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Friday, January 10, 2014

The Narrative of Jack Andraka

I would never do a PhD. I’m sorry, but the lab bench is not cut out for me. I don’t want to do academia. I want to work in the clinical field and do business or public advocacy. - Jack Andraka

When I first saw Jack Andraka on 60 Minutes running down the isle to collect his award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair 2012, I thought I was watching someone who had just won the Miss America pageant or a chance to bid on The Price Is Right. His demeanor was that of an attention getter. My bias is that I do not like that kind of personality. Rather I gravitate towards Feynman, who did not like awards. I gravitate towards Frederick Sanger who said, "Scientific research is one of the most exciting and rewarding of occupations." I like Einstein who said that true art and science begins where our hopes and dreams leave off. This 16 year old spent 3 months in the lab and a year on the TEDx talk circuit. He was a media darling, but was he a Cargo Cult Scientist?

I've given my bias. I will try to avoid it when making my argument. 

This article from Mathew Herper in Forbes deviates from the positive spin from the popular media that greeted Jacks entry into the scientific community. The title, "Why Biotech Whiz Kid Jack Andraka Is Not On The Forbes 30 Under 30 List".
But I decided not to include Andraka on the list, overriding the recommendation of an expert judging panel, because the work was not yet published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. It is by published work that scientists are judged.  I still think this was the right decision. In fact, when Andraka volunteered to share a draft of a paper that he does plan to submit to a scientific journal, my concerns deepened.
Here are a few reasons why he is on the Cargo Cult Scientists list:

1) So we really ought to look into theories that don't work, and science that isn't science.

As Mathew Herper points out in his article, Jack Andraka has not yet published his work. Many scientists that reviewed an early version had their doubts about some of the claims. The question science asks, "Does the theory work?" We don't know.

2) Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they're missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school--we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. 

Jack Andraka is a young man with little experience in science. Something is missing in his foray into science.

3) Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can--if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong--to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. 

Mathew Herpers article highlights some critical details that others have had to point out that throw doubt onto Jack and his mentors interpretation of the lab work.

Andraka’s “168 times faster, 26,667 times less expensive, and 400 times more sensitive” figures are based on a comparison with ELISA. But Church saw problems with the way that Andraka characterizes the ELISA test.
Test speed: Andraka says he compared the speed of his test to the amount of time he spent trying to get results from an ELISA kit he ordered online: 14 hours.  But usually a modern ELISA test takes 1 hour.
Test cost: Andraka is comparing the commercial cost for a test – including the manufacturer’s profit and overhead – to his own materials cost. That’s not a fair comparison. He says the only mesothelin test that he found cost $912 per kit. But other ELISA tests are for sale online for $400 per 60 tests or $600 for 96 tests – in other words, about $6.50 per test run. That still compares favorably to Andraka’s $3 per 10 tests, but remember that there would also be a commercial markup if a company decided to sell his tests. 
4) In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another. 

Since the work of Jack Andraka has not been published, we need more information. His mentor, the media and the public all want to believe we have a genius in the wings. The stories and awards provide us with the information and judgement in one particular direction. The truth might fall short of this story.

I agree with Mathew Herper, it was a pretty neat thing for a teenager to do. To take an interest in biotechnology and cancer detection at 15 is remarkable. The tenacity to present his idea to a hundred scientist before getting the attention of one is why I think the kid is going places. His science probably won't go nearly as far.

Which leads me to the conclusion that the boy has merely been a pawn in the Cargo Cults of Biotechnology. His mentor did not discourage the boy nearly as much as those meanies who came later. But that is how science must work. The truly talented scientists have a passion for this pursuit. They do what they do because they are good at it. They want to work in a laboratory, design experiments, observe what  happens, and live a life learning new things that no one else has thought of yet. The details that separate science from Cargo Cult Science are subtle, often times the cause of eye rolling among non-scientists. Where some will say, "big deal" a scientist will demonstrate just how big of a deal a seemingly small detail can be. These people are often introverted, soft spoken, and more focused on petri dishes than their own reputation.

As one commenter said from the Forbes article: "Based on your description, the kid sounded pretty promotional. I don’t know if he will become a scientist. I have a feeling he may become one of those slick biotech CEO in a few years."

A scientist is not a CEO of a biotech company, a bureaucrat at the NIH, or a judge of a science fair. A scientist might hold one of these titles, but the titles do not make you a scientist. Each title may require the holder to have a PhD. But science is bigger than titles and awards and the people who strive for them. A scientist is merely a life long student of the natural world that still has a billion secrets left for us to figure out. 

Through art and science in their broadest senses it is possible to make a permanent contribution towards the improvement and enrichment of human life and it is these pursuits that we students are engaged in.Frederick Sanger 

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