Shawnee Mission biotech student’s Parkinson’s research earns her invitation to elite summer program at MIT

Smith presenting her research in Silicon Valley at AOL's #BUILTBYGIRLS competition last fall. Photo provided by Erin Smith.
Smith presenting her research in Silicon Valley at AOL’s #BUILTBYGIRLS competition last fall. Photo provided by Erin Smith.

Shawnee Mission biotech student Erin Smith has already attracted a good deal of national attention for her advanced research skills. Now, she’s been selected as one of just 50 students from the United States invited to participate in a summer program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Research Science Institute.

Smith, a 17-year-old junior at Shawnee Mission West, traces her current research interest back to fifth grade, when she would watch a television show called “Lie to Me” with her family.

“It’s this detective, and he determines if people are lying by reading their faces,” she said.

Smith’s sister, a talented researcher during her time in Shawnee Mission schools, had done some work on Parkinson’s disease a few years earlier. So when Smith saw a video from the Michael J. Fox Foundation featuring Fox and other Parkinson’s patients about year ago, the memories of that show piqued her interest.

“Whenever he or another Parkinson’s subject would smile, it came off as very emotionally distant, or unfelt,” she said.

The video got her thinking. A cursory review of literature informed her that the parts of the brain that are affected early in the onset of Parkinson’s disease are the same ones that control facial movements. What if you could apply the same facial movement detection principles the detective on “Lie to Me” used to Parkinson’s patients?

Smith developed a research project, and started gathering data by using facial recognition software to analyze the reaction of a group of senior citizens and Parkinson’s patients to a set of commercials. She then developed an online tool that allows anyone with a webcam to view the same commercials and have their facial movements recorded. With the data she’s collected, she’s begun the development of a predictive algorithm she hopes will allow clinicians to diagnose potential Parkinson’s onset years before more obvious clinical symptoms are manifested.

In September, Smith was invited to present her work at AOL’s #BUILTBYGIRLS challenge, and won a $10,000 prize to continue her research. She applied for a patent for the technology she’s developing, and is working with clinical researchers on the possibility of authoring an article on the work for submission to a peer-reviewed journal.

Through Shawnee Mission’s biotechnology signature program, led by teacher Brenda Bott and overseen by Assistant Superintendent Christy Ziegler, Smith has been placed with a mentor this school year. Doug McNair, MD, PhD, is the president of Cerner Math, Inc., at the Cerner Corporation, where he leads the biotech leader’s projects dealing with predictive modeling in healthcare. He spends a few hours every month working one-on-one with Smith. McNair said he’s been impressed with Smith’s advanced skills.

“In any school system, public or private, there are a number of students whose gifts incline them at an early age to the things that more typically might emerge later,” he said. “Erin is certainly one of those.”

He said she has an obvious love for learning.

“When you present her with something, you can see new questions arising in her mind,” McNair said. “Instead of finding it daunting, it’s just another source of stimulation.

As part of the MIT program, Smith will spend six weeks in Massachusetts this summer continuing her research.