Maryland teen gets worldwide stage after winning Intel award

Jack Andraka, 16, proposed new test for pancreatic cancer

  • At 16, Jack Andraka has already been featured on '60 Minutes,' given a TED talk and met the pope.
At 16, Jack Andraka has already been featured on '60 Minutes,'… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
January 04, 2014|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

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.

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