‘People make a fuss sometimes, but I don’t pay attention to that’
The teenage prodigy who, at 15, developed the idea for a cheap, effective early test for cancer was at the BT Young Scientist awards
Jack Andraka speaks after receiving Smithsonian Magazine’s first annual American Ingenuity Award for youth achievement. photograph: brendan hoffman/getty images
Looking at the two years of extensive media coverage of American teenage science prodigy Jack Andraka, his popular TED talks (there are several), the numerous media interviews, you might think the 17-year-old went from zero to hyperdrive after winning the top prize in 2012 at Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair.
For his project, which indicated a pathway towards a far cheaper and faster dipstick test for several types of cancers, and the ability to detect them earlier, the then 15-year-old won the Gordon E Moore prize, given, with $75,000, to the overall winner of the prestigious competition.
But if you meet Andraka, it’s clear this is a young person who has always been on hyperdrive. Intensely bright, with an appealing mixture of shyness and confidence, the young scientist and inventor came over to Dublin for BT’s Young Scientist and Technology exhibition and was on stage to hand out awards to Irish winners on Friday night.
Along with his older brother, he’s been interested in science since he was small. “Our parents got us into it at age three,” he says. His interest has generally been bioscience, while his brother focuses more on chemistry and physics.
‘Don’t blow up the house’
The two of them have their own science lab down in the basement of the family home in Maryland, where going on his own description, it sounds like they conduct some pretty hair-raising experiments. “Our parents have just one rule: don’t blow up the house, and don’t blow up yourself,” he says with a grin.
Andraka’s been winning science competitions ever since middle school. Always winning.
But he says he didn’t expect to win the Intel competition – not least because it was the first time he had found himself up against competitors from all over the world who were also smart and inventive.
“This was an entirely new ballgame,” he recalls. “I’d never before been to a science fair where I had really serious competition. The middle school competitions at home were more simplistic. This was really crazy, but really exciting.”
Out of the competition have come many close friends based all around the world, he says; other students with whom he can talk science and ideas.
Winning the overall award astonished and thrilled him. For years, he has watched videos of the competition over and over.
“This was really the first time I believed in my abilities. But also, it had been my dream ever since childhood to win. I’d watched all the videos, with the speeches and all the confetti coming down for the winners. At the awards, I knew I was doing really well because I swept the special awards night, which was worth $25,000.
“On the next night, I was first in category, and then best in category, but I didn’t get called for any of the other awards, so it never really occurred to me that I would win the overall prize. I wasn’t even expecting a category award. Just to be able to do well in my category was exciting.”
For his project, the death of a close family friend from pancreatic cancer inspired Andraka to consider ways in which cancer research might be moved forward. He spent a year doing research – starting with Wikipedia, and using Google to hunt down science papers and other information.
He then approached some 200 professors and researchers in the US, looking for support and potentially, some laboratory help. He was rejected by all but one, Anirban Maitra, professor of pathology, oncology, and chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
The end result – tested on mice with human tumours – was a paper strip test which measures a protein called mesothelin, a cancer biomarker. He says it can pick up cancer of the pancreas at a far earlier stage, potentially allowing for better and possibly life-saving treatment when the tumours are small.
Initially, he believed his project might result in a commercialised test – and a potential major breakthrough in cancer detection – within a year or two. He is now more realistically cautious, suggesting it will take “years” to potentially translate basic research – as yet unpublished and subjected to peer scrutiny, or larger scale testing on human subjects – into a product.
Nonetheless, the achievement of the project, and the scientific accolades that come with the Intel prize, clearly signalled a young man of particular promise. He’s already being targeted by some top universities, but he says he doesn’t know yet what he wants to do, although he knows it will be in bioscience or medicine.
“I have no clue where I want to go. I have to make a decision eventually but I’ll probably procrastinate as long as possible,” he says with another grin.
Since his win, he’s appeared on some of America’s most prominent television programmes, in big-name magazines and top newspapers. With all that exposure, what’s it like to go back to normal high school life?
“My friends treat me the exact same,” he says. “Other people make a fuss sometimes, but I don’t really pay attention to that. It’s kind of anxiety inducing.”
Nonetheless, he hopes he can be a role model and inspiration for one group of young people in particular – those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). He hopes such students will increasingly consider careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects.
He has been out as a young gay man for a while. Was that difficult at school? “Not really. I know there’s this stereotype where gay kids get shoved into a locker, but it’s never been like that. I came out to the school, and absolutely nothing changed.”
His concern is that there are stereotypes about the areas of endeavour that will appeal more to LGBT youth – generally, the arts rather than the sciences.
“We really don’t seem to celebrate science as much,” he says.
The only gay role model in science that he could find for himself as he grew up was British mathematician and code breaker Alan Turing.
Andraka was himself listed on Out magazine’s annual “Out 100” prominent achievers this past year, something he’s particularly proud about. Except for one thing.
“I didn’t find a single other scientist on the list. It’s really depressing that there was not a single other gay scientist on the list. Yet I know there are gay scientists. Maybe they don’t feel they can be as open and out as people in other areas,” he says.
“I want to show kids that you can be gay and pursue a career in this area. Great ideas don’t discriminate who they come to.”