I barely watch the evening news anymore, filled with contentious politics and other crimes against nature, humanity and optimism. Weltschmerz, my German mother-in-law would call this, an aching for the whole world.
Like you, I've sought escape in books, movies and fairy tales--stories like I, Robot and Jurassic Park, Star Trek and Grimm. But the other night, a real life news story caught my attention and touched my science geek soul.
A high school student has invented a low cost, early detection tool for diagnosing pancreatic cancer.
As I listened, I got chills, but it wasn't until later that I understood why.
Jack Andraka's breakthrough concept was, as the Smithsonian Magazine described it, the collision between ideas. He'd been searching for answers after a close friend of the family had died of the disease. During this research, he learned that patients with pancreatic cancer produce an abundance of a protein called mesothelin.
Around this time Jack and his father, a civil engineer, had been using carbon nanotubes, highly conductive of electricity, to screen compounds in water from Chesapeake Bay. In structure, they reminded me of tiny, super-strong, electricity-carrying celery stalks.
Jack was reading a Science paper about carbon nanotubes in biology class one day, while his teacher lectured about antibodies binding to particular proteins in the blood.
And an idea began to form. He could lace a network of nanotubes with mesothelin-specific antibodies, and introduce a drop of blood from a patient. The mesothelin would adhere to the insides of the nanotubes, disturbing the electrical conductivity of the network, and this decrease could be easily measured. The cancer would be discovered.
I blinked away tears. Jack had conquered the giant.
Volunteering with teens and tweens at our youth group and teaching at Title I schools, I've met some incredible kids--brave, intelligent, passionate, and hopeful. Kids that are not always mainstream, don't always fit in. What should they aspire to? The image of youth on television, in movies and videos is often shallow, judgmental, and limiting.
Jack's story confirmed my belief in youth and in the power of people using science for good. My skepticism of mass media lifted for a moment, too.
I was excited because Jack is an unconventional hero, definitely supported by his mom, who's pretty cool, too. During the interview she talked about the only rules of the lab her sons set up in the basement. The lab includes a particle accelerator and homemade arc furnace. "Don’t burn down the house or kill yourself or your brother."
This woman understands creativity. And first aid, I bet.
My greatest role on this planet? Maybe not blasting off in a space ship.
Like good supporting cast members, teachers, parents, pastors, counselors and yes, even the media, can help young people think bigger thoughts, pursue worthy goals, and climb beanstalk dreams.
If you enjoy providing kids with stories using their STEAM super-powers for good [Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Design, and Mathematics], check out my middle grade novel, Finn's Car.
"A great book I now want to read the other two!!! I really liked the part where Finn was racing on the F1 track and the part where he was... actually don't want to give too much away. Lets just say I loved it." -- Nicole, age 11