Jack Andraka’s 5 Tips for Innovative Pursuits

UPDATED: October 9, 2015
PUBLISHED: May 3, 2015

Most 18-year-olds share stories of rebellious pursuit with those who will listen, but teen scientist Jack Andraka isn’t like most 18-year-olds. He shares stories of innovative discovery in his new memoir, Breakthrough.

He was only 15 years old when he invented an inexpensive early detection test for pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers, after a close family friend died from pancreatic cancer. His breakthrough test detects an increase of a protein that indicates the presence of early stage pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers. Tests cost 3 cents and take five minutes to run; he currently holds an international patent on the device.

Now, a graduating senior who is valedictorian of his class, Andraka has his sights set on Stanford University in the fall to study bioengineering and minor in computer science. “I definitely want to be in the medical field when I grow up,” Andraka, the valedictorian senior says. “I’m probably going to medical school.”

Ask this 18-year-old about his most memorable moment and he’ll describe that magical moment when the test first started to work. “It was midnight in the lab; no one else was there. I had been working on this for several months and nothing had been working. It finally started working. I jumped up and screamed, ran around the lab, then I called my mom!”

Want to change the world, one “experiment” at a time? Take some notes from Andraka’s laboratory skills for your own innovative pursuit:

1. Be persistent. Or in this case, be stubborn. (Yes, it can actually be a good thing). “I’m incredibly stubborn. For anyone who wants to really innovate, you’re going to be told no, and you have to just keep pushing.”

The fact that his invention was turned down by 199 labs doesn’t really matter when all that really counts is the one lab at John Hopkins that expressed interest.

2. Embrace failure. It isn’t only part of the process—it’s most of the process. Anticipate it and then briskly push it aside to keep moving forward.

“In science, failure is always going to happen; it just comes with the territory, so you should just accept failure. You learn from your failures.” Andraka recommends to “keep going and going” because failure “makes your experiences that much stronger.”

3. Patience is part of the process, too. “Keep pushing,” he says, “because it only takes one time to make a breakthrough.” Persistence pays off.

And you can achieve that exhilarating feeling when going out there to change the world. If you’re patient, he explains, “great things will happen.”

4. Learn how to communicate. So, how did this teen scientist deliver his first TED talk as a ninth-grader? He simply taught himself how to speak. Since he was 6 years old, he was giving presentations and watching TED talks thinking, Oh my gosh, how am I getting there?

Practice makes perfect and learning to express oneself is critical to explaining amazing innovations. “If you can’t communicate your results effectively,” he says, “then no one will understand your idea.”

5. Success doesn’t discriminate. To any naysayers who tell themselves they’re too young, too old, too much this or not enough that, Andraka emphatically tosses aside self-doubt.

“It doesn’t matter what you look like, or your age or gender, it’s just your ideas that count.”

Do you think you have a good idea? Find out if it’s truly inventive with 3 questions successful innovators ask themselves.

Vicki Salemi is a career expert, columnist, author of Big Career in the Big City, speaker and frequent on-air guest. She resides in New York City and is a huge fan of the Yankees, cardio tap (yes, as in dancing) and cardio tennis.