Brittany Wenger - TIME 30 Under 30

Arguably one of the most accomplished and nationally recognized Duke students, Brittany Wenger is also surprisingly humble, sweet, and kind. Sitting in the hallway in Alspaugh and waving hello to each person that passed by, I could tell that Brittany, a freshman, was not only respected but also, extremely well-liked.  She recently received the amazing honor of being named to the TIME Magazine 30 Under 30, which rewards 30 young people who are making an impact globally, and was the Grand Prize Winner of the Google Science Fair in 2012. Her research to lower the cost and raise the precision of cancer diagnoses is making headlines, and has the power to affect millions of lives in the future.

Brittany Wenger started coding in seventh grade. At a time that most of us were painting our nails and watching SpongeBob, Brittany was writing computer programs to teach the computer how to “play” soccer. “The program knew when to pass, kick, and score,” Wenger said. Her “obsession” with coding began with a class called Futuristic Thinking at her middle school in Florida. She was assigned a project on artificial intelligence, and was intrigued by the possibilities of coding. From there, she picked up a college “How to Code 101” textbook, and started teaching herself programs. “I started small, and my programs and experiments [in the future] would flop at first, but they eventually succeeded,” she says of her initial efforts at coding.

She began designing an artificial “neural network” that mimics the way a human brain operates. After 7.6 million trials, the program can effectively “learn” what malignant breast cancer cells look like, and then it can make diagnostic calls. The crucial part about this diagnostic tool is that it uses “fine needle aspirates”, which is a much less invasive technique than commonly used methods, such as biopsies. However, fine needle aspirates are usually not precise; however, Brittany’s was. Cloud4Cancer, her program, is 99% effective in detecting malignant cells. This feat won her the Google Science Fair in 2012. “So many amazing opportunities have come out of winning the Google Science Fair,” she said, “I met the father of the internet, I visited CERN in Geneva, and I got the chance to explain my program to President Obama [she has been to the White House three times!].”

Through constant developing and testing her program, Cloud4Cancer can now detect the proteins that are present in leukemia, which allows the program to diagnose people with leukemia at lower costs and less pain. She is now setting her sights on ovarian cancer. “Ovarian cancer is extremely hard to detect, and it is hard to identify which cases reoccur and why,” she said. She hopes that her research here at Duke can someday solve that problem.

Brittany came to Duke because of the “accessibility” of professors and labs to undergraduate students. She is working with Professor Willard, a renowned professor of Genome Science and Policy, in an ovarian cancer epigenetic lab. She is double majoring in Computer Science and Biology, with the Genome certificate, and is pre-MD/Ph.D.  At the moment, she is working on publishing an article on her research, which just passed through the 2nd round of peer reviews. Cloud4Cancer is also being beta tested in two hospitals in Philadelphia and Italy, and she hopes that more hospitals will start using her program. “Now it is just a factor of exposure and time,” she said. Fittingly, Brittany has just garnered extreme exposure; she was named to the TIME Magazine 30 Under 30 list, which has listed people like Adele and Mark Zuckerburg in the past. “I was really shocked and really honored and excited,” she says of the achievement. Since then, she has appeared on MSNBC, and is touring with the State Department through Russia this summer, where she will be giving speeches about her program and attending a TED Talk conference there. From Russia, she will go to Oxford for study abroad.

If you see Brittany on campus, perhaps playing in a Quidditch match or an intramural soccer game, say hello to her. Her huge smile and fun personality might make you forget that you are talking to one of the youngest and most accomplished researchers in the nation. And if you can, ask for an autograph, because Brittany Wenger is guaranteed to be famous someday soon.