Science TED Talks

The one rule in Jack Andraka’s basement laboratory—don’t burn the house down

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A stark contrast on last night’s episode of 60 Minutes: veteran journalist Morley Safer, age 81, interviewing Jack Andraka, age 16, who has developed a promising new test for pancreatic cancer. Jack Andraka: A promising test for pancreatic cancer ... from a teenager Jack Andraka: A promising test for pancreatic cancer ... from a teenager In the segment, Andraka tells the story he told on the TED2013 stage, of how a family friend succumbing to this deadly disease triggered his curiosity in creating a test that would be cheap, non-invasive and an option for early detection. But the segment also gives us outsider’s perspective of Andraka, his family and his big idea to create this test that, if it makes it through clinical trials, could cost just pennies.

Anyone who saw Andraka’s talk will be fascinated to see this teenager’s lab, which is in the basement of his suburban Maryland home. The lab is, to put it kindly, a pigsty — and yet in it, Andraka and his brother, Luke, conduct the science experiments of their dreams with just one rule: “don’t burn the house down.”

The 60 Minutes segment above also introduces us to Dr. Anirban Maitra, the professor Andraka mentions in his TED Talk who — after he’d received 199 rejections — gave him a corner in his lab and a touch of supervision with which to conduct his research. Dr. Maitra, who urges patience as this test will take years to test, shares why he was inspired to help Andraka.

“It’s not every day you get an email from a 15-year-old that comes with a detailed protocol,” says Maitra. “He did hone in on the most important missing aspect in terms of pancreatic cancer, which is that we don’t really have good early detection — there is nothing like a PSA test or a colonoscopy or mammogram that you can get for the pancreas at this time.”

In this segment, Andraka describes working in the lab as “the funnest thing ever,” and shares that he prefers to pass on the idea for this test to those who can make it a reality rather than keep working on it himself. He’d prefer to move on to his next medical idea, he says.

“I don’t think it’s that I’m really smart—I know people that are way smarter,” says Andraka, with his signature teenage humilty. “But if you don’t have the creativity to put that knowledge to use, than you’re just as good as my smartphone.”

Read the TED Blog interview with Andraka »