Meet the Teenage Founder of FacePrint (and learn her tips on changing the world)
We’d like you to meet, Erin Smith, a member of the #BUILTBYGIRLS community who is changing the face of medical diagnosis research. But we will let her explain how:
Tell us about yourself and your work
My name is Erin Smith. I am an eighteen-year-old from Lenexa, Kansas. I developed FacePrint, an AI tool to diagnose and monitor Parkinson’s disease and commonly misidentified neurological disorders using video technology and early-stage facial muscle indicators. While watching a video by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, I noticed that Parkinson’s patients’ smiles and laughter often appeared emotionally distant. As I talked to clinicians and caretakers, they reported similar observations years before diagnosis. In past medical papers, I found the parts of the brain that experience early changes in Parkinson’s are the same parts involved in facial expression formation. I became captivated by the idea of using facial expressions to monitor changes in the brain like Parkinson’s, leading me to develop FacePrint.
Recently, I was one of twenty young innovators selected for the Thiel Fellowship. As part of this fellowship, I will spend the next two years working on transitioning FacePrint from a research project into a startup aimed at transforming neurological disease detection and treatment under the support and mentorship of the Thiel Foundation. Upon completion of the fellowship, I will begin my studies at Stanford University where I will be studying neuroscience and computer science.
In my free time, I love going on long walks and thinking, spending Sunday evenings at the park with my younger brothers, and experimenting with new recipes.
What are three lessons you learned from starting FacePrint?
🚀 Starting FacePrint has taught me the importance of building your own unconventional path in life. Two years ago, I began to realize how much I was merely going through the motions. I was progressing throughout much of life in a form of autopilot. I realized it was vital for me to break this rut. I began examining my life and redefining my own personal version of success. I learned that prioritizing meaningful relationships and pursuing disruptive ideas is much more exciting than merely progressing throughout life according to societal norms. Now, I have learned to own my nuances and quirks and try to make life as much as a daily adventure as possible.
🌎 I have learned the importance of being part of something larger than yourself. Developing FacePrint is one piece of a larger puzzle to create a future without Parkinson’s disease. It is one scientific link towards understanding the vast complexities behind mental health, cognitive decline, and neurodegenerative diseases. I have learned to be energized and form connections with the strong community of individuals who are determined to join forces on tackling these challenging. I have learned community is critically important in order to create a better future.
💆 Developing FacePrint has also taught me the importance of self-care and wellness. I have redesigned my day-to-day life. Little daily habits that promote my health are the backbone of my schedule. These habits have tangential benefits that affect every aspect of my life. For example, morning yoga and nightly runs (two of my favorite habits) not only boost my physical health, but they are also powerful tools for brainstorming and analyzing business problems that I am facing. Writing has also become a daily outlet that I use to examine my productivity and form new ideas.
How did you first hear about #BUILTBYGIRLS?
I first heard about #BUILTBYGIRLS two years ago at the beginning of my Junior year at high school. I saw a random Facebook post about the #BUILTBYGIRLS Challenge on the National Center for Women in Technology Facebook page. That serendipitous encounter was the beginning of finding an amazing community of empowering women through #BUILTBYGIRLS who have become some of my favorite mentors and lifelong friends.
What’s a tangible career advice that you received from a mentor/advisor figure that changed the way you approach your work?
Recently, I was facing a large life question that involved two different scenarios/futures. One of my mentors suggested that I take a new notebook and write “My Story with Future 1” on the first page. Then, on the last page, write “My Story with Future 2”. From there, I wrote everything I could about the two different options. As I approached the middle of the journal, the answer became apparent. This exercise has taught me that we often too narrowly look at potential options when we face decisions. In reality, choices are always more nuanced than only two choices. This journal exercise has helped me better analyze the choices in front of me and see complex relationships and connections.
What is one thing you want everyone in the #BUILTBYGIRLS community to know?
I want everyone in the #BUILTBYGIRLS community to believe in the power of their voice and ideas. A simple way to instill this belief is to start asking questions. Ask lots of questions about the world around you and to everyone you meet. Don’t be afraid of asking stupid questions; desensitize yourself to this fear. Instead, be brave enough to question. I have found that if I am willing to genuinely listen to responses, I am always amazed at what I find out. Further, I would encourage the #BUILTBYGIRLS community to begin asking questions to the people or about the situations that no one else is willing to ask questions about. That is where great ideas, potential, and learning awaits.
What is a myth you want to debunk about teenagers or young women?
There is a pervasive misunderstanding that teenagers are apathetic or lazy. I fundamentally disagree with this. I believe teenagers (and especially young women!) are innately empathetic and motivated and are society’s greatest asset for developing solutions to the most pressing global issues. Teenagers are equipped with two resources vital to create change: time and freedom. I believe teenagers must be equipped with the tools and outlets necessary to pursue their interests, especially when these interests are unconventional. Further, I believe that we must reimagine education. The education system must be redesigned to be more engaging and individualized.
What is your power move?
My power move is developing FacePrint and building an unconventional educational future for myself and others.
Watch Erin’s TedxTalk (yes, she has her own TedxTalk🤯 ) to learn more about FacePrint and how she executed this massive research project.