Brittany Wenger walks on stage in a pretty dress, returning to an event she won a year ago. She tells the audience about the incredible year she’s had – traveling to faraway places, meeting amazing people, getting the opportunity to change the world. She looks over at this year’s hopeful finalists and assures them that they’re all already winners, and that they will go on to do great things in their lives. It seems she ought to be wearing a crown.
Yet this isn’t a pageant, but the gala for the 2013 Google Science Fair. Each year, budding kid scientists from around the world submit their projects online. Out of thousands of entries from more than 100 countries last year, Brittany won the grand prize for her “artificial neural network” to diagnose breast cancer. She was 17 years old.
Her program attempts to revive a technique that has fallen out of favor. Doctors traditionally use a fine needle to draw out cells from a suspicious mass to examine them under a microscope. This type of biopsy is the least painful and invasive method of diagnosis. Unfortunately, the samples can also be hard to evaluate, so the results often turn out inconclusive or flat-out wrong. Brittany set out to program a computer to evaluate the data. So instead of passing through one doctor’s judgment, a sample is considered by a computer “brain” that benefits from all the previous data it has seen. Its artificial intelligence allows it to learn with every test and become more and more accurate. After 7.6 million trials, Brittany’s program correctly diagnoses a malignancy 99.11% of the time, which beats other existing programs by 4.97%. It’s now available online for anyone to use.
Besides a $50,000 Google scholarship, her win included a trip to Galapagos and an internship at a sponsoring company of her choice. She has also traveled to give four TEDx talks about her program. As she’s going through an airport earlier this year, she gets a call from Google with an extraordinary invitation: The White House would like her to participate in its annual science fair. She would get the opportunity to explain her research to the President. “I remember waiting by my research display, really excited, and then he came by,” she says of President Obama. “He is very charismatic and has a way of putting you at ease. I could tell he was really interested.”
Of all the colleges vying for her attention, Brittany ultimately decides to attend Duke University. Not only is Duke providing a full merit scholarship, but it is also supporting her research. Brittany used to program while sitting on the floor of her bedroom with her dog. Now she works in an epigenetic lab with graduate students and other senior researchers.
She traces her interest in programming to seventh grade, when she first hears about artificial intelligence through a class project. Immediately, she gets a book on programming and learns to code. Initially, she teaches her computer how to play soccer – another one of her passions. When a relative is diagnosed with breast cancer two years later, her focus shifts to the disease.
Her mother, Cami, remembers even further back. When her grandmother was diagnosed with leukemia, Cami would drive 1.5 hours twice a week to see her. For more than a year, she would take Brittany along, and give her the job of tucking in the sides of blankets. Only two years old at the time, Brittany takes the task very seriously and gets an early exposure to the medical world. Then her brother, Tyler, is born premature and spends his first four years in and out of hospitals with a lung condition. During these hospital visits, Cami notices that Brittany would ask the medical staff endless questions. Instead of being scared or depressed, she is fascinated with science.
She also grows up with a deep sense of family, just as her mother had done. During her childhood in Maryland, Cami and her tight-knit relatives all lived in the same subdivision and ate dinner together at a different house every night. She met her husband, Jeff, at the University of Miami, and they have built an extended, supportive community around their family in Sarasota, Florida.
Brittany recognizes that she’s lucky to have such a close family. When her first two attempts at her program fail, she receives nothing but positive support. On her third attempt, she needs to test her program every four hours. All day and night, she would set her alarm to get to the computer on time. “I was using the home computer in addition to my laptop, so I had to walk upstairs to record results and kick off new trials during the night,” she says. “My little brother could often hear me walk up the stairs (because his bedroom was right below), but he didn’t complain.”
As this goes on for months, while she’s also taking AP classes and getting straight As, her parents start to worry about her. Sometimes she would only get an hour’s sleep in between alarms. Yet she convinces them about the importance of these results, and they agree to let her insane schedule continue. “It was tough, but we didn’t want to knock her dreams down,” says Cami. “It’s amazing to see how excited she gets. She’s taught us quite a bit about passion.”
Finally, late one night, Brittany watches as her program works for the first. “A truly exhilarating, shocking and surreal moment,” she says.
Since her Google Science Fair win, Brittany has been in great demand. Cami has quit her human resources job to support her daughter. She travels with Brittany so she won’t have to attend events alone. Cami finds it remarkable how much her kids enjoy being with their parents and with each other, certainly not typical for teenagers. Among their many family activities, they participate in the annual Susan G. Komen Walk in Lakewood Ranch, Florida. Brittany has been a team captain for the past two years.
With a survivor in the family, they remain personally invested in breast cancer research and awareness. Cami recently visits a Brighton Collectibles in Sarasota to learn more about the company’s annual Power of Pink campaign. Meanwhile at Duke, Brittany plans to major in computer science and biology before going on to medical school. What’s her next goal after that? Without skipping a beat, both she and Cami say, “Find the cure for cancer.” If that happens, she should get a crown.