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Middle School News & Stories

Teen Change Agent: Determination Drives Innovation
Posted 04/13/2015 10:01AM

Jack Andraka with Lisa Sharkey, a Riverdale parent and book publishing executive


 

A ninth grader can change the world. Just ask Jack Andraka.

Three years ago, Andraka, the creator of a simple and inexpensive detection test for pancreatic cancer, won a $10,000 science prize that catapulted him into the public eye. He has a TED talk (4 million views) a Facebook page (more than 24,000 likes), and a new book, Breakthrough, published last month.

On Wednesday, Andraka brought his story to the Riverdale Middle School as part of the X-Factor speaker series.

“Everyone has their own path to becoming successful,” he said. “If you have an idea, never give up on it.”

Andraka’s quest began when a beloved family friend died from the disease. He set out to find a cure, but knew virtually nothing about the subject. His first step was to type “what is pancreas” into his computer.

He read everything he could find on the Internet about pancreatic cancer, and came up with the idea of using carbon nanotubes to test for high levels of a protein found in patients suffering from the disease. He wrote to 200 researchers near his home in Washington, D.C., asking for space in their labs to pursue his research. All but one, Dr. Anirban Maitra of Johns Hopkins University, said no.

As Andraka was pursuing his research, he was struggling to accept himself. His early teen years had been extremely difficult. He was coming out as gay, and was bullied by his peers. He became depressed and contemplated suicide. The research gave him focus, and while he made innumerable mistakes, he persevered. And then he had his eureka moment.

His theory worked, and his story of inspiration and determination attracted the attention of media outlets, political leaders, pharmaceutical companies, and others. Currently his test is undergoing clinical trials in an effort to obtain FDA approval.

His resume continues to expand. Now he is known as amateur cancer researcher, education activist, medical entrepreneur, innovator, and LGBT activist. In the fall, he will add “freshman at Stanford University” to the list.

“We teach science as a collection of cold hard facts and formulas,” he said. “It’s really about using creativity.”

You don’t have to be a genius to be an innovator, he told the students. “People say, ‘You must be so smart.’ I am not smart at all. I just read a lot of articles. That is how I come up with my ideas.”

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