Jack Andraka was the Gordon E. Moore award winner at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) 2012 for his project on early detection of pancreatic cancer. Jack was also a 2011 Broadcom MASTERS semifinalist. Since his win, Jack has also had the opportunity to participate in TED talks, attended the State of the Union, and last week, the White House Science Fair.
When I was in 6th grade I attended a school that required kids to do a science fair project. I was immediately hooked! Later that year, I was a student observer when my brother went to Intel ISEF. The quality of the projects, the fact that science and math kids were so cool and interesting, the excitement of the event, and watching the awards ceremony left a deep impression on me. I dreamed of becoming an Intel ISEF finalist! I worked on stepping up the quality of my projects and practiced my presentations. I was so bad at presenting! I either sounded like a canned robot or lost my way halfway through.
I went to all the school, regional and national science fairs I could and visited the Intel Science Talent Search’s Public Exhibition of Projects every year to listen to the finalists and learn how to make my presentations more interesting. It was such a thrill when I won my regional event and was able to go to Intel ISEF 2012. It was everything I expected. The judges asked hard questions, the quality of the other projects was awe inspiring and the kids – well, many have become my close friends and we still talk and plan on working on projects together in the future.
Winning the Gordon E. Moore award was just surreal. I couldn’t believe it was happening to me! Just getting to be a finalist was such an honor that I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I won. My heart was beating so fast before they announced my name and when they said “in the category of medicine” I just started screaming with shock and joy and disbelief. It’s a moment of pure joy I’ll never forget.
I was motivated to find a new method of detecting pancreatic cancer after a close family friend died from pancreatic cancer. When I learned more about the disease, I was shocked at the statistics. My idea was to find a method of detecting the cancer early and thus reduce mortality rates. I determined the sensor would have to be inexpensive, rapid, simple, sensitive, selective, and minimally invasive. I decided to use a mixture of single walled carbon nanotubes (because of their interesting electrical properties) and antibodies to the cancer biomarker mesothelin (because it is overexpressed only in pancreatic cancer and not pancreatitis). I then chose to coat strips of filter paper with this mixture to provide support for the network. After contacting and being rejected by 199 labs, I finally was accepted into a lab and began refining my procedure. After 7 long months of experimenting, I created a sensor that can detect mesothelin and thus pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer for 3 cents in 5 minutes. It is 168 times faster, more than 26,000 times less expensive, and more than 400 times more sensitive than the current method of detection!
I’ve learned it’s important to pick a project that speaks to my heart and that I am passionate about spending a lot of time with. That way it’s not like work. I look forward to seeing where the answers to my questions take me and to digging deeper into the subject to help solve problems along the way. I’ve learned that scientific inquiry is a journey and you need persistence, resilience and creativity to see the project through and that having mentors and talking with other kids who are facing the same challenges is helpful. Participating in middle school science fair events was very helpful in learning how to communicate effectively. It also taught me to love my project, the answers I learned, and to be satisfied with the results of my project in my own mind. I lost many competitions and if I was just doing the work for awards I would have stopped long ago. I enjoy the process and learning new things – things that perhaps no one has ever seen before!
I’d like to tell younger students to pick a topic they love because they will be spending a lot of time with it. Be proud of what you accomplish and consider learning better science and communication skills as part of a journey. Only one of my projects needed a lab so if you don’t have access to one, you can still do amazing work at home and at school. If you are looking for a lab, be prepared with a timeline, budget, material list and experimental design.
It’s been an amazing year and I’ve learned about so many new careers and opportunities. I’ve learned I really enjoy public speaking and plan to continue speaking about the importance of open access to scientific journals and raising awareness of pancreatic and ovarian cancers. I like to inspire people by sharing my journey and encouraging students to engage in science and math. Some fellow finalists and I are putting together Gen Z, a team of all teens to compete in the Qualcom Tricorder X Prize. Even if we don’t win, I know we’ll all learn how to work better together as a team, how to solve problems better and how to communicate even more effectively!
So if a 15-year old—who didn't even know what a pancreas was—could develop a new way to detect pancreatic cancer... just imagine what you could do!