Jack Andraka arrived on the international scientific and medical scenes at 15 years of age when he won the grand prize at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for discovering a novel, non-invasive test for pancreatic cancer. Openly gay since he was 13, Andraka advocates for increasing LGBTQ+ representation across the sciences.
Science fairs were always a big to-do in the Andraka household.
“I’ve been doing science fairs since I was in sixth grade,” said Andraka, 24. “My brother had been doing them since I was in fourth grade, so it was just like the yearly cycle — as soon as one science fair ended, I started doing my project for next year.”
One such project idea came while he was sitting in a biology class his freshman year.
As the story goes, Andraka had become interested in carbon nanotubes because his father, Steve, a civil engineer, was using them at work. At the same time, Andraka was listening to a lecture about antibodies that bind to specific proteins in the blood, and wondered if he could combine the two ideas to create a non-invasive test for pancreatic cancer, which had just claimed the life of a close family friend.
“At first, I thought it was just kind of a super cool science fair project, I thought it was a neat idea,” Andraka said. “And then it’s crazy when people, like really important people, say, ‘No, this is really cool.’ It kind of can take you back a bit.”
The discovery led to him winning the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair grand prize, which came with a $75,000 scholarship fund and international acclaim.“It was just such a groundswell of emotions, because it represented this really lifelong dream of mine,” said Andraka, whose emotional acceptance speech was captured in a YouTube video that has over 1 million views. “I had this dream of just being able to go and present my research, and had basically no expectations going in, so being able to actually win was such a crazy experience. It’s still a bit surreal.”
A decade later
Andraka is currently finishing up his master’s degree in electrical engineering at Stanford University. He says he’s interested in using micro- and nanoengineering to solve environmental and public health problems and has his first professional internship already lined up.
“For the past five years, I’ve pretty much only been doing research, so it’s going to be exciting to get a taste of the corporate world,” he said.
Andraka has certainly had plenty of success in his endeavors over the past decade. For instance, in early March 2020, he worked on a project that was tracking and detecting COVID-19 DNA in California wastewater before the virus started showing up in clinical studies. Even still, it’s been easy to feel like an outsider in the scientific community as an openly gay man.
“Every now and then, I’ll read an article about an LGBT scientist or engineer, but the thing is, none of them are, like, leading institutions,” Andraka said. “If you really look at the upper echelons of science, at the leadership who directs where the funding is going, it typically skews pretty white, it skews pretty male, and it’s pretty straight.”
That lack of representation in scientific leadership takes a toll.
“It feels like you have this constant itch on the back of your mind,” he said. “And what it is is this feeling like, ‘Oh, I don’t belong here,’ and it’s this feeling that, for example, a white, straight dude who is relatively wealthy, they can go through the science world somewhat effortlessly. And for us [in the LGBTQ+ community], it’s tricky, because there’s always this feeling that this isn’t effortless.”
Need for change
As Andraka sees it, there is a critical need to change the status quo and increase diversity in STEM.
“What we’ve seen a lot is that when you have more diversity, you have better outcomes, and you have more innovative solutions,” Andraka said. “Without those LGBT perspectives, we saw what happened during the HIV pandemic. When you don’t think about these things, we just don’t have those perspectives, because science is politics.”
While the need for change is clear, it won’t happen overnight, and the path to institutional change isn’t exactly an obvious one.
“I think it has to be a bit more radical than saying, ‘Here’s a scholarship program.’ This is a big ask,” Andraka said. “How change happens is by designating spots on faculty for people that come from different backgrounds. And then also making specific postdoc opportunities more open to low-income, marginalized, and LGBTQ+ groups. Also increased funding opportunities for professional training.”
Institutional change is a long and uphill climb, but Andraka wants LGBTQ+ youths to know there are opportunities for them in STEM fields, and to not get discouraged or give up when the road gets difficult or they experience failure.
“My freshman year in college, I took my first computer science class and got a B-plus, and I was like, ‘I guess I’m not meant for computer science,’” he said. “I took a two-year detour from computer science and electrical engineering, before coming back and being like, ‘Oh, no, this stuff is really cool.’
“So I would say don’t sweat the small stuff, just focus on learning. Work hard and do what you love. Because if you love what you’re doing, if it’s having an impact, if it’s meeting your values, then you’re gonna have a great life.”