High School Scientist Develops Cancer Screening Test
A top math and science student, fifteen-year-old Jack Andraka swept the 2012 Intel ISEF with his pancreatic cancer screening test. His project involved countless hours in the lab, a determined search for a mentor, and loads of perseverance.
Last Spring, Jack Andraka, a 9th-grade student at North County High School in Glen Burnie, MD, took top honors at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), winning the Gordon E. Moore award for his development of a screening test that can detect pancreatic cancer in its early stages. With stories about Jack appearing in publications and media ranging from Forbes and MAKE to ABC's World News with Diane Sawyer and his own TED Talent Search talk, it may seem like Jack went from ordinary student to science superstar overnight. In reality, the science-studded path that led him to a sweeping win at last year's Intel ISEF is one Jack has been charting for several years.
In a pre-judging interview at Intel ISEF, Jack referred to the competition as the "Olympics of science fairs." With boy-next-door charm, he said, "it's just amazing to be here, even if I don't get a prize." A hundred thousand dollars in prize money and a game-changing breakthrough in cancer detection later, Jack remains astoundingly down to earth.
A First Fair
Jack began his science fair history with an environmental science project in the sixth grade. "It was on retrofitting low-head dams for safety," says Jack. "Basically there are these dams that allow water to flow over the top of the dam, and they create these dangerous hydraulic conditions that kill many people every year. I found a way to retrofit them to get rid of the dangerous hydraulic conditions," he explains, noting that he later presented the project at the Discovery Young Scientist Challenge 2011 and the USA Science and Engineering Festival. That first science fair experience triggered what Jack refers to as his 'winning streak' and launched him onto the science fair scene. With wins at multiple science fairs, including all three years at his middle school, Jack has tackled a range of increasingly sophisticated science challenges with his yearly science fair projects.
His Intel ISEF science success last year straddles fields of medicine, biochemistry, and nanotechnology, but Jack's interest in science and math is broad ranging and is something his close-knit family shares. "Science pretty much runs in the Andraka family," says Jack. Both of his parents are in scientific fields, his brother was a two-time competitor at Intel ISEF, and many of his other family members, including aunts, uncles, and his grandfather, are involved in science. It was a friend, not a family member, however, that inspired Jack's winning science project last year.
A Personal Connection
When a close family friend died of pancreatic cancer, Jack says he was devastated. As he dealt with the loss, he focused his science acumen on learning as much as he could about the disease. "As I dug deeper into pancreatic cancer, I found that there is really no practical way to detect pancreatic cancer in its early stages," explains Jack. The lack of methods for early detection causes many cases to be diagnosed late, which leads to correspondingly low survival rates. As he assessed the statistics, Jack realized that the timing of detection is part of a widespread medical problem in need of a solution—a solution he might be able to help find. As he finished up his final year of middle school, Jack started down an ambitious path for a rising high school scientist—the development of a reliable early detection method for pancreatic cancer.
Less than a year later, Jack exhibited his project, first at the school fair, then at a string of fairs, including the regional fair, I-SWEEP, and the 2012 Intel ISEF. In a nutshell, what Jack developed is an inexpensive, paper-based dip test that can detect pre-pancreatic cancer. It is a test that, on some level, resembles the kinds of familiar testing strips used by diabetics and home pregnancy tests.
"Essentially what I have created is a paper sensor that can detect a wide array of diseases that have reliable biomarkers," explains Jack. "The sensor works by detecting this one cancer biomarker that is overexpressed in pancreatic cancer, as well as in ovarian and lung cancer, called mesothelin." Jack's quest for a strip-based sensor led him to nanotechnology and the use of carbon nanotubes. "Single-walled carbon nanotubes are atom-thick tubes of carbon that have fantastic properties. In my case, I was using the fact that the distance between neighboring nanotubes in a network highly impacts how electricity is transported in the network." Within the network, Jack explains, a capture molecule that binds only with mesothelin forms a larger molecule, which pushes apart neighboring nanotubes and alters the electrical properties.
By measuring the electrical properties, Jack's test can detect pancreatic cancer, possibly even before the cancer becomes invasive.
