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See Inside Scientific American Volume 307, Issue 4

Teen Develops Less Invasive Means to Detect Breast Cancer

This year's Google Science Fair winner talks about how she's helping doctors detect breast cancer less invasively and why more girls don't go into computer science



ANDREW FEDERMAN

PROFILE

NAMES
Brittany Wenger

TITLE
Highschool senior

LOCATION
Lakewood Ranch, Fla.

How did you feel when you heard you had won not only your age category but also the grand prize at the July 23 awards ceremony?

I was just so excited. It was a surreal experience walking up there. I don't even know how I got up there.

Tell me about your project.

I taught the computer how to diagnose breast cancer so it could determine whether a breast mass is malignant or benign. I did this because currently the least invasive form of biopsy, known as a fine-needle aspirate, is actually the least conclusive. So a lot of doctors can't use it.

I created an artificial neural network, which is a type of program that learns based on its experiences and mistakes, so it classifies problems that are far too complex for humans to classify. Then I fed information into the neural network from a database of fine-needle aspirates.

Currently the network is 99.1 percent sensitive to malignancies, and I ran 7.6 million trials and proved that, as I get more data, the success rate increases and the inconclusivity rate decreases, so I think with more data it will prove to be hospital ready.

What inspired your project?

In the seventh grade I grew fascinated by artificial intelligence, which I came across while working on a school project. I went home that night, and I bought a computer programming book and, with no experience, decided that was what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

Computer science is one area where men still outnumber women. Why do you think that's the case?

I think sometimes there's a stereotype around computer science, that it's just video game development, and more boys are hard-core game developers than girls. But you have to realize it's our Web sites, our Google tools, it's our Facebook, and I think that you could reach girls more if you could appeal to what they're using computer science for.

But also I think we've come a long way. More girls are getting interested in science, and I know it used to be that girls weren't encouraged, but I've never felt like I couldn't go into science, like I was being discriminated against because I was a girl.

Have you decided what career path you'd like to pursue?

I want to be on the frontier of cancer research, finding the cures that are going to save lives and doing things with computer science that can be the technologies of the future. I also want to be a pediatric oncologist, so I hope to intertwine my passions for research, computer science and patient care in the future.

What are the next steps for your project?

It will take a long time, but I hope to scale it up and bring it into hospitals. I put my neural network into the cloud because the cloud is this amazing, elastic entity that allows for a million hospitals to access it tomorrow if they want and to provide feedback. I'm so happy to have won the Google Science Fair because it will give me a new platform, and people will take me more seriously.

COMMENT AT ScientificAmerican.com/oct2012

This article was originally published with the title "Coding Her Way to the Top."

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