Ellen Xu, a student from the LaunchX 2020 summer program, has created a deep learning algorithm with image analysis for the early diagnosis of Kawasaki Disease, a project which she started a few years back when her sister was diagnosed with Kawasaki Disease (the #1 heart disease in children in the U.S. and Japan) at only 3 years old. This year, Ellen was a Regeneron International Science & Engineering Fair finalist in the Robotics & Intelligent Machines Category for this project, and is currently working with doctors to improve and implement her algorithm in hospitals.
As high school students, we all have our own ideas, interests, and initiatives. You may be interested in computer science, business, or literature, and have your own thoughts on how to improve these areas or participate in activities that spark your interest. It's so crucial to be involved in things that you enjoy and think about ideas to improve these aspects of your life, but I believe that it's also important to be able to act upon your ideas and create a tangible impact. And it's never too early to start as a high schooler. Whether you have an idea that you don't know where to start on or something that you are passionate about that you want to contribute to, I hope that these steps and actionable tips from me help you in your unique journey.
STEP 0: Understanding what matters to you
Before getting started on impacting those around you, it’s important to get to know yourself and your interests first. This doesn’t just mean choosing a field or area that you enjoy, but also a specific idea or cause that you are passionate about, or a “niche”. For example, you could be interested in medical studies and healthcare, and further narrow down your interest to develop an idea focused on a niche such as medical diagnosis or a specific health condition. It’s completely okay if you haven’t had this part completely figured out yet-- discovering what you like is a long and ever-changing process, which can only take place if you try new things! By simply staying open-minded and trying out new opportunities, you may be going through the trial-and-error of seeing what you like and don’t like without even being aware of it. Over time, you will start to see areas that you are genuinely passionate about and also areas that are not suited for you, which all serve to define and shape who you are as a person. Once you have a general idea about what matters to you, you can narrow this down to an area in which you can make an impact.
STEP 1: Finding an idea that you are genuinely passionate about.
Now that you have some initial understanding about what matters to you, it’s time to further scope that interest down to a specific project, research, or venture idea. It’s like having a flashlight and then concentrating the area of the light until it becomes a bright laser beaming on a specific point. Just like a flashlight and a laser, your idea will likely become more powerful and luminary for a specific point or group of people if you narrow it down and adjust your focus.
This doesn’t mean that you should think small or limit yourself, but rather find a specific focus to have a more meaningful impact on people. Later on, you can always expand that focus, but it’s important to identify a specific idea that you care about first just to start with to ensure that your problem is unique and reasonable. Oftentimes, this can be inspired from a personal experience or an experience of someone you know. For me, my inspiration came from my sister and an experience that impacted my life, but this could potentially come from anything, whether it be an interesting topic that you read about or an intriguing story. A good question to ask yourself when considering potential ideas is, “Is this something that will excite me and keep me up at night thinking about?” If yes, then you have found a promising place to start with and explore deeper!
STEP 2: Conduct research on your idea.
Once you have identified an idea that you would like to learn more about, it is important to research your idea, whether it be market research for entrepreneurial ventures or literary research for scientific research projects. This step is arguably one of the most important steps to ensure that you have a solid foundation and a thorough background knowledge before working on your project. When conducting research, both primary and secondary research are very valuable. Primary research can be talking to experienced professionals in the field, your target market, or simply getting feedback from the people around you. Secondary research can also be useful to learn more about the subject and discover potential ways to go about solving the issue that you are passionate about. Sometimes, after researching further into your idea, you might decide to change it or go in a different direction, and that’s completely okay! After you have sufficient background knowledge and a better understanding of the topic, you can use what you have learned to draft out a plan and layout of how you will proceed once you officially get started on creating your project/venture.
STEP 3: Act on your idea; get hands-on and build it!
Now comes the fun part-- after conducting research and considering a rough plan about how you proceed, it is time to begin on the building and iterating process. However, you will need to reflect upon your ultimate idea and goals in Steps 1 and 2 (they may have been completely altered or redefined after doing research) frequently to ensure that you are not going off track and that you are constantly moving forward in solving what you want to be solving. As with many things, the hardest part in this step is getting started; once the ball is rolling, it’s a lot easier to pick up momentum. It might be hard to envision where to start, but it sometimes helps to start with something small and expand off of that until you have a developed project. Seek help from experts when needed, use your resources, and don’t be afraid to ask questions to those who have already gone through the process! There will be people around you who can help you along the way, so make sure to fully utilize the opportunities around you to gain multiple perspectives on a problem that you may encounter.
STEP 4: Pitch your idea, go to events, and get feedback.
Many people underestimate the value of this step, but bringing your idea and initial product to the table, even if it’s not completely finished, is extremely important for improvement and unlocking the full potential of your project. This might mean going to high school entrepreneurship pitchfests if you have a business-oriented project, science fairs and showcases for STEM research, or asking experts and professionals in the industry if they would be willing to take a look at your project and give feedback on it. You might think that your project and idea is already good, but it’s important to realize that it can always be better and benefit from an outside perspective. There’s really no harm in sharing your project with others and receiving feedback, so try to get input from as many people as possible! With the feedback and advice from others, you can then find ways to improve, oftentimes ones that you had never considered or thought of before, and continue the reinforcement feedback cycle until your product is ready to go to the market and impact people.
STEP 5: Get your product or findings out into the world.
Most likely, your ultimate goal for embarking on this journey in the first place was to alter the status quo or change lives for the better. The amazing thing about starting your own project and acting upon your idea is because it gives you a chance to help others, and in order to fully achieve that, it’s crucial to share your product or findings and bring it to people. This could mean delivering your first products to customers, writing a research paper, or joining forces with a business to implement your idea in the workplace. Whatever it is, there are unique methods and mediums to create your own impact; try not to limit yourself and the amount of people you help with your project or idea! As with every step in this process, it is not going to be easy, but whenever you get discouraged try to return back to your initial goal and focus and think about why you started in the first place. Use your passion and desire for the topic you chose to act as a driving force for your actions, and seek to leave the world a better place than you found it.
Wherever you are in your journey, it’s never too late to start something new. Challenge yourself and try to find opportunities to make a mark on the world-- it doesn’t have to be anything big, but rather meaningful. Whether it’s deciding to apply for LaunchX or starting your own initiative, there are ways in which you can act on your passions and bring your ideas out into the world. I hope that these general steps and tips will help you in your journey, and I look forward to seeing what the future holds in store for each one of you!