For a student with no previous experience doing medical research, creating, testing, and troubleshooting a pancreatic screening solution was a major undertaking. As he surveyed areas of scientific interest in previous projects, Jack had explored some biochemistry, including "using bioluminescent bacteria to detect water pollution," and some nanotechnology, including comparing "the effects of nanoparticles versus bulk particles on aquatic organisms." But he admits that he started down the path of pancreatic cancer research knowing next to nothing about cancer and armed with only high-school biology and a fascination with nanotubes. In what may be typical "Jack Andraka style," Jack took the project step by step, starting with extensive research. "Basically, I started by doing tons of research on pancreatic cancer, its biomarkers, how it is currently detected, carbon nanotubes, etc."
Luckily, Jack's previous science projects had given him a solid foundation in lab techniques and procedures, as well as in patience, meticulous attention to detail, and strategies for troubleshooting an experimental procedure.
In Search of a Lab
With the sophisticated project Jack was undertaking, access to a research lab was a necessity. After months of preliminary research, he needed to get into a lab environment to take his project and idea to the next step. When you are fifteen, the road to finding a mentor and lab access, however, isn't always easy. According to Jack, after doing his research and writing up a complete procedure for the project he had planned, he made a list of researchers at local universities and institutions, including Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "I compiled a list of about 200 researchers who were working on early diagnosis or pancreatic cancer and sent emails to every single one of them with my procedure, materials list, budget, and timeline attached," says Jack. "After introducing myself and giving them my resume and previous experience, I asked if I could conduct my experiment in their lab, and, if they couldn't help me, if they knew someone who could."
Jack received 199 rejections. One contact, however, pointed him in the direction of Dr. Anirban Maitra, Professor of Pathology and Oncology at Johns Hopkins University's Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center. Disheartened by the grim results of his email campaign, Jack says he sent a "plaintive" email to Dr. Maitra who agreed to meet with him. He had his foot in the door, but acceptance to the lab wasn't automatic. Jack first had to prove his mettle to Dr. Maitra and his colleagues. "He finally accepted me into his lab after an intense question session composed of him, another professor, and several post-doctorates grilling me about the specifics of my project." All of Jack's research and preparation paid off. He fielded the questions and landed the mentorship and lab access he needed to move the project forward.
Finally able to put his project in motion, Jack worked through the fall. As his mom, Jane Andraka, recounts, once he got permission to use the lab, he was there every chance he could get. "Every day after school, every weekend, every day over Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays were spent in the lab," says Jane.
The Road to Intel ISEF
The school science fair was just around the corner when Jack's test turned up conclusive results and he knew it worked. "It was a very tight timeline that I had," he recalls, "however, I was insanely excited when it worked, and I was jumping off the walls because of that!" With his initial results in hand, Jack began his preparations for the science fair. After winning the fair, he and eight of his classmates advanced to the regional fair where they would compete for the two spots to move on to Intel ISEF in Pittsburgh. Having consulted Science Buddies' Project Display Board resources in his early science fair years, Jack knows the importance of a strong, well-organized display board and spent the two months between his school fair and the regional fair "refining" his presentation style and display. The time passed quickly, and as he set up his board at the regional fair, he remembers being anxious. "I looked around, and there was some pretty stiff competition," says Jack, who won a grand prize and advanced to Intel ISEF.
Even with a spot at Intel ISEF secured, Jack didn't sit home and wait idly for Intel ISEF. Immediately before the Intel ISEF, he participated in the International Sustainable World Energy, Engineering, and Environment Project (I-SWEEEP), an event he says gave him extra practice for Intel ISEF. "I was ecstatic when I won a gold medal there and brought home lots of goodies including a massive Canadian flag, a hat from Azerbaijan, and scarves from India and Nigeria." He also presented his research alongside graduate and post-doctoral students at the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) symposium.
Despite the string of successes, Jack was pragmatic about his chances as he headed to Pittsburgh for his first Intel ISEF. He is, after all, a math whiz. "When I first looked at all of the projects at ISEF, I was like 'Well only one-third will get an award, so I have no chance of getting an award.'" But during the exhibition hours, Jack says approximately seventy judges visited his board, including judges from other categories like environmental management, mathematics, and physics. He was "blown away" by the interest in his project, but he kept a damper on his excitement—until he won six special awards at the special awards ceremony. "I was like freaking out," says Jack. "All I had wanted was one prize."
That evening ceremony was only the beginning of a tidal wave of recognition for his project. "When I got first place in category, I ran up and was laughing, crying, and screaming with my friend who also got first place.
