Reviewed by Shayla Gunter-Goldstein
Curriculum Connection: High school science; Various grades and subjects
Just in case you’re feeling like some days you’re talking to a bunch of disinterested, unruly teens in your classrooms,
remember this: Some extraordinary kids actually take it all in, mull it over in their minds, and come up with ideas that
help us change the way we think, the way the world works, and the way humankind progresses.
TED talks are an excellent way to hear snippets of the greatest ideas from the most progressive thinkers and doers in the world. Here are some of the most interesting ideas I’ve discovered on TED, set forth by this promising generation.
I don’t pretend to understand everything they’re saying, but their enthusiasm is infectious! Prepare to be wowed. Maybe
one of your students will be featured next! Isn’t that every teacher’s dream?
Jack Andraka: A promising test for pancreatic cancer… from a teenager
[Milan – I notice that the 3 websites run straight off the page in one line in the draft.]
You’ve probably read about this brilliant young man in the news. If not, you likely don’t have a television, a radio,
subscribe to newspapers, or browse the net…
Over 85 percent of all pancreatic cancers are diagnosed late, when someone has less than two percent chance of survival.
How could this be? Jack Andraka talks about how he developed a promising early detection test for pancreatic cancer that’s super cheap, effective, and non-invasive — all before his 16th birthday.
A paper on carbon nanotubes, a biology lecture on antibodies, and a flash of insight led 15-year-old Jack Andraka to design a cheaper, more sensitive cancer detector.
After Andraka’s proposal to build and test his idea for a pancreatic cancer detector was rejected from 199 labs, the
teen landed an opportunity at Johns Hopkins. There, he built his device using inexpensive strips of filter paper, carbon nanotubes, and antibodies sensitive to mesothelin, a protein found in high levels in people with pancreatic cancer. When dipped in blood or urine, the mesothelin adheres to these antibodies and is detectable by predictable changes in the nanotubes’ electrical conductivity.
In preliminary tests, Andraka’s invention has shown 100 per cent accuracy. It also finds cancers earlier than current
methods, costs a mere three cents per test, and earned the high-schooler the 2012 Intel Science Fair grand prize.
Two young scientists break down plastics with bacteria
Once it’s created, plastic (almost) never dies. While in 12th grade, Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao went in search of a
new bacterium to biodegrade plastic specifically by breaking down phthalates, a harmful plasticizer. They found an
answer surprisingly close to home. Miranda and Jeanny have identified a new bacterium that breaks down nasty
phthalates, common to flexible plastics and linked to health problems.
After a visit to a plastic-filled waste transfer station last year, the girls learned that much of the plastic in trash may not
degrade for 5,000 years. Synthesized into plastics are phthalates, compounds that make shower curtain liners, food wraps, and other products bendable but may also adversely impact human reproductive development and health. As plastics slowly break down, these phthalates would leach into the surrounding environment.
So, the two young scientists tackled the problem and ultimately discovered strains of bacteria that have the potential to naturally degrade phthalates. Their work earned a regional first place in British Columbia for the 2012 Sanofi
BioGENEius Challenge Canada, as well as a special award for the most commercial potential at the contest’s finals. Again, an honour well-deserved.
Taylor Wilson: My radical plan for small nuclear fission reactors
Taylor Wilson was just 14 when he built a nuclear fusion reactor in his parents’ garage. Now 19, he returns to the TED
stage to present a new take on an old topic: fission. Wilson, who has won backing to create a company to realize his
vision, explains why he’s so excited about his innovative design for small modular fission reactors — and why it could
be the next big step in solving the global energy crisis.
At 14, Taylor Wilson became the youngest person to achieve fusion — with a reactor constructed in his garage. Now he
wants to save our seaports from nuclear terror.
The University of Nevada-Reno offered a home for Taylor’s early experiments when Wilson’s worried parents realized
he had every intention of building his reactor in the garage.
Wilson now intends to fight nuclear terror in the nation’s ports, with a homemade radiation detector priced in order of magnitude lower than most current devices. In 2012, Wilson’s dreams received a boost when he became a recipient of the $100,000 Thiel Prize. Wilson now intends to revolutionize the way we produce energy, fight cancer, and combat terrorism using nuclear technology. All in a day’s work for a teenager.
Lauren Hodge, Shree Bose, and Naomi Shah: Award-winning teenage science in action
I can’t even pronounce what Lauren Hodge explains in her first minute. But with her lighthearted nature and amazing
enthusiasm, she drew me in. Lauren speaks lightening-fast (I’m sure she’s been told to slow down a million times…),
but she can’t help it. Part nerves I suppose, but more excitement, this young woman — barely a teen — speaks with the authority of an adult who is confident in her data.
Following the lead of many of the young people mentioned already, Lauren showed perseverance while trying to test her
hypothesis… emailing hundreds of labs in a five-hour radius of her home. She finally found one lab willing to offer her
space and time to test her theory of preventing carcinogens in grilled chicken. Lauren’s goal was to find ways to help
prevent cancer-causing carcinogens being created in fast food meals. A most worthy cause, and Lauren dove into the
topic headfirst. She did so well, in fact, that she was one of winners of the first Google Science Fair in 2011.
Two more young women, winners in each of the age categories, also present their talks here. Each girl speaks somewhat more maturely than the previous one, and all three have amazing ideas and are definitely promising young minds in science research. Shree Bose, the second presenter, speaks about her research into ovarian cancer. At the end, Shree explains that her journey wasn’t just about the research, but about finding her passion, when she wasn’t really sure what she was doing. It was about inspiration, making her own opportunities, and determination… never giving up on her interest in science, in learning, and in growing. The way she spoke with such passion actually gave me chills.
The final presenter, Naomi Shah, yet a bit older than the other two, spoke about indoor air pollutants and their effect
on allergies, asthma, and other lung disorders. She created an interactive software model to help people determine their
lung health, and to see what treatment is necessary. It is meant to be a quick diagnostic tool for doctors. She is passionate about her research and wants to expand it to include more disorders and more pollutants. Naomi asks listeners to imagine a world with better air quality and better quality of living for everyone, including our future generations. That’s her dream.
All three young women were fascinating to listen to, and you could feel their passion in every word they uttered. All science minds should be so great!
TED talks are such a wonderful way to bring science “home” for your students. Watching such amazing young people
is bound to inspire and motivate other students, and as I mentioned earlier… perhaps one of your students might be
featured on TED in the near future. They just need the inspiration and encouragement from their talented teachers!
For more fascinating TED talks by youth under 20 years of age, see:
Shayla Gunter-Goldstein is Assistant Editor of Crucible/Elements and a Thornhill-based freelance writer. Aside from STAO’s publications, her work has been featured
in the Canadian Jewish News and Lilith Magazine as well as on the Yummy Mummy Club website.