Can a half-dollar bar of soap fight skin cancer? Meet Heman Bekele, a 14-year-old ninth grader from Annandale, Virginia, whose groundbreaking invention has earned him the title of “America’s Top Young Scientist.”
This prestigious contest, sponsored by 3M and Discovery Education, challenges students between the fifth and eighth grades to conjure up innovative ideas that can change the world. For Heman, a student at Fairfax County’s Frost Middle School, it was the perfect stage to showcase his vision.
For the past four months, Heman competed fiercely against nine other finalists, all vying for the coveted title. Beyond the glory, the young scientist who clinches the award is rewarded with a $25,000 cash prize. Heman’s moment of triumph arrived at 3M’s headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Oct. 9 and 10, as he claimed the grand prize for an innovative soap meant to prevent melanoma.
“I wanted to make my idea something that not only was great in terms of science but also could be accessible to as many people as possible,” Heman told the Washington Post.
Shripriya Kalbhavi and Sarah Wang, both talented ninth-graders, secured second and third place respectively for their ingenious creations. Shripriya devised a cost-effective patch for self-automated medication delivery, while Sarah developed a glove capable of detecting certain epileptic seizures through common hand movements. Each of them earned well-deserved recognition and cash prizes for their groundbreaking ideas.
A soap against melanoma
The inspiration behind Heman Bekele’s invention comes from his early childhood in Ethiopia. There, he witnessed people toiling under the relentless sun. He moved to the United States at the tender age of 4, but the memories of those sun-soaked days lingered. As he pondered pitching ideas for the competition, he couldn’t shake the thought of how many of those people from his native homeland were unaware of the dangers of prolonged sun exposure. This realization ignited his determination to tackle skin cancer.
“I was looking into the issue of skin cancer and the fact that, especially in third world countries, people living under the poverty line just can’t afford the treatment necessary for skin cancer led me to try to come up with a solution, and that solution ended up being a Skin Cancer Treating Soap,” Bekele told Afrotech.
He aimed to create a product that could become an integral part of people’s lives, something as familiar and trustworthy as soap. His idea was appreciated by the competition’s jury and he was soon paired with mentor Deborah Isabelle, a 3M product engineering specialist.
Months of experimentation yielded a prototype for what Heman terms the Skin Cancer Treating Soap (SCTS). This innovative soap reactivates dendritic cells, which are often compromised by cancer cells. Once revived, these cells regain their ability to combat cancer, effectively reminding the body how to defend itself. The best thing about it? Each bar of soap costs just around 50 cents to produce. The average cost in the U.S. for an operation for skin cancer starts at $40,000.
Heman’s aspirations extend beyond personal accolades and monetary gains. He envisions refining his innovation and establishing a non-profit organization to distribute this lifesaving soap to underserved communities in the next five years. It’s a testament to his commitment to making a positive impact on the world, one lather at a time.
Heman’s invention couldn’t have come at a more critical time. Skin cancer cases have been on the rise in the United States, with the National Cancer Institute revealing a concerning trend. The rate of new cases surged to 24.1 per 100,000 people in 2019, compared to a modest 14.6 in 1992. According to the National Institute of Health, skin cancer is among the most commonly diagnosed groups of cancers worldwide, with an estimated 1.5 million new cases in 2020.