When Best in Category rolled around, I was like 'Pssh, no chance of me winning that,' so I freaked out about that and was jumping around and hugging everyone. When I won the Gordon E. Moore Award, I was flabbergasted. I mean, I didn't think I had a chance at a prize, and here I won the grand award! I would have run much faster and ran all around the stage if the camera crew hadn't told me to slow down. I honestly still cannot believe I won the award."
A Top Science Teen
Competing in a top science fair often requires many hours and many months working in a lab, analyzing data, or doing research. Students like Jack who are dedicated to a particular subject or interest have to work extra hard to balance the time they spend on science projects with the regular rigors of high school and teenage life. For Jack, the key is being selective and being careful not to over-extend himself. "I balance my time by not joining thousands of clubs and activities that I don't feel passionate about. I've limited myself to three main activities: math competition, whitewater kayaking, and, of course, science fair," says Jack. "This way my time is not bogged down with a bunch of commitments that I'm not passionate about."
Depending on the school, many advanced science students find themselves without science peers, a reality that underlies many of the stories in Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch... and What It Takes to Win, a collection of profiles of top science students. Jack admits that he isn't surrounded by high school science enthusiasts. "At my school the majority of the students are not even interested in science much less scientific research," he says. Luckily, Jack has met peers at various competitions and camps and has created a network of friends he catches up with online and looks forward to seeing at competitions and reconnects with during summer camps like MathPath (which he attended regularly until this past summer when he was accepted to Idea Math).
As a kid, he was star struck by past winners of Intel ISEF and the Intel Science Talent Search (Intel STS), even collecting and memorizing STS "photo cards," much like other kids collect baseball cards, recalls his mom. Jack, too, remembers being mesmerized by the winners and the idea of following in their footsteps. Today, he is one of those winners, and while his peers at North County High keep him grounded, he's also happy to have a solid group of like-minded friends. "I get my 'science fair fix' from talking with my friends from math and science competitions via Skype or Facebook," says Jack.
When asked who inspires him, Jack cites Sir Andrew Wiles, the mathematician famous for proving Fermat's Last Theorem. "He decided [when] he was a kid that he would prove Fermat's Last Theorem," explains Jack, "and after more than 30 years he did, showing that persistence mixed with some luck and intelligence always will help you achieve your dreams." While Jack's science and math career is just getting underway, his interpretation of the value of an almost whimsical combination of chance and applied knowledge seems right on track for this top student. Indeed, it's a formula and perspective that may have already helped him as he navigated the ups and downs of recent projects.
High school for the Gordon E. Moore winner goes on. Even after winning last spring, Jack had to finish up the school year. "After winning at Intel ISEF, Jack was fortunate to have so many opportunities that the whole family was just overwhelmed," admits his mom. "First though, he had to finish the school year and take AP tests!" Once he wrapped things up at school, Jane says the family hired a patent lawyer, and Jack continued doing pilot studies. Even as negotiations with lawyers and companies interested in his research continue, Jack will be starting his sophomore year this September.
Winning Intel ISEF comes with both added responsibility and new levels of access to the scientific community. "I am going to use this award to catapult me into doing more scientific research," says Jack, who will be participating in fundraisers and conferences in coming months to raise awareness and funds for pancreatic cancer research. He also hopes to use his experience to help advance science education in his community. In the spirit of giving back, he is starting a science fair club at an inner-city school to encourage more students to explore science.
Using Science Buddies as a resource, Jack hopes to inspire and excite students who may have no science experience or little exposure to hands-on science and who might otherwise not undertake a science fair project. "I plan on helping them come up with an idea and then developing it into a science fair project," says Jack. "I think Science Buddies is the best resource in the world, and whenever I meet a teacher, I always recommend it to her/him to share with their class," says Jack, who used Science Buddies' Project Display Board resource when working on his first science projects. As a top competitor, Jack also used and benefited from Science Buddies' Advanced Project Guide materials and tips on how to succeed at the science fair.
Jack believes Science Buddies will be an important resource for his club because "Science Buddies makes science understandable." In addition to helping students choose projects, Jack hopes to expose students to other areas of science. "I will help to teach them some advanced science materials and about some lesser-known fields in middle school such as materials science and research mathematics," he explains. "I am extremely excited!"
Even with everything else going on, Jack is already planning his next project. "I do plan on doing another science fair project, probably in the medical field, but I'm keeping that a surprise for next year."
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