By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun
12:16 PM EST, January 4, 2014
The whiteboard that keeps track of Jack Andraka's schedule would be an exhausting blur for anyone, let alone a 16-year-old high school student: Last-minute requests are squeezed into already full days, scientific conferences bump up against speaking engagements, successive trips to India, Ireland and Harvard seem one missed connection away from a cascading disaster.
It's no wonder the extraordinarily in-demand Andraka is sleepy-eyed on this recent day, but as it turns out, the reason is entirely ordinary — he was up late studying for a test at North County High School in Glen Burnie.
"I want to be a normal kid," Andraka says. "I like getting my high school experiences. That's the one thing you can't do later — you can't go back to high school."
Andraka has had anything but a normal time since winning the top $75,000 prize at the 2012 Intel Science and Engineering Fair for his promising invention of an early-stage test for pancreatic cancer. With his voluble personality, he has become something of an ambassador-at-large for the cause of research and education, turning up everywhere from "The Colbert Report" to the kind of international summits where, as he wryly puts it, "you could Wikipedia everyone at your table."
But Andraka always comes home, eventually, as he did for the holidays. It's tempting to say that back home in Crownsville, with his parents Jane and Steve and his brother, Luke, home from his freshman year in college, he can just be Jack, regular boy, as opposed to whiz-kid scientist on the public stage. But in the Andraka household, the norm hovers on a more elevated plane.
Luke, 18, similarly bloomed early. Now at Virginia Tech, his gift is engineering — like his father, a civil engineer who works for a development company, and others in his extended family. "Strange TVs, old kitchen equipment would follow him home and become something different," his mother Jane said.
At 13, Luke's science fair project, remediating mining damage in a stream, placed fourth in a national science competition for middle-school students. In 2010, he won $96,000 in the Intel competitions, including the "Genius Scholarship," and the following year, the THINK award given by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to students whose projects benefit their communities.
All of which read like a challenge to his younger brother. "So, of course I had to beat him," Jack said.
The national middle-school science competition was discontinued by the time he was eligible, but Jack says he "got back" by winning the top Intel prize, in addition to victories in other categories that pushed his total take to $100,500.
He concedes that he is very competitive, but still tips his hat to his older brother. "I'm better at biology and math," Jack said, "but he's better at everything else."
Any rivalry between the two seems destined to remain minor, given their different fields of interest and styles — Luke, the more reserved engineer; Jack, the attention-loving biologist.
"We're dynamic that way," Luke said.
Home together for the first time in a while, the brothers alternately roughhouse and doze off on sofas in the Craftsman-style home that was something of a family project — Dad was its general contractor, Mom did all the woodwork staining. The boys had a lab in the basement for their experiments, although Luke took most of the equipment to college and Jack does much of his work these days in a lab on the Johns Hopkins medical campus.
Jack's invention has generated much excitement in the field, given that pancreatic cancer is usually diagnosed late and past the point when it can be treated. And his extroverted, engaging personality has propelled him to celebrity beyond the science world.
He comes off as preternaturally mature in his speeches, witty and intelligent, even as his floppy hair and ear-to-ear, retainer-flashing grin are all boy. On the sofa, his head on his mother's shoulder, he looks like a child in serious need of a nap.
His reaction to winning the Intel award, captured on a widely viewed video, shows him jumping into the air and running up to the stage, screaming and flapping his hands in utter joy.
"That reaction is what kick-started the media attention," Steve Andraka said.
That a science award, rather than an Oscar or a Heisman, would and should be celebrated with that kind of glee soon had everyone from the TED talks to "The Colbert Report" inviting him to appear. The fact that he has been out as gay since he was 13 makes him even more intriguing, and while he doesn't push it, he's comfortable and happy to serve as a role model for kids who likely know few if any gay scientists.
But mostly, his public face is as a scientist, pure and simple. His timing is fortuitous, coming at a point when, as he says, "it's cool to be a nerd." He has been to the White House several times and sat with first lady Michelle Obama at a State of the Union address. He's been featured in a short film by Morgan Spurlock and landed in some heady company on the conference-and-banquet circuit.
"I ended up in a two-hour conversation with Hillary Clinton after I mixed up my glass with hers," he said.
His growing fame has put his family under the spotlight as well, the subject of much curiosity, particularly among parents who want to know: How did the Andrakas raise not just one but two exceptional children?
Not by taking the well-worn and mocked "Tiger Mom" path of high-pressure parenthood, said Jane Andraka, 57, who works as an anesthetist at a hospital. "I do have a life of my own," she said.
Still, she and her husband Steve, 50, created a home environment where the boys were encouraged to find answers to their own questions, something that Jack says led him to use the scientific method from early on. Depending on their interests at the time, there might be a makeshift lab in the basement or E. coli in the kitchen.
There was a particularly memorable project that involved culturing bioluminescent bacteria in a bathroom, Jane Andraka recalled, and it grew so bright you could read a book by it. Until, that is, Jack's experiment involved introducing a toxin that led to what he calls "mass bacteria genocide."
The key to parenting, Jane Andraka has come to believe, is offering a range of opportunities but ultimately leaving the choice up to the kids themselves.
