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Rising leaders: Erin Smith is using selfies to create a healthier world

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Illustrated portrait of Erin Smith, founder and creator of FacePrint, a technology that provides early detection of Parkinson's Disease
Illustration by Petra Eriksson
It's often said that change starts small. But the truth is, it also starts young. This is part of a series of conversations with young people who are leading the way and taking action to create the futures they want to see.

W hen 19-year-old Erin Smith was a high school student in Lenexa, Kansas, she developed FacePrint, a revolutionary approach to detecting Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders. We recently spoke with Erin about her roots as an innovator and why the world needs to listen to young people.


Tell us about FacePrint, the early detection tool you created for Parkinson’s disease and other neurological conditions.
FacePrint turns selfies into a powerful healthcare tool. During high school, after watching a video by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, I noticed that whenever Fox or another patient with Parkinson’s disease would smile or laugh, it came off as emotionally distant—years before diagnosis.

I became captivated by the idea of using facial expressions to monitor changes in the brain like those created by Parkinson’s, and to objectively detect and monitor the progression of those changes. This led me to create FacePrint, an early detection and monitoring system for Parkinson’s disease and commonly misidentified disorders using video technology and early-stage facial expression impairments. FacePrint was developed and validated through two initial pilot studies and is currently undergoing clinical trials with Stanford Medical School and the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
CLICK TO PLAY: Thumbnail for Erin Smith Ted Talk on early detection of Parkinson's Disease
Smile to see if you have Parkinson’s Disease | Erin Smith | TEDxYouth@KC
How did you develop the knowledge and confidence to innovate at this level at such a young age?
I am a constant note taker. Ever since elementary school, I have carried around a notebook to jot down thoughts and observations. I learned to channel this curiosity into research. As a kid, my kitchen became my makeshift laboratory and I spent hours tucked away, searching for answers to my many questions. My experiments led me to enter my first science fair in fourth grade, where I examined how my classmates’ posture changed when wearing one backpack strap (the popular style at the time) versus two, and fell in love with scientific inquiry.

I’m still exploring the world’s many mysteries through scientific research in order to create tangible solutions to the most pressing global issues. One problem that especially captivates me is the lack of objective tools and technologies for brain health; there are no “Swiss army knives” or “blood tests” for neurological conditions.
Young people know that wonder and curiosity are at the root of all progress
Erin Smith
What do young people know that the rest of the world needs to pay attention to?
Young people know that the most essential thing is the impact we leave on the world. We know that wonder and curiosity are at the root of all progress and that together we can create sustainable solutions to the most pressing global issues. Young people possess a strong internal compass and a unique lens through which to examine the past and present. Our voices are one of the most powerful tools for change; the world must be willing to listen.

Posted: January 6, 2020
Edition: Beginnings

The ideas and views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Evoke or Melinda Gates.