Local scientist Heman Bekele has been engineering a soap that he hopes one day can help treat skin cancer. However, Bekele is not a tenured professor at a research university—he’s a 14-year-old from Annandale, Virginia.
The ninth grader at W.T. Woodson High School was just named “America’s Top Young Scientist,” a designation bestowed upon the winner of 3M’s annual Young Scientist Challenge. In addition to the title, Bekele was also awarded $25,000 for his research.
To create his “cancer-fighting” soap, Bekele combined salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and tretinoin. In a submission video to 3M, the student scientist explains: “[They’re] all keratolytic agents that slowly reactivate dendritic cells.” (Dendritic cells, named for their tree-like branches, help protect the skin and boost immune responses.) Bekele was paired with an engineering mentor at 3M who helped turn his idea into a prototype.
The competition, now in its 16th year, challenges “middle school students to think creatively and apply the power of STEM to discover real-world solutions.” Bekele spent the last four months competing against nine other national finalists whose inventions ranged from a drug-delivering microneedle patch to a glove that can detect certain types of seizures.
In his submission video, Bekele cited the high treatment costs associated with skin cancer, and the lower survival rates in areas with limited access to healthcare as the motivating factors behind his research. “When first hearing about this issue, I was devastated by the number of preventable deaths caused by this illness and knew I had to take action,” he says.
According to 3M, Bekele plans to continue refining his idea and eventually create a nonprofit that could distribute it to communities in need. When he’s older, Bekele has previously said that hopes to become an electrical engineer.