Shawnee Mission West teen making incredible strides in Parkinson - KCTV5

Shawnee Mission West teen making incredible strides in Parkinson's research

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Erin Smith’s incredible work has earned her an invitation to an elite program at MIT. (KCTV5) Erin Smith’s incredible work has earned her an invitation to an elite program at MIT. (KCTV5)
OVERLAND PARK, KS (KCTV) -

A Shawnee Mission West student's incredible work has earned her an invitation to an elite program at MIT.

Only 50 students across America are selected, and this year, 17-year-old Erin Smith has earned a spot.

The junior can't even legally vote, and yet she's accomplished more in her first three high school years than many people do well into adulthood.

"I'm creating a diagnostic algorithm tool for Parkinson's disease," Smith said.

Something that would seem so complicated to most of us is being tackled head-on by a high school student who has only had her drivers license for one year.

"It's an early and accurate diagnosis method based off of changes I've discovered in facial muscle movements," she said.

Smith said her passion for developing a newer, earlier and more accurate way to diagnosis Parkinson's disease began when she was in fifth grade.

She says she was watching a video made by the Michael J. Fox Foundation featuring the actor who has Parkinson's disease and other patients.

As she studied his face while he talked she says she was struck by his smile which she thought looked distant. Then, something clicked.

"I was like, 'Oh, I know what I'm seeing. It is spontaneous composed facial combustions, and I wondered if I could quantify those using the methods of a facial action coding system," Smith said.

To put it in more simple terms: what if you could study someone's facial movements to detect Parkinson's disease years earlier than doctors can detect it now and get those patients earlier treatment.

So, the ambitions teenager created her own online tool. It allows anyone with a webcam to have their facial movements recorded while watching various commercials.

In September, she presented her work at AOL's Built by Girls Challenge, winning a $10,000 prize to continue her research. Then it got better. She was selected for the elite summer program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It's a six-week summer program where Smith will continue her research.

She says she's now considering using Snapchat and other forms of social media in the same way she uses her online tool to get a better understanding of what clues people's facial expressions can give about their health.

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