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Teen develops device to detect cancer faster, with greater accuracy

MEET YOUR NEIGHBOR: Devin Willis, 14

Ambitious might be an understatement in how teen inventor Devin Willis describes himself. The 14-year-old Boca Raton resident has created a device to help detect cancer faster, with accuracy, and is a top ten finalist in a prestigious science competition for his invention. In addition, he will graduate in a few years with a high school diploma and a college degree, all while trying to launch his first business.

Willis, who is a freshman at A.D. Henderson University School & FAU High School in Boca Raton, came up with the idea for his SLIDEMAP machine as a sixth-grader for a science project. The invention helps pathologists with diagnosing cancer by combining 3D printing technology with computer programming.

Willis, a finalist in the Discovery Education and 3M Young Scientist Challenge, will be competing for a prize of $25,000 in October. The competition recognizes students nationwide in grades five through eight who develop ideas and inventions that solve global issues.

His father, Scooter Willis, specializes in bioinformatics and researching cancer, and his grandfather passed away from lung cancer, so cancer was something that he was passionate about.

Willis said that he couldn’t help his grandfather survive the disease, but would like to help others with this device.

“I kind of want to follow in my dad’s footsteps,” he said. “Maybe my grandfather wouldn’t have died from lung cancer if I had developed this machine.”

Willis said his device, a scanner with a low-cost platform, can be used to help speed the results of cancer analysis and diagnosis. “When a pathologist reviews a slide with a cancer tumor sample on it, the machine then takes a series of images and the machine will get one big image of the whole slide,” he said. “And then the machine will run an algorithm on it to identify different areas of the side.”

Willis said his invention is also cost-effective at about $1,500. The image quality is comparable to high-end machines, which cost about $250,000 each.

He also wants to start his own business with this machine. Willis said there is already one company interested, and he plans on working with pathology companies, which would utilize this technology for a fee.

Willis said pathologists may find the machine useful because when they look at a cancer slide, they have only about five to 10 minutes — maybe 15 — before they have to go onto the next one. He said his invention would allow them to make a slide map or series of images, which would cut down on time and increase accuracy.

The young inventor plans to receive his undergraduate degree and high school diploma simultaneously in a few years, and go on to graduate school after completely developing the machine and establishing his business.

Willis thinks science is a “quest for knowledge” and also just plain fun. “I’m always ready to learn and try to do something new,” he said.

Q&A

What are your hobbies?

I (play) sports like basketball and track and field. And engineering robotics.

What would you do if you were invisible for a day?

Sneak into NASA. Sneak into some tech organization and see what they are doing.

If you could have dinner with anyone in history, who would it be?

Thomas Edison — a lot of failures, a lot of success, but mostly failures. I would ask him how he went through all that failing to succeed.

What is the best advice you ever received?

Fail early. Fail often. It lets me expect failure. To not be surprised if my machine doesn’t work. And basically just keep going.

What event in history would you have liked to the witness?

The invention of the internet.

What is your favorite childhood memory?

Right now, it’s just being able to come to robotics and being connected with other people (who enjoy robotics).

Who is your hero, someone who inspires you?

My dad, because I want to seem good in his eyes. I want him to think highly of me. He does a lot for our family and I want to do the same.

What is something most people don’t know about you?

Most of the people at school don’t know I do sports. They see me as just smart (working with science) all day. My favorite sport right now is track and field.

What three things would you bring with you if you were stuck on a desert island?

Duct tape, a lighter and a phone.

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