15-year-old Jack Andraka created a prize-winning diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer – one that could change how cancer is diagnosed and treated. This test is 28 times faster, 26,000 times less expensive and over 100 times more sensitive than the current diagnostic tests. Andraka was rejected by almost 200 researchers in his search for a lab to do his nanotube strip work until a scientist at Johns Hopkins gave him the space to work. We asked him about how it all began and finishing school.
When did your interest in and passion for science begin? When I was very young my Mom taught me the rudiments of the scientific method so that I could start answering my own questions and quit pestering her all the time. Once I could read I loved to read kids books about science and experiment on my own. I loved asking questions and seeing if I could set up an experiment to give me an answer.
What sparked your interest in finding a cheaper and better pancreatic cancer detector? When a close family friend who was like an uncle to me died from pancreatic cancer I was shocked and confused. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was! Like any teen I turned to Wikipedia and Google to learn more and I was shocked to learn that there isn’t a quick, inexpensive and reliable way to detect pancreatic cancer in its earliest stages.
At what point did you realise that you’ve found something miraculous? I hate to use the word miraculous because it is science! I thought about my experimental design and was so excited to gain admission into the lab of Dr Maitra. Of course I had tons of learning to do and I made many mistakes! Eventually, after a lot of work I was able to create a small paper sensor that was able to detect a protein which is over expressed in pancreatic cancer. What a thrill to see the results! Of course this paper sensor is ‘proof of concept’ only (meaning it works in the lab but needs LOTS more work and testing). I thought it could get on the market really quickly – I was so excited and being 15 I was pretty naive about the work still needed. I don’t have the time, resources or knowledge to move the project forward so I’m hoping a company that does can work on it and that the sensor can eventually help people.
You’ve been called a science prodigy in the media. How does this make you feel? I’m still a 16 year high school kid so I’m uncomfortable when the media makes me out to be a prodigy or a saint! My message is that if a 15 year old who didn’t even know what a pancreas was can create a sensor to detect pancreatic cancer, just imagine what you can do!
Are you working on something new at the moment or completing school? I’m so far behind in school but I’ve been working on the Tricorder X Prize with a group of teens. We’ve hit a lot of snags (after all we are all still in school and classes have to come first!) but we are learning a lot. Of course I have so many other ideas that I’m writing down and hope to work on.
What next? I want to finish high school and next year I’m applying to college. I can’t believe it’s coming up so fast! I’m also speaking around the world to tell people about my journey and about how kids can innovate and how open access to scientific journals can help people around the world solve problems in their communities.
What about hobbies? I love to white water kayak. I’m getting in shape for some kayak races this spring
If you could be stuck in an elevator with anyone, who would you choose? I would love to be stuck in a elevator with Elon Musk. He has so many interesting ideas and he would be fascinating to have a conversation with.