At the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in Dublin, we caught up with 17-year-old Jack Andraka, the American student who at the age of 15 came up with a breakthrough technology for diagnosing several cancers.
“Just imagine what you can do,” muses Andraka when asked for his advice to other teens who want to make a difference through scientific discovery. “Believe in your ideas.”
The scene was the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition – now in its 50th year – and behind Andraka 1,200 kids milled about presenting their scientific and technological projects to 82 exacting judges.
In 2012, when he was just 15, Andraka won the US$75,000 Gordon E Moore Award, the grand prize of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, for developing a rapid and inexpensive method to detect an increase of a protein that indicates the presence of pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer.
“I created a new way to detect pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer that costs three cents,” Andraka said. “It takes five minutes to run, is 168 times faster, 26,000 times less expensive and 400 times more effective than current methods of detection. It potentially detects cancer at the earliest stages, when the person has a 100pc chance of survival. We have found it to be 90pc effective.”
Andraka said he has a provisional patent filed and is in talks with several large biotech companies about getting his product to market as quickly as possible.
As nations, including Ireland, cotton on to the reality that science and technology hold the keys to a vibrant and strong economic future, the education system from junior to senior level needs to embrace maths and science in a whole new way.
Some schools get it – as can be seen each year at the BT Young Science and Technology Exhibition – but there is still some distance to go.
Andraka talked about his own school and its approach to science teaching.
“My school was the bad school of the county, detention levels are high and 80pc of the kids are on assisted lunches. It was a rough environment but I kept on pushing to do science fair.”
Andraka said that while teachers were encouraging, there was a relatively small cadre – just a handful – of students interested in studying science.
Andraka, described by one academic as the “Edison of our times”, was inspired during a biology class on antibodies. He researched nanotube technology, reached out to 200 professors at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and went to work developing a paper sensor similar to the diabetic test strip.
Looking to the future, Andraka has just sat his SATs and is working on a project to create a device the size of a smartphone to detect diseases.
“Believe in your ideas. Ideas don’t always turn out right, but just keep pushing. Just imagine what you can do.”