sábado, 12 de octubre de 2013

Versión en inglés de mi columna del 12/10/2013

Original Spanish version: http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1628452-los-adolescentes-tienen-algo-que-ensenarnos

Jack spent his 15th birthday in a lab at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, working. Earlier, during a Biology class in high school, he had an idea, an idea that in the future could save thousands, maybe millions of lives.

His story, from that moment of inspiration to the other, the moment of ecstasy, that went viral on YouTube, when he won the Grand Prize of the Intel's International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF, for its acronym in English), is a constellation of guiding principles on which I think is worth pondering. That the teaching of science and technology in high school is not optional, transverse, accessory or complementary, is as essential as arithmetic, history and language. That adolescence does not have to be just a bowling carefree period, but that this carefree lifestyle, applied to intellectual issues, can offer revolutionary ideas. And that information must move freely on the Internet, not because this ideal sounds just good, but because it makes us more efficient against the many threats we face.

Cancer, for example.


Jack Thomas Andraka, now 16, is a native of Crownsville, a town of less than 2000 inhabitants in Maryland, USA. His unusual story begins with the untimely death of his uncle, whom he adored and who accompanied him during the last months of his life, until he died of pancreatic cancer.

Jack didn't just mourn. He was 14, had just started high school, and began to investigate why pancreatic cancer is so deadly. He found, googling, that this illness is asymptomatic until it is too late. He made then the most reasonable question of all: why this cancer can not detect earlier?

Simple, because no one had yet discovered a better diagnostic method.

Most of us probably would have stayed with that; if scientists have not found a way to do something, then it must be because it is not possible. But that's not the style of Jack, and is not usually the style of adolescents.

He kept looking on the Internet and learned that the body overproduces a particular protein, called mesothelin, when contracts pancreatic, lung or ovarian cancer, even at very early stages. So, what had not been discovered yet was the way to detect mesothelin in the blood.

His father, a civil engineer, had led him sometimes to take water samples from the Chesapeake Bay and then assess their components using carbon nanotubes. Jack knew, therefore, that these microscopic structures can be used to detect substances dissolved in water. He was in a biology class when both things displayed together in his mind: the nanotubes would be able to reveal the presence of the elusive mesothelin in human blood?

He continued googling and printing freely available scientific articles, this time on the qualities of nanotubes of carbon and mesothelin. It had occurred to him this: to embed carbon nanotubes with mesothelin antibodies and to impregnate with this solution a dipstick. When exposed to a drop of blood, if the mesothelin were present, the antibodies would bind to the protein, would expand and would stretch nanotubes, whose electrical properties would change in consequence. These changes could be measured with a simple ohmeter.

He was reprimanded once for reading in class on nanotubes instead of paying attention to the teacher, who even removed the Web pages he has printed. What a problem! The documents were on the Internet, so they could snatch his papers until the end of times. Only the budget on toner at the North County High School would increase. Because Jack was determined to come up with a formula for early detection of pancreatic cancer.


For now, however, Jack had only one idea. Now he needed a laboratory.

Jack told me by mail that he presented this project to their parents, who, among other things, explained to him that the minimum age to be accepted in a laboratory in the U.S. Is 16 (at the time he was 14) and advised him to look for something less complicated. But you know what it is to convince a teenager. In general we take this stubbornness as a defect. It's not.

With adamantine stubbornness he told their parents that he was going to find a lab to test his idea, and as we do adults faced with this teenager attitude, they eventually gave up.

With the assistance of his (now resigned) father, Jack wrote a rudimentary protocol describing the diagnostic method developed by him and sent it to 200 oncologists from Johns Hopkins and the National Institutes of Health; 199 refused even to meet him. But Dr. Anirban Maitra, of Johns Hopkins Medical School, opened the door of his laboratory to him, not without qualms. After all, how many times a teenager writes to you claiming that he has developed a new method to diagnose cancer?

This professor of pathology, oncology and biomolecular engineering helped him to implement his idea. "Of course, wrote Jack in an email, the real work has only just begun and I had many more obstacles to overcome before I can build the sensor".

Jack went to Maitra's lab after school, every day, including Saturdays, and worked until midnight. They assumed that soon would tire. But he kept going, without pause, for 7 months. He spent his 15th birthday in the laboratory.

He knew how to endure months of frustrations and obstacles until one night their test strips detected mesothelin in artificial samples of blood. Shortly thereafter they'll achieve the same result with samples taken from mice with cancer.

After 200 days of effort, Jack proved that his idea was viable. And we usually say that teenagers can not pay attention for more than 10 minutes. What I say: if they get bored, no, of course. To me it would be the same. If we do not help them to discover their passion, they will get distracted.


Maitra said that the method must still pass many tests and he estimates that it is still a decade before the test reach the public, if it proves to be as reliable in the real world as in the laboratory. I hope so, because Jack test is 168 times faster and 400 times more sensitive than current diagnoses. And 26,000 times cheaper. It costs 3 USD cents.

What follows in this story is, therefore, predictable: the Gordon Moore Award at the Intel ISEF, worth $ 75,000 that Jack plans to use to pay his education as a pathologist; the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award; their inspiring (and wise, in my opinion) TED conferences; and former presidents and pop stars who want to take pictures with him.

If all goes well, the Andraka test will one day be a standard method and will help millions of people to treat cancer early. This is obvious. And it is also obvious that they call Jack a genius, "is a new Edison" Dr. Maitra said. In this manner we put him in the box of the exceptional. Because prejudice says that teenagers are incomplete, immature. Troublemakers and carefree. They just want to have fun. They make noise, they comb in strange fashions and have nothing in their minds. Jack is not normal, "is a genius", so he discovered a revolutionary method to detect cancer.

