Jan. 22, 2018 -- Most 17-year-olds spend about 9 hours out of each day glued to a cellphone or other screen. By her 17th birthday, Kavya Kopparapu had invented two cellphone apps -- one to diagnose diabetic eye disease, the other to help EMTs pull medical information from unconscious patients' smartphones.
Kopparapu is one of three pioneering young people WebMD honored as part of its 11th annual Health Heroes Awards. The event brought together industry leaders and award winners for a town hall and live webcast from WebMD’s corporate headquarters in New York City.
Each year, WebMD honors inspiring innovators and activists who help others live healthier lives.
Also being recognized as Health Heroes are Lauren Singer, who did groundbreaking autism research while still in high school, and Chloe Fernandez, who is already a published author at age 10.
Recognizing that the brightest young minds thrive most when guided, WebMD added a Mentor of the Year Award. The first recipient is Donna Magid, MD, a Johns Hopkins University radiologist who helps her students navigate medical school from the time they enter until graduation.
“The concept of Health Heroes is built on the promise that all of us, whatever our background may be, can take our concerns, our stories and passions … and use them to improve the lives of other people,” said ceremony emcee Jenna Wolfe, a former “Today” show correspondent who now co-hosts a show on Fox Sports One.
The ceremony was followed by a panel discussion and Q&A moderated by WebMD's Hansa Bhargava, MD.
The youngest of this year’s winners is Chloe Fernandez, who at just 9 years old wrote and published a book -- PCD Has Nothing on Me! The story is about her life with primary ciliary dyskinesia (PCD), a rare genetic disease that damages the lungs.
Fernandez has since become an activist for the cause, donating the proceeds from her book to the PCD Foundation and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which helped her get published. She also acts and models.
Fernandez wants people to know one thing about her: "I have PCD, but PCD doesn’t have me. I can do anything I want!"
There are many children and adults living with PCD, she said at Monday’s awards ceremony, who “daily are living health battles that are unknown, unseen and unimaginable to most people.”
Fernandez praised her mother for supporting her work.
“Mom, thank you for raising me to know that not only do I have a voice, but that my voice matters and can make a difference,” she said.
Asked later during a panel discussion where she sees herself in 10 years, the now 11-year-old Fernandez had a lofty goal. “I just want to keep writing books,” she said. “I want to be a New York Times best-seller.”
Lauren Singer, 18, spent her sophomore year in high school studying insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) -- which could be a new treatment for autism -- with investigators at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. The inspiration for her work came from her older sister, Jodie, who has the condition.
Today, Singer is a freshman at Yale University studying perceptive cognitive science. In the future, she hopes to continue the work she started while in high school.
"What I ultimately want to do is become a psychiatrist who works with people with developmental disabilities, or some combination of a psychiatrist and a researcher," she says.
Singer was unable to attend Monday’s ceremony, but in a prepared speech she laid out the need for more research on autism.
“One in 68 individuals in the United States has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder,” her prepared remarks said. “It’s by focusing on research that we will develop new treatments and resources that best improve the lives of people with autism.”
Kavya Kopparapu has packed more innovation and entrepreneurship into her 17 years than most people achieve in a lifetime. By high school, she'd taught herself four computer programming languages -- Java, Python, C++, and HTML. Last year, she invented Eyeagnosis, a 3D-printed lens system and mobile app to diagnose diabetic retinopathy -- a diabetes complication that can lead to blindness.
Eyeagnosis wasn't Kopparapu's first invention. As a freshman at the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA, she came up with MediKey. This mobile app allows EMTs to quickly and easily get critical medical data from patients' cell phones.
Kopparapu has also hosted her own Artificial Intelligence (AI) Summit and created a computing league for girls. Next up, she'll work on a new way to use AI to diagnose glioblastoma -- one of the most aggressive and deadly forms of brain cancer.
WebMD will honor Kopparapu as an inventor, but she gives herself a slightly different title. "I think the innovator title fits me the best, or I’d like to think it fits me the best. I’m super passionate about this research," she says.
The goal of her work, Kopparapu said Monday, with a brilliant smile, is: “Making the world a better place, one algorithm at a time.”
Later, during the panel discussion, Kopparapu said technology must lead to real change for everyone.
“I’m hoping in the future, we’ll have a lot more innovation in computer science that will fuel innovations for everyone,” she said.
Asked what she would like to be doing in 10 years, Kopparapu was quick to answer.
“I see me and my brother have started a company where we can put these medical innovations in the hands of people who really need them,” she said, before adding: “Making a lot of money would be really nice, too.”
Donna Magid, MD, came to mentoring by accident. She was working as a radiologist at Johns Hopkins University when a radiology teacher got sick. She suddenly found herself in charge of the class. She's never looked back.
Since then, Magid has devoted much of her time to mentoring medical students. Whether they want advice on how to apply for residencies or need someone to bounce ideas off of, she's there. Magid has launched two computer-based tools -- TeamRads and Apps of Steel -- to help her students succeed.
Students consistently let her know how much she's helped them. "They will look at me and say, 'You changed my life.' I appreciate that," she says.
At Monday’s ceremony, Magid said mentoring helps promise quality health care for the next generation.
“To be able in a small way to guide, to encourage or enable our future medical leaders, the people who will eventually join and replace us, is an honor and challenge and an intense responsibility I could not take more seriously,” she said.
During the Q&A session, Magid said seeing the “light bulb” go off in her students remains a thrill for her. It is why she said a decade’s time will hopefully see her in her same role.
“I’d like to keep doing it for as long as I can, for as many students as I can.”