The future just might be in good hands after all. Earlier this month, Heman Bekele, a freshman at W.T. Woodson High School in Annandale, Virginia, scooped up this year’s 3M Young Scientist Challenge for his bar soap that treats skin cancer.
The 14-year-old was inspired, he says, by memories of people working long hours under the glaring sun in Ethiopia, the country where he was born before coming to the United States when he was 4. Even at that tender age, Bekele recognized the dramatic disparities in skin cancer survival rates in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa compared to places where high-tech cancer treatments are available.
“Skin cancer is mostly found on people who live within developing countries,” he told Fairfax County Public Schools News. “But the average price for an operation is $40,000. I was devastated by the idea of people having to choose between treatment and putting food on the table for their families. There are so many preventable deaths.”
The soap, which uses a cancer-fighting agent, soap bases, and various drugs and chemicals to help treat different forms of skin cancer, costs $.50 to produce and will run about $8.50 for a pack of 20 bars. But creating it took more than smarts; it also required diligence. One major challenge was finding the right combination of ingredients to ensure the soap held together without flaking into pieces. Using 3M Cavilon (a moisturizer and barrier cream), coconut oil, and organic shea butter, he aced this test.
“It was so difficult to get a bar of soap that didn’t just melt immediately,” Bekele says, adding he probably tried a dozen different combinations. “Persistence is a very important part of the scientific process.”
Over the next five years, the young scientist hopes to use his $25,000 winnings to refine this novel innovation and create a nonprofit to distribute his low-cost solution to communities in need.
For all y’all thinking, “good for this young man but what does it have to do with me; Black folks don’t get skin cancer,” guess again. Reggae legend Bob Marley died from melanoma that spread to his lungs and brain. In fact, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, skin cancer is the most common cancer in this country, and it’s usually diagnosed in us in later stages, when it’s more difficult to treat.
Kendra Lee is a writer who lives just outside Washington, D.C.