples more intelligently. "I created a tool for doctors to use that could detect patterns in these fine-needle aspirates that are too complex for humans to detect so that it could provide doctors with this way to determine whether masses are malignant or benign without all the invasion," Wenger says.
The network takes into account qualitative data that help identify whether or not the masses are malignant or benign, then makes connections between the different inputs to produce an output. "In training mode, [the program] is going to know the answer it should have gotten, and it's going to try to adjust itself so that it can get that answer next time," Wenger says. "In testing mode, it applies what it's learned."
The program has a success rate of 99.11 percent of correctly identifying malignant and benign tumors, and the high school senior points out that that figure will only improve. The program will increase the effectiveness of the fine-needle aspiration test, which is good news for people being diagnosed.
"A lot of biopsies are a lot more invasive than the fine-needle aspirate," Wenger says. "So what it would mean if you were a woman who was having one of these biopsies, instead of going through more painful, more invasive procedures, it would just be like getting a blood test — a little needle [would be] stuck into the mass. It wouldn't be as uncomfortable, or as costly."
Wenger, who wants to become a pediatric oncologist, says that she combined her passions for computer science and biology after finding some data that sparked her interest in the project. Her cousin was going through painful biopsies at the time, and that motivated her to continue.
The 17-year-old has been invited by breastcancer.org to speak at the organization's next convention, and a hospital has volunteered to provide her more data for further research. She plans to continue studying computer science and biology, and is currently applying to universities. Harvard, Duke, Dartmouth, and Stanford are just a few names on her list.