In these posts, we’re usually celebrating the work of scientists and academics at the major local research universities; this week, we’ve decided to shift our focus a bit and look at what’s going on in the world of high school research. Let me guess what you’re thinking: Um, is “high school research scene” even a real thing? As proof positive, we offer up Jack Andraka, a freshman at North County High School in Crownsville, who invented a new method for identifying pancreatic cancer — one that’s much cheaper, faster, and more accurate than the test that’s currently in use.
Andraka came up with the idea for his dip-sensor test last year, and emailed hundreds of local doctors and professors — most of whom completely ignored him, presumably because he was in ninth grade. But Johns Hopkins pathology professor Dr. Anirban Maitra decided to take a risk and let Andraka use his lab. After a few months of tweaking, Andraka perfected a dipstick sensor that tests levels of mesothelin, a pancreatic cancer biomarker, in blood or urine. The test is cheap (3 cents), quick (5 minutes), and effective; officials at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (which Andraka won, natch) said that his method resulted in over 90 percent accuracy. There may even be wider applications for the idea — perhaps detecting lung and ovarian cancer, or testing a person’s resistance to chemotherapy drugs.
Andraka walked away from the Intel competition with the top award and $75,000 worth of prize money. And it seems that brains run in the family — his brother, Luke, won $96,000 in prizes at the same competition two years ago for his project on acid mine drainage’s effects on the environment. “For some reason, we’re not a super-athletic family. We don’t go to much football or baseball,” said the boys’ mother, Jane Andraka (she’s an anesthetist; their father, Steve, is a civil engineer). “Instead we have a million [science] magazines so we sit around the table and talk about how people came up with their ideas and what we would do differently.”
Maitra, Andraka’s mentor, expects big things from him in the future: “Keep that last name in mind. You’re going to read about him a lot in the years to come. What I tell my lab is, ‘Think of Thomas Edison and the light bulb.’ This kid is the Edison of our times. There are going to be a lot of light bulbs coming from him.”
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