This kind of reasoning should inflame an alarm that big in our minds. But no. Not at all. Undaunted, we accept the wild everyday discrimination faced by adolescents.

We also accept the idea that scientific disciplines and, in particular, computing and genetics, are accesory to the other disciplines, the traditional ones.

We also accept the idea that it is OK to control the information circulating on the Internet, to balcanize the Net, as Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen anticipate, concerned, in his book "The New Digital Age".

Jack's story refutes all these false truths, one by one.


First, the word "genius". What happens with Jack, beyond their obvious creativity, ambition and will power is that, as stated by his mother several times, at Andraka's home there was less frivolous TV and more scientific journals. In this intellectual climate Jack was formed, like his brother, Luke, also winner in 2010 of the ISEF, and the Think Award from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2011. Two geniuses in the same family?

Let's apply Occam's Razor. What theory is simpler, that these guys are the result of good training that included scientific and critical reasoning or that the Andraka's won the genetic lottery two times in a row? I think there is something exceptional in Jack, of course: teen spirit educated in an atmosphere of intellectual challenge and imbued with the culture of effort.

During adolescence, in general, we have a huge number of advantages: we have more free time than adults, our minds are not yet contaminated with specialization and we are looking to differentiate ourselves from our family of origin to build our own identity. It's not easy and we use to have attitudes that irritate parents and teachers, but that ease and that stubbornness, that search for self, the battle for independence, that rebelliousness, well guided, can lead to revolutionary ideas. Perhaps 99% of these occurrences do not amount to anything, but the remaining 1% is so valuable that I do not understand why we miss them so. The fact that Jack received 199 rejections were due to a single cause: he is a teenager, a boy.

I want to say here, as we are, that Albert Einstein was a teenager too when he came to think about how it would be to travel aboard a ray of light. 

Of course, there are some teenagers who are scoundrels or full-time useless individuals, but, please, not because they are teenagers, it is because there always is, was and will be useless and scoundrels.

Leaving aside the obvious issues that impose a limit to be of age, which is fine because teens need the guidance and protection of their parents, I think we should take change our view of this stage of life.

Which brings me back to school.


In my high school we learned not only arithmetic, but also mathematical analysis. We read Latin fluently before 16. We had to understand the Relativity (that was not easy) and basic quantum physics. We meet Euclides, but also Riemann and Lobachevksy. And we discussed philosophy as doctors.

That is, they never treated us like people of lesser minds or as if our only goal in life was fun. Quite the contrary.

For me it was a mystery. Why out of school I was "just a boy" and inside the school I found myself so intelectually demmanded?

With time I understood. Teens lack experience of the world, not brains. In fact, their minds are more hungry than they will ever be in adulthood, except for some exceptional cases. Their acts of the present and their future depend on what food we provide to that minds.

That is the mission of the school and parents, and the main problem is that there is nothing easier to get bored than a curious mind. Systematically, we fail to capture the attention of teenagers because, in my opinion, we are teaching less than they are capable of processing.

I have said on several places that, from Gutenberg to here, it is necessary to teach children to read and write, but today, in my opinion, they should also learn to program.

For the same reason we would have to give science and technology a central place in high school. Do not teaching what a microprocessor is, what is machine language, what is source code, what is a variable or a control structure, how propositional logic functions, what is the RAM, what means encrypting or how TCP / IP protocols are, in these times, is completely irresponsible.

Knowing how to use a computer and the Internet is not the same as knowing how to use a car. Thru the digital arteries circulate our civil rights now, not diesel.

Genetics will bring the next big revolution in this sense, and it could profoundly alter our civil rights scenario in the next 25 years, if we are not careful.

If we do not teach digital technology and genetics in high school, we will be forming users, not citizens. Citizens are aware of their civil rights and defend them, an attitude essential to the health of the Republic; users just give up and obey.

And no, kids do not know anything about technology, they can't, nobody is born knowing. The idea that because they came to the world after the PC and the Internet they are computer experts is a gigantic lie. I know it from experience, I teach young people from 19-23 y/o since 2006. True, unlike many adults, they're not afraid to use a smartphone or the Web, but they ignore absolutely everything that really matters about new technologies.


Jack could not devise their test without the aid of publicly available data found on the Internet. As good as the public library in Crownsville could be, is unlikely to contain vast molecular databases or technical manuals on carbon nanotubes. Before the Internet, Jack never would have succeeded.

For this kind of thing we defend the free flow of information online. It's the whole idea: freedom of expression and access to information. These two freedoms make us more efficient as a species.

Jack used a lot of the Wikipedia, he says. This is the reason I support the free encyclopedia all the time. While a band of skeptics says that the Wikipedia is unreliable, this Maryland boy used it to start looking around for one of the most difficult challenges of modern medicine. If that is not a lesson, I do not know what is.

We criticize them, discriminate them and we tend always to expose a handful of vandals like the stereotype of the teenagers, instead of showing more examples like Jack. I really think that adults have much to learn from them, as much as they have to learn from us. I also think it would be good to keep some teen spirit in the adulthood. "To stay always beginners", as the Zen master advised.


Two things I remembered while writing this column. First, the film "Lorenzo's Oil", of 1992. Based on true events, it tells the story of Augusto and Michaela Odone, who found a way to treat the illness endured by his son Lorenzo (an adrenoleukodystrophy), hitherto incurable. Neither of them was a doctor, but both rebelled at the idea of letting her son die without doing anything. The same mechanism that led Jack to his new test. Rebellion against the word “impossible”.

Second, Steve Jobs, the eternal teenage of many irreverences and a well-known inability to obey the rules, passed away on October 5, 2011. He was only 56 years old. He suffered from pancreatic cancer.