I first learned of Jack Andraka from the above photo posted on my Facebook page. It was captioned:
“This is Jack Andraka, he is 15 years old and openly gay. He’ll be sitting with Michelle Obama tonight at the State of the Union. Jack has invented an inexpensive way for early detection of pancreatic cancer.”
Pancreatic cancer has a five-year survival rate of 5.5 percent, and 40,000 people die of it each year. The diagnosis is often delivered after the cancer has spread. “By the time you bring this to a physician, it’s too late,” Dr. Anirban Maitra, Professor of Pathology, Oncology and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine explained. “The first point of entry would have to be a cheap blood test done with a simple prick…”
Jack used ordinary inexpensive filter paper for his test strips. He bought a $50 ohmmeter at Home Depot. He and his dad built a Plexiglas testing apparatus to hold the strips while the current is read. He used a pair of his mom’s sewing needles for electrodes.
He mailed his proposal to almost 200 researchers. Only Dr. Maitra responded. “It was a very unusual e-mail. I often don’t get e-mails like this from postdoctoral fellows, let alone high-school freshmen,” he told Abigail Tucker who wrote about the experience for Smithsonian when Jack won the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award:
He decided to invite Andraka to his lab. To oversee the project, he appointed a gentle postdoctoral chemist, who took the baby-sitting assignment in stride. They expected to see Andraka for perhaps a few weeks over the summer. Instead, the young scientist worked for seven months, every day after school and often on Saturdays until after midnight, subsisting on hard-boiled eggs and Twix as his mother dozed in the car in a nearby parking garage. He labored through Thanksgiving and Christmas. He spent his 15th birthday in the lab.
Jack’s TED Talk at TED 2013 – The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered.
February 25 – March 1, 2013
No articles I could find mentioned that Jack was “openly gay.” Needing confirmation I emailed, tweeted and messaged him – no response; he was in London with his mom, the youngest speaker ever to address The Royal Society of Medicine.
I gave it one more shot and emailed, “I’d like to do a story about you. Are you gay? Are you out?”
This time the response was immediate:
“That sounds awesome! 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.”
Jack’s Wikipedia entry is remarkable even if you do not compute that having been born in 1997 means he is now only 16.
Jack Thomas Andraka (born in 1997) is an inventor, scientist and cancer researcher. He is the 2012 Intel Science Fair grand prize winner. Andraka was awarded the Gordon E. Moore Award for his work in developing a new method to detect pancreatic cancer. The Gordon E. Moore Award, named in honor of the co-founder of Intel, is for $75,000. He also won other prizes in smaller individual categories for a total award of $100,500.
Jack told me that he realized he was gay when he was 11 or 12-years old — in sixth grade. But afraid “no one’s going to like me if they know,” he didn’t come out until two years later. In September when he was in eighth grade, Jack sent a text to his best friend. At his request, she contacted other friends. And unbeknown to Jack, his friends told their parents. And one of the parents called his mother.
“We have ‘minimal rules’, but nothing that stifles creativity,” Jack’s father, Steve, told Forbes:
“Basically, you can sum it up simply: treat people with respect, do your homework, be honest and try to be safe. Having too many rules burdens down the entire family and limits thinking.” He added, ”Teach your kids that most problems in this world are really opportunities in disguise, and innovation comes from discontent.”
And last May, after Jack — then a 15-year old freshman at North County High School — won the Grand Prize at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF,) his mother, Jane, told Joe Burris of the Baltimore Sun:
“For some reason, we’re not a super-athletic family. We don’t go to much football or baseball. Instead we have a million [science] magazines,” Jane said, “so we sit around the table and talk about how people came up with their ideas and what we would do differently.”
But at the dinner table, one September evening, the conversation turned to a different topic when Jack’s mom surprised him and the rest of the family, by asking eighth grader Jack why he hadn’t told them he was gay.
I asked Jane Andraka how she recalled that conversation and she told me:
“After Jack told his school friends he was gay, one of the moms called me and told me there were rumors of Jack being gay. At dinner that night we talked and I mentioned that I had a phone call from a lady who said Jack was gay. Jack told us that it wasn’t a rumor and that he was telling his friends that he felt that he is gay. So my husband and I discussed this and shared that we believe that a person is born gay and that is the way he is and it’s better to be open about who you are rather than force yourself into a mold that isn’t you. We also told him that people are more than their sexuality and the important thing is to be an honest and caring person who makes the most of his potential. For instance, I don’t introduce myself as Jane the straight woman but as Jane the kayaker/anesthetist/mom. Later people can find out I’m married to a man.”
“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.”
Jack told me everyone in his immediate family has encouraged him to be himself. And he added that some of his relatives, although they have no problem with Jack’s being gay, think he should keep it a secret because if word gets out it might hurt his career. But Jack disagrees. He told me, “In science you [LGBT youth] shouldn’t hide who you are. What matters in science are your ideas and the quality of your work. It is important to be true to yourself.”
I wondered if being the smartest kid in the classroom had caused him any grief. “I didn’t get made fun of going to the cancer research lab every single Friday night and during my breaks,” said Jack. “I was actually celebrated for doing that. People were actually fascinated that I was doing this research. That was what was super-cool about this entire experience.” And being openly gay hasn’t been a problem either for Jack at his school which hosts a Gay Straight Alliance. Out of a student body of 2400, it only has five members; Jack isn’t one of them. “None of my friends are members so I haven’t joined.”
Jack told me how excited he was to be sitting next to Apple CEO Timothy D. Cook at the State of the Union address. “You know he’s gay?” I asked. “did you talk about it?” No, ” Jack replied. ” We talked about pancreatic cancer. He had a friend [Steve Jobs] who died of it.”
If reading this makes you wonder as I did how Luke, Jack’s brother, deals with Jack’s achievements, not to worry. Luke was the fourth-place national winner of the Society for Science & the Public Middle School Science Competition, winner of an MIT Think Award, twice an ISEF finalist and winner of its $96,000 Sierra Nevada Scholarship for his method of treating acid mine drainage. Now a senior in high school, he’s been accepted by Virginia Tech in their engineering program.
Jack and Luke working on a project at at North County High School
And if you’re concerned that the proverb, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” applies to this Jack, forget it. 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.
An Andraka family outing
Dr. Maitra told the Baltimore Sun, “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.”
Steve, Jack, Luke and Jane Andraka – a family Standing firmly on the Right Side of History
All images are courtesy of the Andraka family.
Stuart Wilber believes that living life openly as a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Allied person is the most powerful kind of activism. Shortly after meeting his husband in Chicago in 1977, he opened a gallery named In a Plain Brown Wrapper, where he exhibited cutting edge work by leading artists; art that dealt with sexuality and gender identification. In the late 1980’s when they moved to San Clemente, CA in Orange County, life as an openly gay couple became a political act. They moved to Seattle 16 years ago and married in Canada a few weeks after British Columbia legalized same-sex marriage. When Marriage Equality became the law in Washington State, they married on the first possible day permitted which was the first day of their 36th year together. Although legally married in some states and some countries, they are still treated as second class citizens by the federal government. Equality continues to elude him. (Photo by Mathew Ryan Williams)
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