TIME's Thirty under Thirty Brittany Wenger talks research, Duke experience

Brittany Wenger—a Duke freshman and Angier B. Duke scholar—was recently named one of TIME magazine’s Thirty Under Thirty people who are changing the world with their ideas. Wenger won the Google Science Fair Prize in 2012 for developing a computer program that successfully detected over 99 percent of malignant breast tumors in a test set. The Chronicle’s Jenna Zhang sat down with Wenger to discuss her research, experience at Duke and future plans.

The Chronicle: What’s it like being named one of the TIME Thirty Under Thirty?

Brittany Wenger: It was definitely really surprising and exciting. They had a board that voted on who was going to be named the Thirty Under Thirty. It’s great to know that those people really believed in my research, and to have something like TIME behind me is obviously huge, especially since I’m nineteen on Thirty Under Thirty list. I never thought that would happen.

TC: How was it coming to Duke after creating a breast cancer diagnosis program that garnered so many accolades after it was released?

BW: It was really nice that I was able to get into a lab when I got here. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of support for the project. I got to meet the President and explain it to him. I got to go to CERN, which was really cool. I got to go underground and see the Large Hadron Collider and such. So I’ve definitely been really lucky to have people believe in my project, and it made it into hospitals, which is really exciting.

TC: Are you continuing your previous work or will you be starting new projects at Duke?

BW: Both. I work in the Murphy Lab on campus, so I’m doing a lot of wet lab work there, but I’m also hoping to use my program to analyze the dataset that the lab has. Right now my program works in diagnosing both breast cancer and leukemia. And of course, I’m looking to use those further and get them into hospitals and help real patients.

TC: How has your time at Duke been so far?

BW: It’s been great. I really liked my Genome Focus Program this Fall. I’m actually planning to pursue the Genome certificate now. It’s cool to have eighteen person classes as a freshman. Professor [Huntington] Willard, [director of the Duke Institute for Genome Institute Sciences and Policy], was one of my professors. He’s a pretty big deal, so to have a discussion-based class with him is just really exciting, so definitely enjoying that. I’m on the Quidditch team and recently joined Round Table, so it’s been good. Definitely like it a lot—lots of nice people, lots of good friends.

TC: How did you decide to come to Duke?

BW: It was actually a really difficult decision. Essentially, I got accepted to twelve colleges and had one month to visit them and figure it out, so I didn’t visit them all. When I came to Duke though, I felt the most at home though. I stayed with a girl who had very similar interests to me. I saw her research, and I saw how accessible all the professors were. I got to meet with people who were running labs, and I felt like the Duke community and students really got along with one another, and I really liked it. Ultimately, it came down to Yale University, Stanford University, or Duke, and I felt like Duke was the best fit for me.

TC: What are the two best things about being at Duke? What are the two worst things?

BW: I think the best thing is definitely the community. It’s really a collaborative atmosphere, and I really enjoyed that a lot. And again, I really liked how open the research is to undergraduates and being able to go into a lab and bring ideas and work on questions that I’m interested in solving, and have the support from Duke to get the mentors that will help me do that. I think the hardest part about being at Duke is the time. There’s so much I want to do, and there are so many great opportunities, it’s just a matter of realizing there are only 24 hours in a day to fulfill them all. I’m also a big family person, so it’s hard being away from home...

TC: Who is your favorite professor and what is your favorite class?

BW: Last semester, I took Genomes, Biology and Medicine with Professor Willard, and it was absolutely incredible. We sat around and read these peer-reviewed articles that were breaking news, and we just got to learn about genomics and have class discussions. We got introduced to so many different aspects of the field that we were really able to figure out what might interest us in this broad and emerging area. I really like the idea of systems biology and understanding different protein interactions, and that was something I got further interested in throughout the course.... It was definitely a very inspiring course, and Professor Willard is very approachable. He would email back and forth with us after every class and have lunches with students. He’s incredible.

TC: Do you have any plans for the summer?

BW: Yeah, this summer I’m going to Russia with the State Department. I’m really excited. I’m going to a technology conference there, and I’m going to schools to talk about my research and such. I’m always coding and improving it, and I recently got through the second round of peer review with one of my articles, so definitely furthering the research. Afterwards I’m going to study abroad in Oxford, [England] so it’s definitely going to be a busy summer, but it’ll be a lot of fun.

TC: What do you envision yourself doing after Duke?

BW: I really want to get an MD-Ph.D, so on one hand I want to be a pediatric oncologist, and on the other hand, I’d also like to continue doing this sort of interdisciplinary research—combining computer science and biology, and to be on a team that works to find cures for cancer and to have those kind of breakthroughs that can help to save lives.


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