When Aileen Wang was a freshman at Aliso Niguel High School, her aunt was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.
The news came as a shock to her and her family, given that her aunt saw her doctor often and had regular mammograms. Wang began to wonder why the diagnosis had not been made sooner, and after three years of research, the 17 year old senior developed her own statistical framework for diagnosing both breast and skin cancer.
“Her cancer definitely would’ve been caught sooner if this framework had been used,” said Wang. “It’s surreal. I never thought my research would be at this point.”
Most recently, Wang’s research took her to the regional finals of the Siemens Foundation’s 2014 Math, Science and Technology Competition, which was held at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The competition pits the country’s best high school research projects against one another, and the winner takes home a $100,000 scholarship.
Although Wang did not win and move on to the national finals in Washington, D.C., she took home a $1,000 scholarship, and her research provided the opportunity to attend an international cancer conference in Italy.
Wang’s diagnosis framework utilizes a mathematical algorithm to analyze images of potentially cancerous areas. Wang used image databases to develop her framework, and she said it is ready to be implemented in hospitals and doctors’ offices.
Although Wang’s interest in cancer research had been percolating in her head for more than a year, it took off more seriously after she began taking Math and Science Olympiad classes at the Ardent Academy For Gifted Youth in Irvine in May 2013. There, she met founder Dr. James Li, who perceived Wang’s desire to conduct research and decided to mentor her.
Li, who also serves as president of the Orange County Science and Technology Fair, said he only taught Wang research methods and provided advice to help get her over bumps in the road – the hard work was all her.
“One thing that stood out about Aileen is that she was very methodological, detail-oriented, and she never missed a research meeting,” said Li. “That kind of dedication is an early sign of a good scientist. Some kids look at the initial research and give up. She was able to think through it and get strong results.”
Wang’s research bears the title “A Novel Cancer Diagnosis Framework Using Optimal Point Region Growing Segmentation and Pseudo-Zernike Moments.” She took second place in the 2014 Orange County Science and Technology Fair’s mathematics and software category and placed third in the 2014 California State Fair’s mammalian biology category.
Wang now finds herself presenting her project to graduate students and professors. In September, Wang was the only high school student selected to present research at the International Conference on Bioinformatics, Computational Biology and Biomedical Engineering, which was held this year in Los Angeles.
This week, she’ll present her project at the International Conference on Breast Cancer in Venice, Italy. Her father, Zhongde Wang, will accompany her, and he said the whole family is proud of her success.
“We always supported her, but we never anticipated her research would take her this far,” said Zhongde Wang. “It’s a good learning experience. It’s already taught her that with patience, after all her hard work, everything is possible.”
One looming possibility in Aileen Wang’s mind, typical of any high school senior, is continuing her research in college. She said she wants to become a medical doctor and build off the research experiences she has already had.
But as for where she wants to attend college, Wang said she hopes to attend a school in the Bay Area or on the East Coast.
“I kind of want to get away from home,” said Wang, smiling.