It was in 1915, that a 25-year-old Australian-born physicist named William Bragg Jnr. received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the field of x-ray crystallography. At the time, he was the youngest scientist ever to receive the honour.
Flash forward to present time and the ground-breaking work of young scientists continue to change the world. Scientists in their teens and even pre-teens are creating and discovering all over the globe producing work that can rival that of scientist’s twice or even triple their age, proving that success in science has no age barrier.
Brittany Wenger, the winner of the 2012 Google International Science Fair, is one such example of a young scientist making waves with her work.
Wenger won with her creation of a computer program that can detect breast cancer cells with 99.11% sensitivity. She taught herself to code from a textbook after learning about artificial intelligence in school. An avid soccer player, her first coding venture, resulted in a computer program that could play soccer, “learning” and improving from past experiences.
It wasn’t until her cousin was diagnosed with breast cancer that Wenger realized she could turn her hobby into a tool that could help millions of people.
Wegner looked into the type of diagnostic procedures medical practitioners used to detect cancer cells in America and discovered that certain non-invasive fine needle practices were often disregarded due to the inconclusiveness of their results.
Wenger set to work creating a tool that could help medical practitioners with this drawback. She created a program that could screen and assess cells based on their size, shape, and the appearance of their internal components then determine whether the cells were benign or malignant. Her remarkable computer program then went up against more than 5,000 entries in the Google International Science Fair and she won the Grand Prize, all before she had turned eighteen.
With her win came a whirlwind of acclaim. She was given the opportunity to present her work to Barack Obama at the White House and has presented several TED talks. Not only that, her work began to be utilized in practice in hospitals with the beta testing of her breast cancer program. Wenger, herself, found the most gratifying outcome of her scientific work was meeting survivors of breast cancer, knowing one day her work could perhaps help with finding a cure for the terrible disease.
Brittany Wenger is continuing her work in cancer detection with hopes to create coding that will detect differences in breast cancer type (i.e. slow or fast growing). Her initial breast cancer program has evolved into an app known as Cloud4Cancer, in which samples can be submitted for trial testing to help Wenger further improve her program. Wenger endeavours to broaden her work to include other types of cancer, including blood-borne cancers such as leukaemia.
Brittany Wenger is a prime example of the positive change a young scientist can make to the world through their work, and she is not alone.
Thousands of young scientists are exploring innovative ideas everyday and with the active encouragement of scientific exploration many more young people will join them. Curiosity does not respect age brackets, it is in all of us. Brilliant scientific minds like William Bragg Jr. and Brittany Wegner may have been more curious and determined than most their age but, importantly, their age was never a barrier to scientific success and, to me at least, that is a very exciting thought.