Catherine Wong has ideas that "flatten the earth," yet remains grounded. Maybe it's the mismatched socks.
Whatever her secret, the 17-year-old Morristown High School senior from Morris Township remained humble despite all the attention presented her Thursday afternoon when she was honored by school officials for being named a finalist in the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search.
She joins 39 other finalists—out of nearly 2,000 applicants nationwide—who will compete in March in Washington, D.C. for $630,000 in prizes and present their research at the National Geographic Society. Winners will be announced at an award ceremony on March 12.
Wong's research project, "A Novel Design for Wireless Low-Cost Cardiac Examination Over the Mobile Phone Platform: Telemedicine for the Developing World," provides the mechanism for real-time transmission of medical data through a cell phone, providing access to health care to nearly two-billion people in remote or underdeveloped areas of the world. Dr. Eric Topol, a cardiologist at the Scripps Research Institute in California remarked that Wong's project “is the kind of technology that ‘flattens the earth’ for better medical care.”
Such monumental accomplishments seem out of place when looking at the teen, jumping up-and-down, cracking jokes and, yes, wearing mismatched socks, something Wong emphasized a deep fondness.
But it's no surprise to people like Morristown High School Interim Principal Ethel Minchello, was was principal at Frelinghuysen Middle School when Wong was a student. She noted the teen was the recipient of the Morris School District's "Superintendent's Award" for three years.
"She is a unique young woman," Minchello said. "She is brilliant but as down to earth as they come."
Wong said the idea for her project came during her freshman year, when she saw an exhibit called "Design for the Other 98 Percent." She noted how the goal of a "tiny sliver of the population" was "to make shiny gadgets for those who already have so much."
Wong said cell phones made sense for the technology because, "no other technology is as widespread."
Electrocardiograms currently cost as much as $4,000. However, Wong's project could see such potentially-life-saving procedures cost $250. And, that figure will continue to drop.
"It's really old technology," she said. "But, the thinking has been 'if it's not broken, why bother?' There is more money in new technology instead of refining old technology. It's something that can be made a lot smaller and a lot cheaper. We don't need to reinvent everything from the ground up."
Erin Colfax, a teacher in the Science Academy at Morristown High School, has served as Wong's research mentor for three years. "Cathy is an intrinsically-motivated person that wants to impact society," she said. "I am honored to have had the opportunity to see her grow."
In addition to Colfax, Wong thanked physics teacher Anthony Danese, "who let me bother him with circuitry questions during lunch and after school while simultaneously teaching an absolutely awesome AP Physic class."
If Wong wins the competition, some of her winnings the teen said would go toward college. She also intends to donate a portion. "For someone with a $1 daily salary, imagine what $100,000 could do," Wong said.
She also is not done with further exploring mobile phone technology. "I would really like to see how many diagnostic tools can be made and adapted to the mobile phone," she said.