Teachable Moments: Teenagers can create positive change

Tommy Fairweather
Tommy Fairweather

As 2015 begins there are many actions by teenagers that foretell a positive future.  Jack Adraka and Elizabeth Holmes are two teenagers who have changed medical testing.  At age 15 Jack created a test for early detection of pancreatic cancer, and at 19, Elizabeth created a lab company that provides blood tests using very little blood to determine cholesterol readings and diabetic detection. Just what do these two teenagers have in common?

Jack and Elizabeth were raised in homes that encouraged intellectual development. Curiosity and reading were a huge part of their family life.  Elizabeth read Moby Dick at age nine. (Current research by Renaissance Learning indicates most American children are reading fiction two grades below their ability.) Jack’s parents provided Jack and his brother a room in the basement for their own lab and gave the boys science books and magazines that they wanted. Parents can also set reading expectations for their children and purchase reading materials to support their interests.

Both teenagers were motivated to make a change. In Jack’s case, a family friend passed away because he had pancreatic cancer. The current outlook for this disease is dismal because it is usually caught too late. Jake created a test that will detect it in the early phase. Elizabeth knew many people don’t get lab tests because they are afraid of needles as she herself is. Her new way of testing does not require needles. Parents, you can help motivate your child to find a passion.

Jack and Elizabeth found mentors. Jack wrote 100 research medical doctors. Ninety-nine turned him down. The last doctor to respond allowed Jack to use his lab. As a freshman in college, Elizabeth asked her chemical engineering professor at Stanford to use his lab, which was normally for graduate students. Parents, you can help your child find a mentor that will help your child make his/her passion a reality. 

Jack and Elizabeth demonstrated persistence. No one strongly believed Jack could create his test. His mom did drive him to the lab because he didn’t have a driver’s license. Jack’s mentor just let him use the lab but was not too involved.  Jack’s high school biology teacher was the least supportive of all. She took away a medical journal article that cost him $35 to obtain and told him to read the biology text. At that point Jack was way beyond that text. This teacher told him he was wasting his time. Elizabeth just didn’t listen to anyone. She quit college and formed her own company. As parents, you can encourage persistence and risk taking in your child from an early age. 

Parents should share with their children the biographical information of individuals who have made positive changes to human life. Your child will begin to realize they too can make a difference in the future. We will all benefit from their contributions.

Tommy Fairweather is a retired Walton County teacher and educational consultant who lives in Destin.