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Gay Times


Posted 28 August 2015   |   8977 views   |   Men's Interest   |   Comments (0) His scientific research has helped save the lives of millions of cancer patients – and he’s still only 18-years-old. When it comes to celebrating heroes, we can’t think of anyone more worthy than gay scientist Jack Andraka

“I see someone’s success As not measured in their fame and fortune, but rather how many lives they positively impacted. That’s what I’m really aiming for here.” Jack Andraka’s journey has barely begun, but he’s already changing the world for the better.

Aged just 18, Jack has received a number of honours for his prominence as an openly gay scientist; placing on both the Out100 and The Advocate’s 40 Under 40 lists. Jack has also been granted a National Geographic Emerging Explorer award, giving him funding for his research, which currently involves exploring the uses of nanorobotics in the treatment of cancers. All this has been going on while Jack races to finish the last of his high school work, before starting university.

“It can be stressful sometimes,” he admits. “I’m still learning time management, so sometimes I’ll procrastinate.” Having revolutionised the detection of pancreatic cancer – which could potentially saving thousands of lives – by his 15th birthday, we don’t think procrastination is something Jack has to worry about.
When a close family friend died of pancreatic cancer, Jack sought to improve the diagnosis procedure for the disease. Before he stepped in, 85% of pancreatic cancer diagnoses occurred when the patient had a 2% chance of survival. His research led him to the discovery of a new test that is almost 100% accurate and can detect the disease much earlier – when the patient has much higher odds of surviving.
He gave his results at a TED talk in 2013, when he was 15-years-old. The one thing Jack wants people to know about him is that he’s faced resistance. “I wasn’t just this superhuman person who got immediately accepted into a lab. I did get rejections, and some of them were pretty harsh, and not everyone believed in me at first.” This is something that he reveals in his book Breakthrough, which he co-wrote with Matthew Lysiak. “I’m here to show that you’ll go through hardship like I went through – I got knocked down a lot of times – but you can still go out there and succeed.”

Jack’s personal hardship relates to his public coming out at age 13. His school career was tainted by homophobic bullying from students and teachers alike. Jack admits: “My teachers would publicly humiliate me and my classmates would laugh about it.” Some five years later, things have turned around for Jack. He begins his studies at Stanford University in the autumn with an extensive group of friends. “I already know a bunch of people going in. I’m going in with at least 30 friends, so it’ll be super fun.”

However, Jack’s previous feelings of ostracisation could resurface if he continues in the scientific world. As an openly gay scientist, he’s a member of an alarmingly small group. Jack is one of only three scientists included on the 2013 OUT 100 list, and the only other gay scientist he knows by name is Alan Turing. Jack recalls attending science competitions where entrants from other countries would nonchalantly tell him that gay people face execution in their homelands.

“In terms of visibility of the gay community, it’s next to none in my opinion,” he comments. For Jack, increased LGBT visibility in the sciences should come from both within the community and beyond. All too often, Jack feels like the LGBT community “doesn’t really highlight” out scientists. “The first step to that is having the LGBT community promote the members who are in the science community.”
He also exposes the role that the media plays in shaping perceptions of important LGBT figures. “There are a lot of stereotypes that are perpetuated by media about the LGBT community, where typically those LGBT people who’re in the media are either an actor or fashion designer or things like that.” In his own experience, Jack feels that the media have glossed over his sexuality: “I feel that they kind of washed out [the gay] aspect of me, but I’m glad for the media exposure.” Nevertheless, Jack insists that he doesn’t consider his sexuality to be important in his scientific career: “I see myself as a scientist first – and then gay.”

In order to change the way young people – both gay and straight – view the sciences, Jack feels strongly about reforming the way schools teach STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics]. “We teach science as this very cold, hard discipline that’s only facts and theories,” he argues. “It’s kind of like a bulimic learning model, where we try and cram as much information down kids’ throats as possible to have them puke it up on a test and then forget.” Jack’s suggestion to revolutionise STEM education is for the children to put down the textbooks and “get their hands dirty” by engaging in more hands-on exploration of the world around us.

For a young man whose own exploration has already changed our world, Jack is continuing to push himself as he begins the next phase of his career at university. Where does he see himself in ten years? “Probably graduating from med school. I want to become an oncologist or a pathologist.”

We have no doubt that with everything Jack has already achieved, he’ll continue to push boundaries in the vanguard of LGBT scientists. We look forward to the journey.

Jack’s book Breakthrough: How One Teen Innovator is Changing the World is out now, scribepublications.co.uk, jackandraka.com, @jackandraka

Image: Mark Tucker

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