By Elizabeth Kiefer
Brittany Wenger is one seriously smart cookie. In 2012, the then-17-year-old submitted her "artificial brain" technology -- which assesses tissue samples for breast cancer -- to the Google Science Fair and walked away with the grand prize. It was no wonder: Her invention, which uses a type of computer program called neural networks, can identify complex data patterns and make breast cancer detection calls with 99 percent accuracy. But she's not stopping there: Brittany hopes to help wipe out cancer completely.
Since she took home the gold two years ago, she's been named one of Time's 30 Under 30, given a truly inspiring TED Talk, and launched her app, Cloud4Cancer, which allows doctors to enter their own data and fuel continued cancer research. And did we mention she's also holding down a full course load at Duke University? Um, yeah.
We recently chatted with Brittany about how she got started, her challenges along the way, and how she balances being a college student with breaking the barriers of cancer diagnostics.
How did you get into computer programming?
When I was in 7th grade I took an elective class on futuristic thinking. When we were assigned our final paper, I decided to write mine on technology of the future. The moment I started researching artificial intelligence and its transcendence into human knowledge, I was inspired. I went out and bought a coding textbook, and taught myself how to code. I remember one of the first projects that I ever worked on was an artificial neural network that taught people how to play soccer.
You're a self-taught coder who went on to create a potentially game-changing cancer detection tool. How did that happen?
Well, it definitely didn't happen overnight. I spent over five years working with neural networks, starting with an entire year of research to try and recognize patterns and connect breast cancer to artificial intelligence. I faced a lot of roadblocks along the way, as this was a very complicated program with no predefined solution. I went through thousands of pages of coding and data that was available through public domains, and performed over 7.6 million test trials. I two failed projects before finally succeeding on my third attempt, taking what didn't work the first few times to optimize the code that helped build the Cloud4Cancer app.
Why did you decide on developing breast cancer detection technology?
When I was 15, my cousin was diagnosed with breast cancer. I have a very close-knit family, so seeing the impact that the disease can have on a woman and her family, firsthand, was so real to me. When I learned that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, I knew that I wanted to get involved in making the process better for patients. Now, the coding that I first used to help detect breast cancer has been extended into diagnosing other types of cancers, including blood-based diseases like leukemia.
What's been the most rewarding part of the process?
The people. I've already had the opportunity to work with real patients and breast cancer survivors, as well as talk with kids who are interested in doing research or coding in the future. Knowing that my cloud application has the potential to save lives and expedite the process of discovery is so rewarding. I still get chills thinking about how, a couple of years down the line, my research can actually contribute to finding the cure for cancer.
You've got a lot on your plate these days, between Cloud4Cancer and school. How do you balance everything?
The great thing about where I am with school right now is that my schedule is entirely what I make it. I can attend classes during the week and then travel over some weekends. School is not something that I will ever bend on, as I'm actually going for my MD, PhD in pediatric oncology. At the same time, my initiative is so important to me, I don't want either one to ever outweigh the other. Luckily, I think they complement each other well and what I'm learning in my classes helps me improve Cloud4Cancer.
What's one thing you want other young women to know if they're thinking about going the tech route?
If you're interested, go for it! There have never been so many available resources or opportunities -- for women, and for society as a whole -- to pursue a career in the field. I love how technology allows you to make new things by putting together the little pieces and working towards something bigger that can really benefit the world. There's no greater feeling than solving a problem and seeing your code come to life.