"You find what your child is interested in and allow them to find their own paths," she said. "We tried every instrument known to man. 'Here's a class …' Eventually, they find their own paths."
Helping two such inquisitive boys pursue their interests took a lot of time over the years, Steve Andraka said, but probably no more than parents whose kids are serious about, say, soccer or baseball.
Mark A. Runco, a psychologist who has studied exceptionally gifted children and their parents, said the family "ecosystem" is important.
"Giftedness like this doesn't happen without a family," said Runco, director of the Torrance Center for Creativity & Talent Development at the University of Georgia. "And in fact, the higher the level of exceptionality, the higher the level of commitment and investment is required."
Runco doesn't know the Andrakas, but, along with his mentor, the late Robert S. Albert, he has studied students who, like Luke and Jack, have attended programs at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.
Parents have to walk a fine line, he said, between providing children opportunities to fulfill their potential, without putting undue pressure on those who likely are already motivated. It's what psychologists call the over-justification effect, he said, when external incentives decrease a person's own intrinsic desires.
From studying children who are exceptional in different fields, Runco said the unifying characteristic is what a colleague calls being "on fire" — the determination to pursue their passion. He wasn't surprised to hear, for example, that on his own, Jack reached out to 200 researchers at Johns Hopkins and the National Institutes of Health to find a lab where he could develop his idea for a diagnostic test.
"But he also has to have a mom driving him there, and tolerating this," Runco added.
And that is what Jane Andraka did, wearing out several Ford Escort station wagons ferrying Jack to math competitions and, ultimately, to the Hopkins lab of Dr. Anirban Maitra, the sole researcher to respond positively to his appeal for lab space. Jack would go there after school, sometimes working late into the night or even early morning as Jane waited, and sometimes slept, in the Escort.
In the lab of Maitra, a leading pancreatic cancer researcher who has since moved to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, Jack turned his idea into reality.
Jack had been researching pancreatic cancer since a family friend he considered an uncle died of it. One day during his freshman biology class, he was listening to the teacher talk about antibodies while surreptitiously reading a journal about carbon nanotubes, cylindrical molecules that have a diameter 1/50,000th of a human hair and carry intriguing electrical properties.
His idea ultimately took shape: He would take antibodies to a protein, mesothelin, which is found in the blood of persons who have pancreatic cancer, and apply it to nanotubes. He would spread the mixture on ordinary filter paper and drop a bit of a person's blood on it. Any mesothelin present would bind to the antibodies and force the nanotubes to spread farther apart, changing the electrical charge between them. The change could be measured — with an ohmmeter he bought at Home Depot for $50 — and reveal the presence of cancer.
Since winning the Intel grand prize for the test, Jack has gotten a patent for it and is working toward getting it produced, tested and on the market, a process that could take five to 10 years, he said.
In the meantime, he has already launched his next project, leading a team of other scientists his age in a $10 million competition, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, to develop a handheld device to monitor and diagnose a user's health condition.
His travels continue, yet he has opted to continue his remaining 1 1/2 years of high school. He took the SAT this fall, and while he would rather not publicize his score, suffice it to say he did very, very well.
Returning to classes when he can seems to keep him grounded, and the school, where he is part of a STEM magnet program, works to keep him on track with homework and tests he can do online or when he is in town.
"It teaches him self-discipline," Steve Andraka said. "If he doesn't keep up with his homework, he doesn't go on speaking engagements."
Jack said he still gets a lot out of his classes and teachers. "I don't necessarily know more than them. I definitely still learn from them."
That the boys largely went to public schools is something of a point of pride with Jane Andraka, who believes they were exposed to a wider, more diverse group of kids than they might otherwise have encountered. "I think it's valuable to go out in the world and realize it's not all about them."
These days, much of Jack's education takes place beyond the school walls. His mother has stopped going on his trips — it's hard to take that much time off work — and he's well-traveled enough to find his way.
"Sometimes he'll lose his phone, or get ripped off by a cabdriver," she said. "But then it won't happen again."
Jack is constantly asked what is next for him, where he wants to go to college, how he sees his future — questions that he generally deflects, perhaps because he has so much going on in the present.
He's busy advocating for pancreatic cancer research and for greater access online to medical journals — the expensive paywalls on some articles could hamper the kind of research that allows even a high school student like him to develop an innovative diagnostic test. After getting over a habit of "nervous gulps," he's become an enthusiastic public speaker, both inspirational and funny.
Back under one roof for at least a few weeks, the family planned some serious together time. While Jack claims not to miss Luke beating on him in older-brother fashion, he is clearly glad to have him home from college. The entire family is outdoorsy — Steve and Jane met as river guides, and their sons are avid kayakers.
It would seem like something Jack in particular might do to get away from the numbers and formulas in his head. But not entirely.
"You're reading the waters," he said. "It's like solving a math problem."
School: North County High School, Anne Arundel Co.
Awards: Intel ISEF Gordon E. Moore award, Smithsonian American Ingenuity Youth Award
Speaking engaments include: Yalta European Summit, Clinton Global Initiative, TED Salon London, Inter-American Development Bank conference
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