The 16-Year-Old Who Changed Medicine Is Out to Change It Again

Jack Andraka is back and working on a handheld device that can scan a patient’s body and diagnose disease.

Jack Andraka
Jack Andraka (R) receives the Smithsonian magazine's first annual American Ingenuity Award for youth achievement in 2012. (Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

At 16 years old, Jack Andraka is already a superstar in the field of science. Earlier this year, he won Intel’s prestigious Gordon E. Moore Award, when he created a groundbreaking testing method that can detect pancreatic cancer in its earliest stages. His work is expected to save thousands of lives.

And in the few short months since then, Andraka has already begun work on his next invention—a handheld device that he hopes will have the ability to scan the human body, read vital signs and detect any disease instantly.

While it sounds straight off the set of Star Trek, Andraka’s tricorder is part of a global science competition started by the XPRIZE foundation. The challenge is to create a mobile device that can diagnose 15 diseases across 30 patients, and at stake is a $10 million prize.

But on this project, Andraka isn’t working alone. He teamed up with two other Intel finalists to create what they call “Generation Z.” So far, they’re the only team made up entirely of kids. Despite being up against other teams like the one from Scanadu—a startup based in the NASA Ames Rsearch Center—Andraka is looking forward to exploring the challenge with kids his own age.

“I really enjoy big challenges and figured that it would be fun to collaborate with a group of teens to work on this prize,” he tells TakePart. “I meet such interesting teens at science competitions, and so we are going to work on this problem together. We may not succeed, but we are going to learn a lot and also learn how to work better in a team on a big project. Hopefully, we will be able to be productive and move the idea forward.”

And to drive home just how young this scientist is, the end date for the tricorder challenge is in 2015—the same year Andraka will graduate from high school.

But that’s hardly the extent of this student’s work. He’s also begun to develop a new spectrometer, which is in its very early stages, and he’s involved in the lengthy process of making his pancreatic cancer test widely available. While his end-game is to bring that test to drugstore shelves, the teen has learned that’s easier said than done.

“When I first created it I was only 15, so I didn’t understand how long it takes to get to widespread use,” he says. “I figured it would take a few months. Of course I’ve learned a lot since then...It needs to be made uniformly and more quickly and also needs to go through clinical testing.”

Andraka may be a standout in his field, but he believes that more kids would be excited about the subject if adults who were trying to spur their interest took a different approach.

“Kids are naturally curious and creative. They have wild ideas, and if encouraged, they can be creative. And as they learn more, they can start using that energy and optimism and creativity to solve major problems in their communities,” Andraka tells TakePart.

He says that kids his age would be more excited about the subject if they were lectured less and given more hands-on time to solve scientific problems.

“Instead of labeling kids with IQ ratings, tell them that creativity, persistence and resilience are more important qualities,” Andraka adds. 

No matter how extraordinary his intellectual pursuits may be, what remains most impressive about Jack Andraka is that what he creates continuously serves a purpose far greater than his own.

How would you like to see science approached differently so that more kids were actively involved in it? Let us know in the Comments.

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