Book review: Breakthrough: How One Teen Innovator Is Changing the World, by Jack Andraka with Matthew Lysiak

Andraka BreakthroughAndraka, Jack with Matthew Lysiak. Breakthrough: How One Teen Innovator Is Changing the World. Harper, 2015. 239p. HC. $18.99. ISBN 978-0062369659.

A 19-year-old writing an autobiography may strike some as the height of presumptuous hubris, but Jack Andraka’s life has already been filled to the brim in numerous ways, as he is both a prize-winning scientific researcher and out-and-proud gay man. He tells his story engagingly, while giving us older folks a shot of hope for the future of the “younger generation.”

Raised in Maryland by supportive parents who consistently encouraged his curiosity, Jack showed signs of inventiveness at an early age, coupled with deep love for science. A close family friend known as “Uncle Ted” was also hugely influential in his life, encouraging Jack’s various explorations as he made his way through elementary and middle school. Throughout this book, Jack details his numerous projects, and those descriptions can become a bit overwhelming for those of us with far less scientific brains than his, but he interjects enough “regular guy” content to make it all work.

In middle school, Jack began winning local science fairs, working his way up the junior inventor ranks. And at age 13, when he realized he had no desire to kiss his “girlfriend,” he also realized he was gay. The combination of his prize-winning geekiness and newly-discovered sexual orientation made for some rough times in his middle-school hallways, and bullying became a factor in his life. However, Jack’s continuing urge to explore and create would help him largely surmount his personal challenges.

When his beloved Uncle Ted died of pancreatic cancer, Jack found a new focus for his research and, after enduring disbelief and rejection from many experts in the medical field, eventually developed a possible early-detection test for that disease. In 2012, at age 16, he won the prestigious Gordon E. Moore Award for his discovery, and became an overnight celebrity.

While his research methods have since been somewhat criticized, Jack focuses here on his hopes for the future and on inspiring other teenagers to dream big. His comfortable writing style is laced with self-deprecating humor and personal pride as a young gay man. He is currently a freshman at Stanford University.

This book is especially recommended for young adult nonfiction collections, but grown-ups will likely find it interesting as well. Jack Andraka clearly shows us that the under-21 set isn’t so bad after all.

Cathy Ritchie
Acquisitions/Selection Services
Dallas (TX) Public Library

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