Is mobile health missing out on great teen innovators?

By: Jonah Comstock | Dec 11, 2013        

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jack-the-maker-smJack Andraka, the now 16-year-old who, at 15, developed a test that could revolutionize how we test for pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancer, is surprisingly humble. Speaking at the mHealth Summit in National Harbor, Maryland, Andraka attributed his findings not to any inherent brilliance, but to a combination of hard work and an outsider perspective.

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as an old innovator,” he said. “I think you have to look at fields outside your expertise. I knew nothing, so I didn’t think ‘This is going to be really hard,’ I just thought ‘Maybe if I can just connect the dots, I can make something that will work.'”

Andraka shared the stage with several people working on prizes, competitions, and projects focused on getting youth involved in mobile health innovation specifically. Carrie Kovarik, an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, led a youth-focused mobile health innovation prize in Botswana which led to a mobile queueing solution for overcrowded clinics.

Meira Neggaz, a senior program officer for Marie Stopes International, talked about a number of the group’s global mHealth initiatives. She said that in their sexual health education programs in Senegal and East Timor, they found the secret to reaching youth was working with youth: they had local volunteers under 24 planning events, crafting text messages, and staffing hotlines.

“Projects are going to fail if you don’t engage young people in the process,” she said.

Looking through that lens, what’s remarkable about Andraka is that he forced his way into a process that no one in particular reached out to him to engage in. Inspired by his uncle’s battle with pancreatic cancer, Andraka came up with the idea for his test while sitting in his high school biology class — ostensibly learning about something else entirely.

“At this point I realized I would need a lab for this, so I contacted 200 different labs, asking them ‘Can I work in your lab?’ and attached to this email was a 32-page behemoth of a document. My procedure, detailed list of materials, etc.,” he said. “And I sat back waiting for all these positive emails to come forward. But reality struck and I got 199 rejections, and I realized that professors aren’t always as nice as their profile pictures make them look. One went through each step of my procedure saying it was the worst mistake ever. I have no idea where he got the time.”

Andraka eventually got lab access from Johns Hopkins. But even before that challenge, Andraka said, his ability to do research was stymied by research paywalls, something he sees as an active deterrent for teen involvement in the sciences.

“We see all these big STEM initiatives trying to get kids more interested in science,” he said. “But when a Katy Perry single costs 99 cents and a journal article costs $35, it’s a bit of a mixed message. We need to make the world of science as accessible as the world of popular music.”

Andraka is now working with a team of other hard-working teenagers on an entry for the Tricorder X Prize, which is quite an undertaking in a schedule that also includes the public speaking circuit and finishing high school.

The summit speakers, including Andraka, highlighted the importance of opening the door for young innovators — both abroad and at home.

“What I learned was you don’t have to be a professor with multiple degrees to have your ideas valued,” Andraka said. “You can be a 15-year-old like me. So what I really envision is that we begin to harness the 2 billion global citizens under the age of 20, because teenagers have a peculiar way of thinking. Not only are we obstinately and annoyingly stubborn, but also we’re at this epiphany of creativity and knowledge, where we have the creativity of these wild ideas, but the knowledge to bring them to life.”