Meet Leanne Fan, America's Top Young Scientist

Leanne Fan.
(Image credit: Courtesy photo)

Leanne Fan has always been an inventor, starting in the first grade when she made contraptions out of toothpicks and marshmallows.

Now 14, the San Diego resident has stepped up her game with the Finsen Headphones. These antibiotic-free headphones aim to use blue light therapy to detect and treat mid-ear infections. It's a low-cost option to treat a major problem — worldwide, there are 700 million cases of mid-ear infections every year, and nearly 21,000 deaths. Fan estimates that the Finsen Headphones could potentially reduce the number of kids who suffer hearing loss after a mid-ear infection by up to 60 percent.

Fan was inspired to create the headphones three years ago while learning about Niels Finsen, who won the Nobel Prize in 1903 after inventing light therapy for skin tuberculosis. "I thought, 'This is an amazing idea, I can apply it to something else in my daily life,'" Fan told The Week.

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She started working on the headphones, tweaking things here and there and switching to audio machine learning, before entering the Finsen Headphones in the 2022 3M Young Scientist Challenge. In October, she took home the top prize, earning the title of America's Top Young Scientist and $25,000. She was paired with a 3M research specialist who mentored her and guided her as she tested and modified the headphones.

Fan is optimistic that the Finsen Headphones will be able to help people in the near future. "The great thing is I'm not making a medicine you have to eat, so it's a lot easier to get approved," she said. "I want to get into cadaver tests to make sure it's still safe and on actual eardrums, then human studies, then a patent, and then work with people to make it a business."

Being part of the 3M Young Scientist Challenge was "definitely the best part of my year," Fan said. "I got to meet scientists that are my age and going for their dreams too, and made some friends." She hopes to inspire other young women who want to go into STEM or become inventors.

"Even a small idea you can move it really far," she said. "I had an idea to use blue light to kill bacteria and three years later, I'm here."

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