Hemen Bekele, 14, was named “America’s Top Young Scientist” for inventing a soap that fights skin cancer. (3M/Ketchum)
More than 7,300 miles separate Virginia from Ethiopia, the birthplace of Hemen Bekele, a Fairfax teen newly named “America’s Top Young Scientist” for his potentially groundbreaking invention of skin cancer-fighting soap.
Despite the distance, Bekele keeps his homeland close to his heart and credits it as his inspiration for creating a soap designed to treat skin cancer.
“I was born and raised in Addis Ababa and I didn’t move to America until I was 4 years old,” Bekele told me by phone. “But my true inspiration for this project was seeing people working long hours under the glaring hot sun. While I was 4 years old, I didn’t really understand the problem, but I did retain those memories and slowly, as I started to grow up, I started to realize how prevalent an issue that is.”
Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer globally and the most documented skin cancer in Northern African countries, including land-locked Ethiopia whose economic backbone is agriculture. The condition is characterized by “open sores, red patches, pink growths, shiny bumps, scars or growths with slightly elevated, rolled edges and/or a central indentation,” according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. When ultraviolet radiation from sun exposure damages the skin’s DNA, it can transform the basal cells in the skin’s epidermis, the outermost layer. Skin cancer is a problem in Virginia too: the state has a nearly 21% incidence rate of melanoma, compared to the 22.5% national incidence rate.
When Bekele realized that screening and treatment for skin cancer is often expensive and inaccessible for people living in economically-challenged localities, he made it his mission to find an equitable solution. The self-described “naturally curious” W.T. Woodson High School freshman entered the 3M Young Scientist Challenge last year, a competition that “encourages students to solve everyday problems using science and innovation,” pitching his special suds as a global skin cancer solution.
Once accepted into the contest, Bekele spent the next several months experimenting with chemical compounds like salicylic acid and tretinoin, often in his family’s Fairfax kitchen or basement, to find an effective mix that would combat cancer by repairing damaged skin cells. The contest-winning combination includes organic shea butter, coconut oil and moisturizing cream 3M Cavilon; Bekele believes his soap works by reactivating dendritic cells, which help the body ward off pathogens and boost immunity. In October, Bekele was announced as the competition’s victor, earning international recognition and $25,000.
His win also symbolizes the breakthrough advances we can expect to continue only if STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields of academic study and careers become more inclusive and diverse.
“Black and Hispanic workers remain underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce compared with their share of all workers,” found a 2021 Pew Research Center study. The root of that underrepresentation is often planted long before college: “About four-in-ten Black adults with at least a high school degree (39%) say they have had at least one of the following negative experiences: being treated as if they couldn’t understand the subject matter, made to feel like they don’t belong, or receiving repeated negative comments about their race,” another Pew study found. Those negative experiences can deter students of color from studying STEM in college or pursuing a STEM career; that leads to fewer scientists, engineers and thinkers who can help solve societal problems.
Some Virginia colleges and universities are aware of this challenge. Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia, and Virginia State University are among the state-funded public institutions of higher learning that offer specialized programming to boost students of color representation in STEM fields and make the STEM career pipeline more accessible. In 2020, former Gov. Ralph Northam pledged $1 million to Norfolk State University and Virginia State University to participate in the UTeach program, making Virginia the first state in the nation to allocate public funds to UTeach’s goal of increasing STEM educators of color.
One day in the near future, Bekele could take advantage of one of these programs. The 14-year-old is “thinking about [studying] biomedical research or biochem in college, but I have plenty of time to change my mind. If you’d asked me what I wanted to study a year ago, I would have said engineering, so I’m constantly learning and my goals evolve with that.” He hopes to eventually mass produce his soaps and, by 2028, create a nonprofit organization to distribute it to communities who need it.
Although he’s been passionate about science from a young age, an interest Bekele said his mom and dad stoked throughout his life, it’s not his only focus. He plays flute in his school’s band and piano at home, where he lives with his parents and two sisters, one younger and one older than him. Bekele loves injera, a savory Ethiopian flatbread (“I highly recommend it, so delicious!”), and stays connected to his heritage through food and language, often conversing with family back home in Ethiopia in Amharic. He enjoys competitive chess, Model UN (which he credits with sharpening his public speaking and presentation skills, both of which helped him clinch the 3M competition) and, like many other Virginia teens, online video games. His advice to his peers statewide who, like him, are preparing to make their mark in the world?
“I think more than anything, be committed and be resilient. If you have a goal and stick to it, and work as hard as you can towards that goal, you can accomplish it. Every win starts with a dream.”
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