Medical Academy Students Experience “Breakthrough” with Jack Andraka

In Huntley High School’s Medical Academy, an assignment may include examining a complex medical issue, conducting research, and developing a solution for it with the help of teachers, classmates, and professional mentors.

It’s the kind of real-world science that would have sounded too advanced, or at least a little crazy, for high school students even a few years ago.

Medical Academy students got both a vote of confidence and an inspirational example when they met Jack Andraka, the “boy wonder” cancer researcher, as part of Change the World Day sponsored by Northern Illinois University’s STEM Read program March 11.

“Showing kids high-level science is vital. It’s critical for today’s society,” Andraka said. “I want to inspire them to get into STEM fields.”

The Medical Academy provides students the opportunity to take medically focused courses in a variety of subjects to better prepare them for future medical studies and careers.

In it, students are exposed to the kind of projects Andraka went through when at age 15 he developed an early detection tool for pancreatic cancer that may prove faster, more effective, and less expensive than traditional tests.

His book, Breakthrough: How One Teen Innovator is Changing the World, chronicles his experiences and his struggles. Huntley High students were given an exclusive opportunity to listen to, question, and collaborate with Andraka as part of his book tour at NIU.

“Young people are in a unique situation. They have the creativity to dream up crazy ideas and enough knowledge to make it a reality,” he said.

Andraka’s past few years have taken him around the world, from research labs at prestigious universities to the White House to the sets of 60 Minutes and The Colbert Report. It’s a lifestyle most teens couldn’t relate to.

Jack Andraka at NIUHowever, students said they connected not only with Andraka’s message to pursue their passions but also with his personal story, which has included struggles with rejection, bullying, and depression.

“The things he went through, the bullying he went through, it really hit me, because I’ve gone through a lot of what he’s gone through,” said sophomore Nico Tolentino. “To see him become something so much greater than himself is amazing. He’s been a big inspiration.”

Tolentino said Andraka served as an inspiration to him long before meeting him on the field trip. Like Andraka, Tolentino has seen family members suffer from incurable diseases. Rather than sit sorrowfully by, the experience inspired both to research innovative solutions.

“It definitely gives me the feeling that I don’t have to wait. It’s motivating and inspiring that someone as young as Jack can absorb knowledge and be able to put it to use,” Tolentino said. “Seeing someone of his age succeed is motivating me to keep doing what I’m doing.”

Tolentino said has been independently research spinal stenosis and brain tumors. He credited the experiences he’s getting both in class and experiential learning opportunities through the Medical Academy with helping him chart a course for the future.

“It gives them that real-world perspective,” said teacher Jeff Robinson. “The Medical Academy isn’t just contained at Huntley High School. It’s a collaborative experience with real-world impacts.”

The philosophy that underlies all Medical Academy classes includes hands-on experiences, problem solving, learning from failure, and using critical and creative thinking to tackle real-world issues, Robinson said.

Jack Andraka at NIUAfter developing his cancer test, Andraka wrote letters to professors at research universities to interest them in his idea and received about 199 rejections before finally garnering interest from Johns Hopkins University.

He also outlined other failures he’s experienced in the lab, from blowing up cells in a centrifuge to tripping over his shoelaces and sending a tray of research materials crashing.

“You learn science by doing, not through textbooks,” Andraka said. “That’s what science is all about—learning through failure.”

He encouraged students not to be afraid of failure, and not to be afraid to share their work and ideas. He said that the Internet has helped democratize scientific knowledge and has opened the door for all people to have their ideas heard, though he cautioned that too often access to high-level information is still restricted to those at elite research institutions.

“Now, you don’t have to be a professor with multiple degrees to have your ideas valued,” he said, stressing that it is vital for professionals in the field to encourage young people, not to shut them out.

“I’m always amazed at the level of interest and the level of focus seemingly bored teenagers on their cellphones have when you give them a chance to talk,” said Barrie Bode, PhD, chair of NIU’s Biological Sciences Department.

Bode and other faculty members shared highlights from their ongoing cancer research with students at the event.

“When I was in school, research was something you did after your undergraduate degree. Now, it’s part of the curriculum at the undergraduate and, increasingly, at the K-12 level,” Bode said. “The shift in exposing young people to research is only going to help them in the long run.”

Jack Andraka at NIUThe Medical Academy currently offers eight courses including medical skills and services, physical education/physical therapy, medical Spanish, sports medicine, first responder training, and three Project Lead the Way courses: Principles of Biomedical Science, Human Body Systems, and Medical Interventions.

The school plans to add additional courses next year in medical ethics, foods, and English as well as a fourth PLTW course, Biomedical Innovations, in which students will be responsible for shepherding a potential medical breakthrough from conception to implementation.

What kinds of innovations might come out of it? The sky’s the limit.

“These students are capable of doing anything when you give them the opportunity and don’t cap their ability,” Robinson said. “We don’t say ‘here’s the end point of your knowledge.’ We say ‘take this knowledge and run with it.”