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Saluting Teen Scientist Jack Andraka
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 08/04/13
Last updated on: 11/24/14
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Jack Andraka receives the Gordon Moore Award.

In 2012, Jack Andraka of Crownsville, Maryland, now 16, won the Gordon Moore Award, the $75,000 grand prize of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, one of the few freshman ever to do so. He won for having created a revolutionary pancreatic cancer detection tool at Johns Hopkins University when he was only 14. Described by pancreatic cancer researcher Dr. Anirban Maitra, his mentor at Hopkins, as the "Edison of our times," Andraka is a remarkably self-assured teenager who is both wise beyond his years and not at all shy about revealing his gay sexual identity.

In a Smithsonian Magazine profile, Abigail Turner describes how Andraka, motivated by the death of a close family friend from pancreatic cancer, made the discovery. She explains that what Andraka invented is "A small dipstick probe that uses just a sixth of a drop of blood [that] appears to be much more accurate than existing approaches and takes five minutes to complete." The discovery promises to save many lives as pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal cancers, with a five-year survival rate of only 6 percent. Some 40,000 people die of it each year. It is often discovered late, after the cancer has spread and treatment is difficult. Hence, a method of early detection is especially important. Andraka's discovery may also be helpful in detecting early stages of ovarian and lung cancer.

Winning the Gordon Moore Award opened many opportunities for the teenager. He was invited to meet with President Obama and attended a State of the Union address as the guest of First Lady Michelle Obama; he was featured in a CBS Sunday Morning segment; a youtube video of his exuberant response to the announcement of the award went viral; he was subsequently asked to do some TED talks, which have been very well-received; he became the youngest speaker ever invited to address London's Royal Society of Medicine; and he has been widely interviewed both in this country and abroad.

In some of these interviews he has casually announced his homosexuality. For example, in an interview with the London Evening Standard, reporter Charlotte Edwardes asked him if he is interested in girls. He responded without hesitation and matter-of-factly, "I'm gay, so no."

The most thorough account of Andraka's coming out and attitudes toward his homosexuality may be found in Stuart Wilber's excellent profile in The New Civil Rights Movement. Wilber emailed the young man and asked him directly, "Are you gay? Are you out?"

Andraka responded, "I'm openly gay and one of my biggest hopes is that I can help inspire other LGBT youth to get involved in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.] I didn't have many [gay] role models [in science] besides Alan Turing."

Wilber recounts the undramatic acceptance of their son's sexuality by Andraka's parents, a civil engineer and a hospital anesthetist, and by his older brother, also a highly accomplished young scientist.

Jane Andraka explained to Wilber, "We told Jack he should be himself and if gay is part of who he is, then he should be proud he can figure that out early so he can love all the parts that make him Jack. We also discussed how some people may not support him because he is gay but he can be a good role model for teens who are wondering if it's OK and he can demonstrate to non-supporters that gay people can contribute to society in major ways. His brother was more surprised, but after talking to a wonderful teacher who had a gay roommate in college, he became very supportive and an advocate for gay students at his school."

Wilber also establishes that despite Jack Andraka's extraordinary scientific achievement and potential, he is also a well-rounded teenager with a wide range of interests. "Jack kayaks, he is a member of the National Junior Wildwater Kayak team, likes to watch Glee, plays with his dog, folds origami, has read all the Harry Potter books at least five times--J.K. Rowling is his favorite author--and was dating someone for a while, but they broke up in February."

In the video below, Andraka reacts with great enthusiasm as he announced as the recipient of the Gordon Moore Award.

Below is one of his TED talks.

In this video from Vocativ, Adraka discusses science education, open access, being a gay teen, and his optimism that his may be the generation to end discrimination.

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