Good Reading : June 2015
GOOD READING JUNE 2015 19 energy and curiosity about the world. This childlike inquisitiveness grew into full-blown experimental enthusiasm in Jack’s teenage years. He and his older brother, Luke, took over the basement of their suburban home and converted it into mad scientist’s lair. His parents, Jane and Steve, turned a blind eye to some of the more dangerous experimental escapades the pair embarked on, like culturing nasty pathogens such as E coli and cholera on the same bench that they made their sandwiches on in the morning. Jack tells me that one day, while Luke was refashioning an old microwave into a ray gun and Jack was supercharging some particles to create plasma, all the lights suddenly flickered off. Confused in the darkness, the two budding Dr Frankensteins emerged from the basement to discover they’d blown the whole neighbourhood’s power supply. Jane, an anaesthetist, and Steve, a civil engineer, regarded this relatively harmless incident with cautious amusement. But things turned a little more serious when Jack was added to the FBI’s watchlist after buying chemicals that, unbeknown to him, could be crafted into explosives. ‘We’ve had our fair share of crazy and disastrous experiments,’ Jack admits. Minor catastrophes aside, the tinkering in the basement had honed Jack’s skills as an experimental scientist by the time he reached sixth grade, when he was eligible to enter his school’s science fair. For his first entry into a science competition he proposed a mechanism that could break dangerous water currents known as submerged hydraulic jumps, which form near dams. They have proven to be fatal to many unsuspecting kayakers, who can become trapped underwater and drown. It’s a fierce competition: Jack likens the school’s science fair to a Hunger Games-style bloodbath, so he was nervous about his first entry. He won first place. This victory sparked a string of first-place wins at science fairs that Jack continued to enter around America. Winning bragging rights at local fairs turned into winning prize money at larger and more prestigious competitions. Life at school, however, was not so thrilling. Jack writes about his battles with bullying, realising he was gay and coming out when he was 13. He also plunged into severe depression after his family friend and mentor, Uncle Ted, passed away from pancreatic cancer. Jack channelled his grief into understanding the disease and took to the web to educate himself. When he started his research he didn’t even know what a pancreas was. After he figured that part out, he discovered that the current test used for the detection of pancreatic cancer hadn’t been updated in over 60 years, cost $800 to run and missed 30 per cent of pancreatic cancers. Call it youthful optimism or unchecked ambition, but at that moment Jack committed himself to the mission of updating the test and discovering a new way to detect this complex and lethal cancer. And that was before he had even started high school. Armed with the few free scientific articles that Jack found online and knowledge from the basic biology lessons that he was just starting to attend at school, Jack realised that if he could identify the protein biomarker that preceded the appearance of cancerous cells, he would COVER STORY After Jack took his idea to 200 labs and received 199 rejections, one scientist ... finally took a chance on the ninth grader ...