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At 14 years old, America's Top Young Scientist dreams of curing skin cancer

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Meet America's top young scientist.

HEMAN BEKELE: Hi. My name is Heman Bekele. I'm a 14-year-old going to Woodson High School in Fairfax, Va., and I was born in Ethiopia.

SUMMERS: Heman Bekele is the winner of this year's 3M Young Scientist Challenge, in which middle-schoolers tackle real-world problems through science.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Bekele's submission was a bar of soap that he hopes will someday be able to treat skin cancer.

HEMAN: It has a little bit of a bumpy texture to it. If you can imagine walking into the doctor's office, that smell that you get, that's exactly how it smells like, just - it's definitely not like a lavender soap. It's - it does have a strong, potent medicine smell to it.

CHANG: And it does have medicine in it. Bekele used computer models to test various combinations of medicinal ingredients. And with help from mentors at 3M and cancer researchers at the University of Virginia, he landed on a recipe for his soap.

HEMAN: It's charged with different cancer-fighting chemicals, the main one being this drug that is commonly used for different antifungals and acne treatments and has recently been looked into in the field of skin cancer.

SUMMERS: Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, according to the centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And millions of Americans seek treatment for skin cancer each year at a cumulative cost of nearly $9 billion.

HEMAN: When I heard those really shocking statistics, it really inspired me to create a more affordable and accessible solution.

CHANG: Trying to tackle this problem through science was a natural choice for Bekele. He says he's always been curious about how the world works.

HEMAN: Slowly as I grew up, that curiosity started to develop into something more than that, just started doing experiments. I started working on different things, and then slowly, even that turned into my bar of soap as a project.

SUMMERS: The soap hasn't been through any human testing yet, and Bekele would need to convince regulators at the Food and Drug Administration that the soap is safe and effective for skin cancer patients. That will take time, but Bekele said it's part of his plan for the next five years.

CHANG: In the meantime, he says winning this competition and the $25,000 cash prize gives him a big push to keep moving forward with his idea.

HEMAN: It was definitely the best feeling I've ever had in my life, just because I did work really, really hard to get there. And not only did it make me feel so happy, but it made me feel motivated and inspired that my ideas can be heard, and at the same time, if I continue to work towards my goals, there's nothing I can accomplish.

CHANG: That is Heman Bekele, America's top young scientist. Congratulations, Heman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kai McNamee
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.